Will we ever be back to normal?
In this article we explore a series of questions in determining the right path back to ‘normality’ for our businesses
1. What has changed for my business?
2. How have ‘my’ peoples’ expectations changed?
3. Has the nature of our work changed?
4. Have the fundamental principles changed for my business?
It advocates a strategic approach to developing a unique path for each business
When we entered the early stages of the pandemic, there was a period of rapid adjustment to a new way of operating. For some it meant closure either temporarily or, tragically, permanently. But for many the world closed down to home offices, virtual meetings and covid safe operating environments. A strange way of operating but it would only be for a few months wouldn’t it?
As it is turning out, the return to normality is not as straightforward as we might have hoped:
The pandemic continues with variations
Vaccination success on an international basis is patchy and is unlikely to be the knock out remedy for which we hoped.
In a recent learning session with some of our clients, 84% of participants acknowledged that they would not be going back to the old way of working. At the same time nearly two thirds admitted that while their intention was clear they had yet to achieve clarity on a way forward.
Admittedly a small sample, but an indication of the dilemma facing many of us?
Probably not too surprising because there are a lot of moving parts. There are a number of factors that may make a return to full speed elusive:
We have changed. The experience of the last eighteen months (I am counting from the acknowledgment of an issue when China closed down) has changed our view of the world and expectations from the world of work.
Our organisations have changed. New ways of operating have called into doubt the need for central offices and have added urgency to the need to secure systems to assure remote working.
Our customers have changed. Service expectations have changed with online purchasing and home deliveries becoming the norm. And there is an emerging understanding of the importance of local and neighbourhood businesses.0
Our suppliers have changed with new challenges in getting fully co-ordinated supply chains to deliver despite the logistical challenges of closed borders and the difficulty of arranging face to face meetings.
Our competitive environment has changed with new competitors accessing local markets from anywhere in the world.
Our attitude to environmental matters has changed. We have encountered the threat to our species from human invasion of the natural world. And, with a bit more time to reflect on the countless documentaries on climate change, there is a greater sense of urgency in doing something to slow global warming.
Many of these changes were underway before the pandemic, but the acceleration caused by the immediate pandemic pressure has turned a trend into an event. And an event from which we can, and must, learn.
But there are traps for the unwary. With the number of dimensions to the change and the complexity of dealing with the changes compounded further by the number of unique business models that exist, there is no point in searching for a single ‘silver bullet’ solution to the return to normal. And there is the subtlety of timing which will make a solution right in one part of the world but wrong in another, even in the same organisation.
So the starting point might be to frame the right question.
And I propose this to be:
What would be right for my organisation?
So, throw away the dogma that says hybrid working is the way to go, or we don’t need the office space any more, or let’s get everyone into the office for two days a week, or any other generalisation. And replace it with a strategic framework to get the right answer for each of our organisations and search for a solution unique to our circumstances.
There is a line in a Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) song ‘If you want to sing out, sing out’:
Cause there's a million ways to go
You know that there are
A successful way forward will lie in the selection of the one way that will work for each of our businesses. So how might we set about finding ‘our’ way for the future? Start by answering the following series of questions – they might seem simple but require complex answers:
What has changed for my business? Very few businesses will revert to the ‘old normal’. Yes, we may still be producing similar outputs but with changing expectations of key stakeholders it would be unwise to take their continuing support for granted. Performance and attitudes experienced during the pandemic will impact on customer, employee and supplier assessments. As I write I am reflecting on the significant downturn in service levels of our energy supplier who could not honour a service contract to inspect a boiler. Will I stick with this arrangement post pandemic, or will I change provider as soon as the pandemic is over? Employee attitudes will change with a new-found freedom borne from their furloughed experience. We hear that top performers in the catering sector are now in significant demand and retention by employers prior to the pandemic cannot be assumed. And how many people are ‘seeing out’ the pandemic but are ready to move as soon as the job market looks more secure? Of concern might be the degree of rigour exercised when examining what has changed. It will be too easy to assume that superficial changes will be enough when there may be fundamental shifts in the way people relate to a business. In particular, I have in mind customers’ relationships and a detailed examination of their current attitudes could be key to unearthing the extent of change that may be required.
