Very soon we will get the signal that the nuclear winter is over, that the fall-out is not going to be lethal anymore (we hope) and that we can leave our bunkers (we hope) to venture out into the wild wild world instead of spending our days sitting behind a screen and surfing the www. That’s why I’d love to share some ideas about what we are going to find when we lift the lid of the bunker and stick our heads above the surface, 18 months after the ‘Covid-19 pandemic’ struck our planet.

Can we expect our old world back? Are we going back ‘to normal’? Or will there be ‘a new normal’? Well, it’s actually none of these things. And also all of them. The old normal will not be blown to pieces. It will still be there. But even though it will look, feel and smell like the old normal, it’s no longer a place of comfort. It’s stale and worn out and I never want to return to it.

When the pandemic just started, I wrote that I was hoping that our forced retreat in our bunkers would last long enough. I am sorry I ever said that. I didn’t mean this long, of course. Why I wrote that was because the pandemic forced us to acknowledge that the way we were leading our lives and conducting our business, was not in balance with our planet, its people and our own well-being. We saw the light and we would never go back to how it was.

I knew that changing people’s habits takes plenty of time and if we would have been allowed to return to free world a few weeks after the forced lock-down, we would have returned to that ‘safe’ old normal. We would have forgotten about our intentions not to go back to life and business as usual.

But if what we are going to find after Covid-19 is not the New Normal, then what is it?

Well, I call it The Twilight Twenties. The in-between zone. The zone of monsters and creeps. The zone in which some of us will design some sort of New Normal, using the building blocks from the old. The zone in which some will wake up one day in a new world that was not shaped by them and by definition not for them and will be crushed. The zone in which others will try to feed on the remains of the Old Normal until they die from starvation. It is the zone of the good, the bad and the ugly. The choice is yours.

The way out is to be exceedingly curious ask as many questions as you can, and I wanted to start you off with three of my own:

  1. Will we return to the office or not?
  2. Should we burn our long term pre-covid plans?
  3. What about the customer in the post-covid-19 universe. Is that a new breed?

Will we return to the office?

At the beginning of 2020, we were thrown in isolation and discovered all things digital. We knew that all the tools that we embraced to organise our lives and business in the bunker, had been available for decades. Most of us had however preferred to party like is was 1999: as if nothing had changed. Most people never even tried to use Zoom and Teams to organise work and find out whether another way of working was an option. We were also convinced of the fact that most decisions were being made in the corridors or at the coffee machine and not in one of those endless meetings in which we decided that we would have another meeting to decide we needed another meeting to… You get the point. Day after day after day, we hardly survived the traffic jams in between home and work and work and home and we wondered what the heck we were doing at the office that we couldn’t do at any other place. Working in the office was a waste of time, energy and money. But we were unable to change our habits. And then Covid-19 came along.

All things digital were a brilliant explosion of efficiency and speed of execution. Projects that would have taken forever and would have been outdated before even being implemented, took a few days. On top of that, work and life were in perfect balance. It seemed.

But the pandemic lasted longer than expected and in the end it stayed on long enough for us to realise that all things digital were not that perfect.

Just like all of you, I was thrilled about the digital way of working and I shouted out loud that we would kill the office and all things related to that awful concept that came straight out of the 19thcentury.

But just like all of you, I slowly started to feel exhausted and the perfect work-life balance turned into a feeling of even more unbalance than before. Work had no beginning and no ending and all days were the same: a flat screen and images of people and endless back to back to back digital meetings the whole day long. I knew I was storing stuff in my memory but I couldn’t find it afterwards and I wasted more and more time and energy in trying to find my way in the thickening fog inside my brain. I was not the only one lost in the eternal Covid mist. The initial speed and efficiency of digital meetings melted like snow in the desert and things got messy, slow and thick like melted bitumen. We needed tools to support the tools and tools to fill the gaps and tools to help us remember things and tools to design processes. All things normal needed tools. It drove us nuts.

Have you also noticed that everybody you meet online is complaining about being exhausted, bored and running out of energy and inspiration? Of course you have. Have you noticed that we feel like a lion in the zoo. Nothing to worry about and leading a life of comfort, but going nuts because our brain misses the natural impulses. We noticed that the culture of a company was not the slogans on the wall in the corridors, but that it was something that was wandering through those corridors like an invisible ghost feeding on real-life people. Because now the corridors were empty, the real people were locked in bunkers and the culture was starving. People started to miss the serendipity and impulses of the chaotic, nonefficient, time wasting tribal gatherings. We missed the coffee-machine talks.

The screaming alarm that all of us were longing for new impulses and real human interaction, was the success of Clubhouse (You may think: Clubhouse? Oh … hell yeah, that thing) that spread like a wildfire and ended like a wildfire ends (all of a sudden when the rains come) only a few weeks later, because it promised to be the real thing, but it wasn’t. Only the real thing is the real thing. We started to realise how much we missed a real clubhouse and even I started to miss the office and the 19th century.

