Thriving in 2021’s “New Normal” World of Work


There’s no question that 2020 was a year unlike any other; one of unprecedented uncertainty and change, requiring resilience, agility and innovation.

As a result of COVID-19, we’ve operated outside our comfort zones for months, and have adapted to new ways of working.

Although the rollout of the vaccine is cause for optimism, the health and safety protocols for dealing with COVID-19, and the attendant challenges to our physical, financial, mental and social well-being will be with us for some time to come.

Some aspects of how we work have changed forever, such as the shift to increased remote work. There’s no possibility of going back to the way things were — only going forward with the “new normal.”

Throughout 2020, many organizations saw their voluntary turnover rates drop well below normal as employees who were fortunate to retain their jobs through the initial phases of the pandemic chose to remain where they were.

Although many employees felt well-supported by their employers through the pandemic, many did not. According to Morneau Shepell, nearly 25 per cent of Canadians say personal or work-related concerns from COVID-19 have led them to consider a job or career change.

Given this potential disruption in the workforce, HR professionals have an even greater responsibility to lead their organizations in focusing on key elements of the employee experience, to ensure they not only retain their top talent, but ensure that talent thrives.

Prioritize Professional Development

Over the past year, professional development may have been given a lower priority as organizations focused on the immediate business demands of the pandemic, keeping employees and customers safe. Combined with a lack of internal job opportunities due to lower turnover, this may have contributed to employees feeling restless and anxious for career movement, prompting interest in external opportunities.

Research has shown that professional development is one of the top drivers of employee engagement and a key factor when considering a job change. Given the rapid pace of change, continuous learning is critical to future-proof oneself. This applies to employees at all levels and stages of their careers — if they are not actively enhancing their capabilities, then they are actually falling behind.

To re-invigorate development, start with a high-level view of the skills and competencies needed at your organization — they’ve likely changed versus a year ago.

Reflect on the ways your business has pivoted, be that a digital transformation, change in product or service offerings, or new lines of business. What are the critical skills your workforce needs to support your business going forward (for example, digital marketing, data science or emotional intelligence)?

A recent Gartner report notes that focusing on development of critical skills that can be applied to multiple roles may result in greater career opportunities than if an employee works toward development for a specific role.

Leadership development remains especially important in the “new normal” — leading with empathy, demonstrating agility and building connections with employees (especially challenging when leading remote or hybrid teams).

In my workplace, BlueShore Financial, leadership development programs have been adapted to a virtual format and expanded to include fostering resiliency and leading remote teams.

Now is the ideal time for leaders to have career development conversations with their employees, keeping them forward-focused and separate from the performance conversation. The pandemic has been a time for internal reflection; values, priorities and career aspirations may have shifted. What do your employees want to learn? Where do they want to go in their careers?

One positive aspect of the pandemic is that many development programs and events have moved online, making them more accessible and often less costly, especially if they would otherwise have required travel. There is no shortage of free online resources, such as TED Talks and podcasts.

Finally, even if employees are working remotely, take advantage of virtual meeting platforms to facilitate employees sharing their knowledge with each other through online presentations or virtual lunch and learns.

Build a Culture of Community

Over the past months, leaders have demonstrated increased concern for employees’ well-being, especially during the initial phases of the pandemic. A year in, it may be tempting to assume that employees have adapted and no longer require that level of connection or support.

However, employee mental health remains lower than prior to the pandemic.

Whether dealing with health concerns (our own or others’), a loved one’s loss of work, the stress of working on the front lines or feeling isolated after working from home for a prolonged period, we are all vulnerable in some way.

In order to maintain employee engagement, leaders must take an authentic interest in their employees both as team members and as individuals and nurture those relationships.

This sense of connection is important across the organization, to foster collaboration and avoid silos. This can be accomplished even when working remotely. BlueShore’s intranet features a “Behind the Desk” series, which profiles employees from different areas of the organization and touches on aspects of their work and their personal interests.

HR professionals can encourage leaders to create time and space for personal connection and model these behaviours.

Most of us spend a great deal of our time on video calls. This can be exhausting and we may be tempted to keep these virtual meetings to strictly business to minimize the time spent online. Consider building in a few minutes at the beginning to allow for the chit-chat and relationship-building that would happen naturally if the meetings were being held in person. Alternatively, launch the virtual meeting a few minutes ahead of schedule to allow participants to socialize while they wait for others to join.

Another way to keep employees connected is to encourage virtual “coffee chats” between employees in different areas. Pairs or small groups can be assigned at random or employees can choose who they’d like to connect with. Providing a list of discussion topics, such as “favourite aspect of your job,” can help to get the conversation started.

Schedule Virtual Social Events

It can be challenging to build cohesion within a team when some or all employees are working remotely. Implementing virtual social events is a simple step toward maintaining interpersonal relationships. Here are a few ideas:

  • Online Party: Host a virtual cocktail party using a video conference app that enables participants to engage in small group conversations and mingle among groups, just as they would at an in-person event.
  • Work Together: Numerous websites offer activities such as online escape rooms or drawing or word games that can accommodate large or small teams.
  • Get Creative: Challenge your team to be creative. Recently, a colleague livened up a video call among team members working remotely by creating a scavenger hunt for items we were likely to have in our homes.
  • Make Learning Fun (and Tasty): Combine learning and entertainment by offering virtual education sessions on popular topics. At BlueShore, we sent team members samples of artisan chocolate bars and engaged an expert to lead an education session on the chocolates’ origins. What are the opportunities for employees at your own organization to share their knowledge on a hobby they’re passionate about?

The impacts of COVID-19 will be with us for some time; some forever. HR professionals play a vital role in facilitating employee engagement and a strong culture as their organizations move forward in the “new normal” world of work.


Marni Johnson, CPHR, is the former senior vice president, human resources and corporate affairs at BlueShore Financial.

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