People, pandemic, and places of work

People, pandemic, and places of work

Au milieu de l’hiver, j’ai découvert en moi un invincible été.” — these words of Albert Camus were on my mind when I asked what good may have come out of the pandemic as far as people and places of work were concerned.

I was attending a Women On Boards conversation on the topic of the pandemic and the people. These conversations happen under the Chatham House Rule so I am not about the identify the brilliant women around the table, so to speak.

There were several thought-provoking takeaways on the idea of “work” and “places of work”. While posed as unresolved challenges, the points have a stronger flavour of “build forward better” than of “go back to normal” when that normal did not work for many.

I should clarify these are my take-aways and in the process of reflecting and writing, I have added my own emphasis and interpretation so this article should not be read as a verbatim record of that exceptionally good event.

From “where” to “why”: The pandemic has famously stressed people. But it has also given many a pause for thought. Many realised the futility and stress and expense of their commutes, and reclaimed that time to invest in self-development, gardening, or their kids or other care receivers. All the while the people kept up the performance, the productivity, demonstrating unforeseeable resilience that kept businesses running.

Now they are questioning “why” they work, whereas business leaders – many of whom visibly live in large homes or holed up in their country or beach houses during the pandemic – seem to be still stuck on “where” they work.

The resulting disconnect means from hospitality – where jobs are badly paid and stressful – to management jobs, people are quitting en masse.

The “why” is not just about money but about purpose, about collaboration and creativity, about being able to mentor the next generation of talent while developing own career path and pursuit of excellence and many other things. Indeed as I have shared with friends and colleagues my own relationships with my fellow board directors actually improved in this time of enforced virtual working, as we were able to talk about things such as book case contents and posters on walls and kids etc, all dressed in comfortable clothing (hoodies in my case), and many more informal avenues for chitchat opened. Boards in particular do not meet often and at the best of times, it can be a challenge to build collegial relationships while maintaining independence of thought.

Employers worry about the “where” because they imagine people slacking off at home — the evidence from the first year of the pandemic notwithstanding. However there is a definite loss of access to tacit knowledge and organisational memory which are harder to transmit to new hires and junior employees who do not have pre-existing social capital. When the water cooler is lost, what do you replace it with?

In other words employers now have to think about re-designing the “where” for the many possible use-cases, guided by not just a generic “why”.

Which leads to the next point.

From “reasonable adjustment” to inclusion and hyper-customisation: Good employers have tried to provision reasonable adjustment and support in the workplace whether this was about building ramps for wheelchairs or Braille on the lift keypad or sanitary products in women’s bathrooms or assistive technologies, however imperfect.

But active discrimination persisted. People sitting around a physical table could be ignored based sometimes on where they were seated. Women getting talked over in meetings is almost a cliché. And nearly all workplaces are designed for a “speaker” and not for people who may have speech or hearing difficulties.

That playing field was somewhat levelled as everyone was virtually reduced to little boxes situated in no particular order on a screen. Well-functioning groups developed an etiquette for speaking in turn and it became somewhat harder for the usual suspects to dominate the share of voice. Yes, chairing became harder (and bad chairing became more evident). The texts in the chat window sometimes flowed as fast as the verbal discussion and the note-taking job got harder for team secretaries. But something changed about power imbalances – for the better.

In other words the “normal” no longer is.

Where do we go from here? Possibly to an era of true inclusion through hyper-customisation and a culture of individualised provisioning and respect? No, it is not going to be easy. How will it work? Perhaps more easily when we notice each other than when we don’t.

For instance, let’s say a group has some vaccinated folks and some unvaccinated, some mask wearers and others who cannot wear a mask. Where you meet – inside or outside, how you meet – face to face or virtually or mixed, how you get seated, what the meeting etiquette is, all will need to change and be customised from meeting to meeting. This is not a job for a faint-hearted meeting chair nor for the unempathetic employer or uncaring colleagues.

The cultural and process changes required are also likely to have a significant impact on the operating models of businesses themselves. The possibilities are endless and specific to your business of course.

Which brings me to the next point.

From “performative” to “authentic”: A few days ago I spoke at a Virtual Advisory Board event, as we discussed authenticity in leaders and on boards. One of the points I made was that authenticity is about being whole and consistent, and not situationally performative in a Groucho Marx sense (“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well I have others.”).

The pandemic has been a test of organisational culture in this sense. Did the modelling of behaviours of care and extra attention come from the top, or did you just leave your managers to it? Did your organisation continue with its command-and-control and micromanagement mentality, or did you equip the line managers? Did your leadership shy away from things, or did you have – as one of the wonderful women in the WoB conversation said — “courageous conversations” to address things that needed addressing? Did your organisation care genuinely about wellbeing (a whole post on that forthcoming), or did you continue to run engagement surveys as in pre-covid times?

At an individual level the priorities changed and the mask is off too. We have seen the insides of one another’s homes, the faces of kids and pets and significant others and flatmates. Carefully constructed work personas came crumbling. In my case, I do not normally allow anyone to enter my study as I do not like people moving my books around. Having done literally dozens of meetings, given virtual talks to schools and at events, and attended interviews for board roles, I have accepted that now a few thousand strangers know what my precariously overloaded book cases look like.

When it comes to performativity at work — whether it is by way of presenteeism, or by way of looking like we are one thing at work and another at home — we have crossed the Rubicon.

This is a great opportunity for leaders to lead, anchor, and convene an authentic conversation across their businesses instead of dictating a blanket “return to the office” policy.

“Work” has changed. As leaders and board directors, we too need to change our preconceived notions, challenge our prejudices, consider the possibilities.

A new order of things – truly inclusive and enabling – could be the invincible summer we could yet pull out of the wintery dark heart of the pandemic we are still in the midst of (never mind “freedom day” in the UK).

Shall we?

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.

Disclaimer 2: I am also an Ambassador for Women On Boards but I am solely responsible for all that I write here.)

Useful links:

Esther Perel on the “tyranny of positivity

Two interesting posts from Normative – how they did user research for work culture and how they redesigned the workplace

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