So do we return to the office? No. We have not forgotten all the downsides. Do we keep going in our digital isolation? No. We have been there, done that and it is no good. Confusing, right? I told you: we are entering The Twilight Zone, the zone in between those two no-go zones, the zone of monsters and creeps and the zone of the 1001 consultants that suddenly popped up out of nowhere and call themselves New Way of Working Specialists. They are using your confusion to sell you their mighty wisdom, their silver bullet solutions, nicely packaged in newspeak buzzwords.

All of a sudden there is that new breed that make us believe that when we leave our bunkers, there will be The New Way of Working. They behave like Gods, descending from the clouds to create a whole new universe for which they have created dozens of rules and regulations, dos and don’ts, procedures and things that are an obligation and things that are forbidden. And we better behave like good girls and boys and listen and obey.

They have invented newspeak words like ‘hybrid working’, as if we are going to take some stuff from the old way of working, some of what we have discovered in the bunker and stitch it together to create something that is going to work, just because they tell you it is going to work. The best example of all things hybrid is the creation of Frankenstein. It is a monster.

One of the other newspeak expressions is ‘asynchronuous working’. It sounds very scientific, that for sure. Each time I pronounce the magic words, I have to reset my mouth, but when I think about it, I can’t imagine what the heck this is all about. As far as I can remember, humans are very good at a-synchronicity in life and business.

Synchronized swimming or diving are Olympic sports and take many years of intense training. I have been leading teams and companies for many years and believe me, I have hardly ever seen a moment of synchronicity between people. Maybe I should read what that thing is about.

I would like to share some of their New Way of Working ideas, because they make sense. But there is a problem that I can’t ignore and that is this: I see too many business leaders that are afraid to question those specialists. They are scared to admit that they have missed people and that they might ask them to come to the office and figure out how to find a balance that is not hybrid, but will be the result of chaos, experimentation and trial and error. They seem afraid to be called old fashioned dinosaurs that are afraid of the new normal. I even see specialists claim that if one feels the culture of a company is falling apart, that that is not due to all things remote and digital, but because there was no culture as a starter. I wonder how something that was not there can disappear, but that may just be me.

We have been here before. For years we have been dragging people out of their separate offices to push them together into open offices ‘to create more collaboration and an open culture’ because that seemed logical: when people work in the same open space, they will work together and be more open. We did all that clever stuff only to find out that the result was quite the opposite.

Now once more we push people into the new open space of digital transparency of the shared digital tools that people are obliged to use to share everything they do. And again we believe that is going to create more collaboration, more efficiency, more transparency, more knowledge and an open culture that is rock solid. You must be joking.

All we need is chaos. Let’s create a central place for the hotspot of wasting time and useless conversations: the coffee-machine. It is still the ultimate innovation laboratory.

Should we burn our long term pre-covid plans?

No you should not.

So far for the good news, now let us share the more inconvenient truth: do NOT try to execute those plans, unless you like to play Russian roulette with the company, which I doubt.

So if you are not supposed to burn the plans, but are not supposed to use them either, what then are they good for? Well, there might be elements in there: ideas, timelines, milestones, strategic thoughts, executional plans, numbers, facts,… that might come in handy when you start to build a company that is ready for the life and business after Covid-19. We are entering at least 10 years of the biggest turmoil ever (Am I scaring you? Good).

What is the business environment going to look like in 2026? I have no clue. There is climate change, population growth, urbanisation. There is pressure on food, water, energy, health and mobility. There is the unprecedented impact of social media, the merging of the off- and online world. There is data overload, the rise of AI and robotization. There is the end of an economy based on endless growth on a limited planet…

Forget 5 year plans. They are completely useless. But if we can’t rely on plans, then what is it that you should do? Scenario building. Not one scenario, but a few that you keep up-to-date and you shouldn’t be afraid to jump from one scenario to another.

Leadership in a scenario hopping context is completely different than the traditional way. A five year plan is about checklist management. Scenario-hopping is about CHIEF leadership. Leaders better show Connection, Humility, Integrity, Empathy and Forgiveness.

What about the customer in the post-covid-19 universe. Is that a new customer?

The customer has always been a moving target. Covid-19 did not change the customer. Even an 18 month pandemic worldwide semi-lockdown is not enough to change or break customer habits. I’m talking about real gamechangers like the internet and the smartphone. The virus may have been speeding up the changes that are not new. The keyword here is ‘more’:

  • The customer is more Connected
  • The customer is more Unbalanced and Uncertain
  • The customer is more Self-Centered
  • The customer is more Tribal
  • The customer is more OMO (Online-Merge-Offline) sapiens
  • The customer has its Mind Fuller and longs for more Mindfulness.
  • The customer is more Ethical and Ecological
  • The customer is more Radical.

The CUSTOMER will kill you if you have no answer to the most important question ever: What would people miss if your company was not around?

The Twilight Zone is not about answers, I’m afraid. It’s about asking as many questions as you can, planning as many scenarios possible and adapting with each new wave that comes at you.