One – this is an opportune time to look at working patterns and reevaluate the role of the office
Two – we’ll want to commute less, and benefit more from flexible working hours, safe in-person contact and increased access to company leadership, thinking and direction
Three – employers will need to respect and respond to the increased trust being placed in them
Four – our next ‘pandemic’ may not be a pandemic at all.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: ‘You are alive only if you embrace (some) volatility.’
Little did we know that soon the conditions for embracing volatility would be all upon us. What has changed through the disruption we have faced? And what should we be thinking about next? Here are four thoughts.
One: We have an opportunity to revisit working patterns and what we really need from an office
Rapid exchanges of ideas in a shorter time have been shown to generate better outputs than constant but less focused communication. Do we need to be in a central office each day? The office may be appealing (or critical) when home space is limited and does not offer reliable access power or the internet. But as more co-working spaces open up, along with café and restaurant options, how and where we do our work could become more imaginative. Companies like Gitlab have operated remotely since inception. They do meet face to face in recognition of the value of in-person interaction, including once annually as a whole workforce of just over 1300. But they have certainly turned the notion that we all need to be together each day to be successful on its head.
Given the significant savings on big building costs, companies are likely to operate with hybrid models, committing where possible to flexible working and ensuring they minimise risk through applying safety protocols to workspaces for their employees.
Two: We’ll be less willing to accept a blind return to how things were and more likely to champion the conditions that create better working lives
The Creativity of Constraints theory suggests that imposing constraints leads to novel insights and solutions. Almost overnight, constraints were imposed on movement, production, purchasing, consumption and contact with other human beings. The range of acceptable human behaviours shifted radically too – elbows and fist pumps stood surrogate for handshakes and hugs, cameras largely replaced looking one another in the eye. Remote work is not without its challenges. However, we have seen that it is possible to go virtual at scale to a surprising degree of efficiency. A mass rapid migration to digital would not have occurred without these severe constraints.
The new norms we pioneered, in our minds, we never meant to last. But with successive waves of the coronavirus, we’ve had time to habituate and to work out what we don’t want.
We’ve realised that less commuting in traffic is great, that we need more flexible working hours to juggle multiple roles, that time out from tech is essential, that safe in-person contact matters to us and that access to company leadership, thinking and direction are critical. We may be more likely to bargain for the conditions that create better working lives. In addition, we’ve become more acutely aware of the world’s severe disparities, with some leaders waking up to the potential for business to be a force for good in society.
Three: Employers have a responsibility to respect the trust placed in them
The Annual Global Edelman Barometer 2021 results show that business is the most trusted of four key institutions, the others being government, media and NGO’s. We have a responsibility to respect the trust placed in us, as we navigate pandemics and future challenges. Cultures of inclusion, how to build them, feed them and authentically showcase them will rise steeply on the agenda of smart businesses. Formal job contracts will need to be specific in terms of working expectations and arrangements. And informal contracts, notably the psychological contract (the unwritten expectations that form before an employee joins an organisation), will need careful craft and commitment as notions of work fragment further.
Four: What are the next questions we need to ask?
Epidemics are no longer a force of nature, according to Yuval Noah Harari: Lessons from a year of Covid. Science now goes a far way to turning them into a challenge to be managed. Humanity is far from helpless, he notes. We have the knowledge and the tools to prevent a new pathogen from spreading into a pandemic. It is mostly the politics of the management that we grapple with.
Looking back over the last year, what we saw was how digital infrastructure handled a rapid scaling up without falling over. Humanity digitises, automates and shifts online and the internet does not break. This is quite something.
So, what’s next? And how are we exploring that? IT made us more resilient in the face of the virus. But is has also made us a lot more vulnerable to malware and cyber warfare.
“What’s the next Covid? An attack on our digital infrastructure is a leading candidate.” – Yuval Noah Harari