In our globalised world, it is comparatively rare for an event to impact the lives and awareness of absolutely everybody. Yet there can be few of the rising eight billion on the planet who’ve been awake during the past three months who haven’t been conscious of and affected by coronavirus. And although individual citizens and families, communities and countries are living through this moment of history in radically different ways, we are all in some ways touched by this, the most profound social and economic upheaval for generations.
The end of the world as we know it?
Ever since the WHO, the World Health organisation, declared COVID-19’s official pandemic status – our generation’s “assassination of JFK”, flashbulb memory moment – self-appointed experts have been tripping over each other to tell us how to behave, what to expect, how to feel. From government ministers to business leaders, from journalists to pressure groups, from well-meaning friends in community WhatsApp groups to family members on rapidly spun-up Zoom meetings.
The truth is, none of us actually knows how things will turn out. There’s no script or playbook for the first global pandemic of the era of globalisation. There are just too many of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ for anyone to be able to claim with any credibility: “I’ve seen this movie, and …” It is all speculation. One thing more than two months of lockdown has afforded all of us, however, is time. With no commuting, no travelling between client meetings, no three-hour flights for a 45 minute turn during a global conference, everyone has had at least the potential to reflect.
However comforting it may seem to think that once we’re over the spike of infection and death we’ll “go back” to where we were before, it is increasingly clear that this won’t happen. Organisations and leaders who thrive – through and on the other side of the pandemic – are those who can grasp the spirit of change and innovation that it has forced upon us. So far, there have been three different modes of operation that leaders of businesses and organisations have been working through.
Scrambling mode – with society and infrastructure shut down, is our organisation able to function at all? Do we have any revenue? What do we do with our people? Question after question and under-informed decision-making.
Coping mode – slighter calmer, slightly better-informed. Working out who and what’s essential, whether furloughing is necessary or desirable, how to structure working days and weeks, understanding how to work in unfamiliar, uncomfortable circumstances.
Visioning mode – the gradual return of the ability to think beyond the end of this morning, today, this week. Starting to put in place longer-term plans on a more familiar – if completely changed and with massively-accelerated – timescale for leaders.
Three areas to consider
As leaders think about what the future will be like and spend more time in visioning mode, I believe that they need to think about the following issues and macrotrends: the cultural aspects of where we work and live, the physical aspects of where we work and live, and decision-making.
Work and life space – cultural
Until a safe and effective vaccine is developed – for COVID-19 but then also the next pandemic – how and where world’s knowledge economy workers actually do their work will be forever changed. In the U.K., the proportion of the population working from home has almost quadrupled since lockdown, surging from 12% to 44% according to government figures. Before the pandemic, many leaders still feared that working from home meant reduced productivity and employees watching boxed sets in their pyjamas all day. The last few months has shown what the established WFH brigade have known for years – many of us can be more productive and work harder from home than in any traditional office.
The trouble is, when there are so few distractions (no cinema or sport, theatre or museums, restaurants or bars, friends or family), too many will Zoom from dawn til dusk, unable to draw boundaries between work and life. Fine, perhaps, for the boss with his book-lined home office and ultra-fast broadband; not quite so easy for the five millennial flat-shares with weedy WiFi, taking meetings on the stairs.
As the future emerges, it is clear that fewer people will spend as much time working together physically, in offices. Remote working will feature as a core part of everyone’s lives. Air travel took 10 years to recover to pre-recession levels after the 2008 financial crisis. It is unlikely ever to reach 2019 levels again, and many are reluctant – let’s be honest, scared – to take trains and buses and tubes. So, just as offices will have to change, so too will ways of working. For leaders, this will include both clear and obvious visibility – the need to show up and be present – as well as showing vulnerability.
Showing up doesn’t mean over-imposing, dominating, or intruding through the laptop camera. It means checking in, being there, and making opportunities for those all-important, opportunistic watercooler moments that can so often be the spark to innovation and new collaborations. Showing vulnerability means letting everyone know it’s OK to admit they’re finding adjusting to new ways of working hard, as well as doing everything in their power to get their teams to realise their potential.