How have ‘my’ people’s expectations changed? I referred to employee attitudes in the previous paragraph, but there is another, more fundamental, level that is worthy of exploration. What has changed in the way people want to operate? Will we fall back into the regular commute to the office, when we can see that there is a trade between time wasted on the train and effectiveness of working from home? The relationship between life and work has changed and it won’t change back. We have had a year of more flexibility. OK so we complain about Zoom calls and observe that we are at our desks for longer. But in reality, that work life integration that we might have sought pre-pandemic is now available to us. Daniel Pink, in his work ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, observes three factors in motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We will come back to mastery and purpose, but he observes that better performance comes from engaged employees and to engage they need to be self-directing; feeling that they can get on with their work unfettered. So the pandemic has gifted us an opportunity to create a self-directed workforce. Ordering people back to the office could destroy the opportunity. With flexible working comes other opportunities. It might be easier to engage people who previously would not be available to us because of their need to make space for parental or carer duties. Or recruit people that might be in a different geography that previously would have made travel to the office impractical. Again a degree of rigour will be needed, particularly as there will be personal factors in play that will govern individual responses to the work from home/work from the office question: - Would working from home be feasible? Is there space for a proper (to be health and safety compliant) office set up with broadband standards sufficient to enable seamless communication? - Is there a desire for the social interaction that an office environment can encourage and can this be achieved with partial office attendance? - Is the corporate culture strong enough to be able to count on the right behaviours to develop and govern the way we operate, whether remotely or not? And if we are going to enable flexible working will we need to address employment contracts to ensure that both the organisation and individuals are clear on the new requirements and who is responsible for what. I can see some interesting debates on who pays for travel to the office and home office expenses. I wonder also whether tax treatment of home office expenses will come under review by the relevant tax authorities. There is also a more immediate concern that will need our attention. Yes, we will all want to grow and be as productive as possible, but right now we have other requirements in the hierarchy of needs (thank you Maslow). And dominant in many will be the need for safety and security, both of which will have been challenged over the past period. Getting back to the office, or not, will need to address, for each individual, their need for a safe environment and a secure income stream. A fear of loss through non-compliance with a newly formed policy could impact significantly on a workforce grappling with the challenge of a new way of working.
Has the nature of our work changed? The need for collaboration as a way to get organisations to function despite the systems and organisational barriers that many create will not go away. It is likely that there will be an ongoing need to get people to work together effectively and I have no doubt that there will be pressure and a desire for a return to face to face contact. But we have an opportunity to identify those tasks that are best achieved through getting together and those that are best achieved working remotely. At this point, I would like to reflect on the good things we have learnt through virtual working. It has not been all bad and it would be a waste if we abandon it in a rush to get back to the office. Just a few to start the thinking: - Our technologies have improved, so it is now possible to engage people in debate, discussion and opinion forming all through a broadband connection. - International meetings don’t need to cost the earth. Yes, we will want to meet colleagues from around the globe, but it is possible to meet more frequently without the travel cost and impact on the planet. - Virtual can democratise a meeting. It is easier to contribute when everyone is just a two inch square on a computer screen! - Punctuality has improved. Remember the time lost waiting for people to arrive for a physical meeting, and the inevitability of traffic delays, late trains and so on? Practically eliminated in the virtual world where we now feel guilty if we are more than two or three minutes late! - Availability has improved. Getting a meeting in the diary is a matter of days and weeks as opposed to weeks and months. It is easier to be available too, without having to plan for the travel time for each meeting. I would like to say that the clumsiness of the hybrid meeting with some in the room and some joining by videoconference is over. It is not much fun outside the room without the benefit of the informal interactions of those in the room. So, let’s take an objective look at the nature of work and identify those tasks that have to be undertaken in the office, those that can benefit from being undertaken in the office and those that are better performed away from the office. Match this with the examination of peoples’ expectations and there is an opportunity to develop a (unique to each business) plan for execution of tasks and for the development of a healthy corporate culture.
Have the fundamental principles changed for my business? Ordinarily I would be looking at this as a starting point. But it feels that the tactical needs of our organisations will occupy most of our collective capacity for thought as we feel our way back into a sustainable way of working. But this does not take anything away from the importance of the existential question. Has the purpose of the organisation changed as a result of the pandemic? Is the reason for our continuing existence still valid? And are our values, the principles on which our culture is built, still applicable? Have these continued to influence a healthy culture? I said I would come back to Daniel Pink’s other motivating factors of mastery and purpose. Increasingly people want to make a difference in the world in which they live and they are attracted by an organisation’s ‘reason for being’. ‘Why the organisation exists’ is becoming as important as ‘What the organisation does’. If the organisation is clear on its ‘why?’ and adheres to its values and principles, it has the potential to release the discretionary effort that sits within each of us. And if we all bring the whole of our energies to the workplace, two things can happen. First the levels of performance improve and second the space for continuous learning opens up. It is too easy to dismiss culture as ‘nice to have’ but here is an opportunity to examine, and if necessary refresh, the way we operate so that it becomes (or continues to be) a distinctive feature for our organisations. Distinctive to attract and retain talent and an engine for performance and continuous learning for our people to achieve the mastery they seek. Yusuf’s (Cat Steven’s) song continues:
You can do what you want
The opportunity's on
And if you find a new way
You can do it today
I reckon that is a suitable battle cry for each of us to find the ‘one in a million ways to go’ that suits our unique circumstances. Treating the return to some sort of normality as an opportunity will impact on our mindset. And it will require a growth mindset as we negotiate fairness between those who can or want to get back to the office and those who can’t or don’t need to get back to working in shared locations.
Winston Churchill is credited with ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. We have experienced a ‘good’ crisis. Let’s not waste it.
There is a million ways to go
Written by Peter Ward, Senior Consultant at Telos Partners 21 May 2021