You Can't Go Home Again

EHS Today - November 2021
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

This is the title of a great American novel by Thomas Wolfe. In the book, he describes a longing for home amid the massively changing world of his times. The ultimate discovery is that the home you want to go home again to is not there. It has changed.

Today, I hear organizational leaders wishing for and waiting for a "return to normal." They too will ultimately discover that what they once viewed as normal is not there any longer. The post-pandemic world has been changed in ways that will never be the same as they once were. We can bemoan this fact or realize that it is not new. The world has always been changing. The changes have not always been this sudden or drastic, but they have always been there.

Safety practices and leadership have been drastically impacted by recent events. Many safety professionals are hoping for a return to normal, and they will be forced to recognize the reality of a new era in safety. Many of the practices that were reactionary to the pandemic have proven to be superior in ways to the previous practices. They will not go away just because we get the virus under control. Following are the major areas of safety I believe will be permanently changed:

Leadership — Leaders of organizations and of safety processes have been pushed to be more nimble and quicker to react to change. Established practices must be constantly examined and adapted to new realities. Leadership must become more proactive or get run over by change.

Supervision — Supervisors were forced to distance themselves from their workers and find ways to remotely influence workers and help them to be more self-reliant. This is not the "self-directed work teams" push of the 1980s but quite a different animal. Supervisors need to be safety coaches and not safety cops.

Training — Before the pandemic, few aspects of the world of work were as stagnant as safety training. It was designed to check off the box of OSHA requirements with as little effort and interruption to work as possible. It was often delivered via computer-based modules which had not changed in years. It was sometimes done in the workplace or meeting rooms where workers were crowded together to listen to a less-than-perfect speaker. Now training must adapt to new demands and be delivered in innovative ways that minimize both large groups and re-hashed modules.

Communication — The CEO of a large organization told me that he longed to get his leadership team back into a conference room and look at each other across the table and discuss the pressing issues facing their business. Instead, he was forced to learn to use Zoom and meet virtually. He confessed that after a few months, he realized that Zoom meetings could actually be effective and he learned techniques to make them better. Workers who got to work from home liked it and don't want to go back. Communication is going to be more remote, and we will have to learn how to make it more effective.

Consulting — Pre-pandemic, the use of safety consultants was almost exclusively in person. During the early stages of COVID, consultants could not travel to sites and, if they could, they could not gain access due to quarantine restrictions. Over time, consultants modified their services to be delivered online and clients accepted that as an effective way to move forward. Now that distance consulting is an accepted practice, clients can save the expense of travel, lodging and meals, and consultants can deliver value every day rather than having two travel days for each project. The savings for both parties is especially significant for foreign sites.

Culture — Just as the safety world was giving serious effort to improve cultures, the pandemic forced the members of the safety culture to distance themselves from each other. It also forced leaders and supervisors to avoid direct contact with the workforce. The premise of MBWA (Management by Wandering Around) was completely shut down. Leaders had to find new ways to influence their safety cultures. Supervisors had to do likewise. Workers found themselves more isolated than ever before in many industries, and all the books and training in safety culture improvement became less relevant. Again, many leaders simply thought they could simply make temporary efforts to hold things together and wait for a return to normal. However, many changes that seemed temporary were making a permanent impact. Leaders and supervisors changed management styles and modes of communication. Workers became more independent and self-reliant. Technical specialists moved from the site to home offices and learned how to work more effectively from remote bases. When the world tried to return to normal, normal was not what it used to be. Then the Delta variant reared its ugly head and plunged the culture completely back into pandemic mode, undoing many of the efforts to return to the old normal.

A comedian once joked that lightning never strikes in the same place because the same place is not there after being struck by lightning. The world of safety we knew in 2019 has been struck by lightning and we can't go home again. What we can do is recognize which changes are permanent and adopt them rather than trying to simply out-wait the situation that caused them. During the Dark Ages, mankind looked back to the Golden Ages and saw that the past was better than their present condition. They went back to a former way of life and learning, and started to progress from there. Our Golden Age is not behind us; it is ahead. We must resist the urge to go back and bravely go forward. As we do this, we should realize that these new realities, like the old ones, are not permanent and the greatest lesson of the pandemic is not one step-change but the openness to continuous change.

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

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