Work and life space: physical
With fewer people commuting to work – particularly by public transport – to spend ten hours in a cramped space with others, the infrastructure of our offices and so our cities will change. Already, many cities have seen critical, arterial roads for cars, trucks, and cabs become cycle lanes. But as homes become part-office and part bolt-hole from the office, domestic architecture will likely change, too. Lockdown has shown that many homes don’t work as homes if everyone who lives there is there all the time. City-centre flats with no outdoor space – no balcony or garden – once so desirable for young, aspiring workers are likely to fall out of fashion and fall in value. Some companies with a forward looking approach are already offering a lump sum payment to people to improve their WFH situation, whether it’s an ergonomic seat, a new desk or better lighting.
One of the defining drumbeats of the pandemic for me is that “what seemed possible becomes impossible”. With civil liberties stripped away to control the spread of the virus, most people in most countries have accepted what was asked of them by their governments to play their part – and keep themselves safe. They could no longer do what they wanted, where, when, and with whom.
But once we emerged from scrambling mode and moved into coping mode – as individuals and families, but also as leaders and businesses – the flipside of this drumbeat became real: “what seemed impossible becomes possible”. Meetings about meetings stopped happening, and decision-making has become compressed. Decisions are made quickly and pragmatically. And if we don’t have all the answers – and we often don’t – many are more prepared to test and learn. Ideas that before were dismissed as being just too difficult to get agreement on are suddenly just happening.
If necessity is the mother of invention, COVID-19 has been a fast-track crucible of innovation. Dramatic pivots and changes of direction are often resisted through a culture of paralysis by over-analysis. Turning the streets of Paris over to cyclists – with all the benefits of physical exercise and reduced traffic pollution – was delivered almost overnight by Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo. This has been a beacon for change, and other cities around the world – from Dublin to New York, from Auckland to London – have been falling over themselves to follow the wisdom of this approach.
The magnification effect
The pandemic has had a magnification effect on how (and where) we work and live, and the structures and beliefs we wrap around society. It is having a similar effect on individuals too, and most particularly on leaders. Whatever you do or say – or don’t do or don’t say – has been magnified in recent months. Characters and characteristics have been revealed for what they’re truly like, for good and for bad, from the most empathetic to the worst micromanager. To mitigate this magnification effect, I believe there are three things leaders should do to help their teams move from coping mode to visioning mode and co-create the medium to long-term future.
One: tell the truth
The acceleration of decision-making has shown that we are collectively less tolerant of spin and waffle. When you need to make difficult decisions, communicate them as clearly, simply, and openly as possible – and as quickly as possible. Three months ago, very few people had heard of furloughing. Today, more than six million U.K. employees have been temporarily laid off by almost 800,000 companies – almost a quarter of the employed workforce. Understandably, many are feeling insecure about whether furloughing is the first step en route to redundancy.
When communicating proactively and when responding to questioning – on this and any other issue – leaders should tell the truth. This simple framework can help even difficult news be delivered well.
- “We know the answer, and we’ll tell you right here, right now.”
- “We know the answer, but for legal (or other) reasons, it would be inappropriate to do so. But we commit to coming back to you with an answer within [TIMEFRAME].”
- “We don’t know the answer, but we’ll find out and come back to you by [DATE].”
Two: set and respect boundaries
When being at home and working from home is the only or the main option – despite gradual easing of lockdown restrictions – it’s very easy for working and working from home to become by far the dominant aspect of your team’s lives. Leaders should set boundaries and role-model them, and that doesn’t mean sending emails at 10pm and expecting all-hands meetings at 7am. Video conferencing can be exposing, and not everyone wants their bosses to see them – and the ironing board in their spare bedroom – on every call. Encourage your team to feel comfortable with the choices they make about showing up to work and meetings, to set and respect others’ boundaries.
Three: embrace the world as it is
Realising and accepting that the pandemic does not represent a moment of pause but rather one of fundamental change will not be easy for anyone, leaders included. But by embracing the new realities – of how and where and when we work, of social distancing, and that there’s no magic moment at which we’ll turn the clock back to 2019 – are crucial as leaders take their teams from coping to visioning mode. And those that do can expect to thrive on the other side of the pandemic.
Agile, nimble thinking and decision-making has always been the foundation stone of innovation. In 2020 and beyond, these will be the defining hallmarks of future success. I wish you every success as you lead your teams and organisations in this pivot of all pivots, and I trust you’ve found this framing of the challenges we all face to have been helpful perspective. I’d love to hear how it is for you.
Photo credit: The English Channel – La Manche Susan Carroll
Susan Carroll is the Founder & MD of Scala Advance. She brings learnings from neuroscience, behavioural science, and psychology to the workplace, helping people become better leaders and drive impactful innovation.