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COVID has certainly made us question what is normal. Will life ever return to normal? Or are we now in the age of the new normal?
At Health Innovation Manchester our meetings changed from the old normal of a face to face at the office, the pre meeting chat, a coffee, a “How are you?” or four to the other panel members all in a relaxed informal manner. We would sit around the large table, usually in the same seats with paper copies of the meeting agenda and the lead would kick us off and it was very, very normal. We would break for a coffee and a biscuit, the naughty ones would make an excuse and sneak off outside, the panellists would mingle engaged in the idle chit chat brought about by a familiarity that was normal in every office across the land.
Then came COVID. This old normal was made redundant overnight and we had to find a way to create a new normal.
Humans thrive on social interaction, Yuval Noah Harari credits human’s ability to gossip and tell stories as being central to the rise in prominence of the human race. Interaction however was going to change in ways some of us never imagined. Instead of the bustling office meetings we became connected through the wonders of technology. Myself, a techno novice, became competent enough to use Zoom. Which soon became the new normal.
From Cro-Magnon man we became the homo erectus of Zoom, learning how to interact all over again. At first meetings were strange, we were hesitant, yet it is a measure of the adaptability of humans that these changes to our circumstances soon became the new established normal. There were of course teething problems, nobody runs before they can walk and for some moving to online Zoom meetings was akin to learning to walk.
Thankfully we had our guiding lights, we were never left to flounder aimlessly in the dark, unnerved, unsure and alone. The support received was exceptional, it was understanding and most importantly it was patient. It is wondrous how quickly humans adapt to changing circumstances. We are constantly evolving.
We learnt collectively, we grew together, like a classroom of infants we progressed the more we learnt. It was not just technology either, it was etiquette, we learnt when it was appropriate to speak, we discussed how best to make sure everyone was heard. There is little point in engagement if you cannot engage, so it was ensured all voices were heard and all points addressed however valid or invalid they were.
A summation of a panellist’s involvement with a project was met with applause, the applause though was silent, and it was pictorial as the new normal has a mute button. We are like Zippy from Rainbow, zipped away until asked to comment or unzipped to interject in the discussion. We seek attention by old normal means, we raise our hands and hope to be noticed, a, lesson the old normal taught us at primary school when we tried to grab the teachers attention. We talk as friends, we laugh, we offer sympathy, show empathy, and we even went as far as having fancy dress for our final meeting before Christmas. Only familiarity and comfort can elicit responses like that. That we achieved it speaks volumes about the hard work the team put in to make the meetings accessible and open.
Now the new normal feels just that; normal. We are the infants who have progressed and taken our exams. We haven't all got top marks, yet there is a collective satisfaction that we all reached a level where we passed. The whole panel deserve enormous credit in these most trying of times that we have rose to the challenge, we have supported and encouraged each other. We have been patient and respectful when somebody errs, because it’s all new to us. We have learnt that the mute button has its uses. The speaker is not disturbed and the listening is more attentive.
Nicky and Aneela, the facilitators, often make the point that they learn something new about panel members every meeting. Perhaps it's worth considering that the relative anonymity of a zoom meeting allows for more honesty, greater reflection, increased empathy and a higher level of understanding.
Maybe, just maybe, the new normal ain't as bad as we once thought.
The views and opinions expressed in this presentation are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care