“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The good news, if any, from a global crisis is that most people and organizations are experiencing similar challenges. Thus, this will not be simply an issue of “catching up”, but potentially a time when some organizations will adapt and advance.
Of course, with countless obstacles and evolving challenges piling on day after day, that road won’t be easy. And this assumes some realistic, strategic forethought to even know where you are going in the first place.
But there are two roads (and thus two points of view) on how to survive this catastrophe. The first is a road backward, back to a time before the virus, before the shutdown, before the shock. This road is characterized by “hanging on” and “surviving” and “getting through this.” It is very normal and understandable, but it is also reactionary and a failure of leadership.
The second road is every bit as challenging but taps into one of our most important traits: adaptability. As Adam Grant reminds us, “we're highly adaptable. Darwin wrote…that natural selection favors a sense of flexibility. It's not always the strongest species that survives; it's sometimes the most adaptable.”
Sitting by cannot be the answer; instead our approach must be characterized by looking forward, by accepting opportunity, and, most notably, by not waiting. This is the approach that will drive our organizations “forward to normal.”
In my view, this requires three key steps to allow the frameshift to truly take hold:
1. Embrace the Break
2. Review What You “Did”
3. Decide What You Will “Do”
Again, this road won’t be easy, and likely far less traveled by, but it should make all the difference.
Embrace the Break
Here I do not mean “break” as in “time off” or “holiday” or however tireless optimists might identify it. By “break” I mean an actual interruption or cessation of our hard-wired link to life and workplace habits that largely characterized our past “normal.” Psychologist Wendy Wood defines this in her book Good Habits, Bad Habits as “habit discontinuity”, an important opportunity to pause and consider our habits, thoughts and actions to that moment.
Of course we miss being in the office, the work events, the ease and comfort of finding someone at their desk, the morning train commute, or even the privacy robbed of us by invasive Zoom conferences intent on revealing every speck of dust in our home or capturing every shriek of impatience from our children.
Stop. Breathe. Take this opportunity to wonder, privately and aloud, “was what we were doing the best way, or were we just used to it, comforted by it to the point of routinized blindness?”
Review What We “Did”
Once the taboo of this question has waned and you and your organization are comfortable with active consideration, take another important step: take true account of all the things you can no longer do (e.g., work dinners, meet together in the office, Happy Hours, business trips) and also all the procedures and processes and “things” you now “must” do (e.g., Perpetual Video Conference Calls, blurred work-life boundaries).
While our collective Covid fever dreams, media rants and our swelling fingers from rampant mobile-app refreshes may signal the end is neigh, I assure you, for many organizations (although certainly not all) this is not the case. If your organization is able to maintain operations during this time, under any circumstances, this applies.
Identify all your operations and list those items that are meeting operational needs and especially those that are, defying expectations, actually performing better (e.g., Support teams tend to work even more effectively in remote locations, not losing valuable time on commutes). Take stock of this, celebrate it and consider why it is working. What can you learn from this?
What’s Not Working?
Of course, crisis has not delivered us to the Promised Land. The aforementioned obstacles and challenges should not be ignored in favor of some Pollyannaish paradigm shift. But by shifting your frame, “what isn’t working” is more likely “what isn’t working yet.”
Take a few examples:
Perpetual Video Conferences: As Billy Joel opined “Dahrling I don’t know why I go to extremes.” This isn’t just a Billy problem; it seems like an everybody problem. If you find ALL your meetings are Video, actively manage that: understand that it is important to connect visually with your team and colleagues, but not every moment of the day or week must be on screen. Designate some calls “Video (Required)” and some “Video (Optional)”. This will set expectations and set important boundaries.
Blurred work-life boundaries: This problem actually seems to work both ways. On the one-hand, some organizations have completely obscured or obliterated boundaries, addressing their uncertainty with relentless effort – “Don’t know what to do? Do everything!” Rebecca Zucker argues, “Our typical response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and put in longer hours, rather than to step back and examine what makes us do this and find a new way of operating.”
Others respond to this uncertainty with abdication of leadership. In these cases, they follow a more timid, but equally uncertain, path characterized by a “We don’t know what to do, so let’s just hunker down until it’s over” approach.
Neither of these approaches (admittedly extremes) are rational or effective, and yet they are pervasive; most importantly, not at all a true account of whether Working from Home (WFH) is a sustainable approach to business. Organizations should better define outcomes that they need from their people and judge success by how leaders and teams help one another achieve those, not by how many check-ins or how much “work is done”.
After considering the above questions, define the gap: "What aren’t you doing that you used to, and need to” as well as “What aren’t you doing that you need to, but never did”? Both of these questions are related but different.
The first, allows for a brief journey back in time to indulge one’s nostalgic tendencies. In office meetings (or even requiring in person business travel, etc.) is a great example: to doubt the value of in-person interaction is to wonder why everyone is taken by this whole “drinking water fad”. There is no substitute for in person interactions and so swinging the pendulum (like Billy!) to the extreme of eliminating offices or relegating in-person experiences to ad hoc or undefined is dangerous. Cultures and connection will undoubtably suffer.
On the other hand, organizations should also think about what steps they never took before, but which now seem sensible. For starters, the way organizations view WFH is largely as a necessary evil, which is often why all resources are poured into offices (e.g., beautiful designs, collaboration spaces, gourmet coffee, designer snacks) and virtual technologies are left to one step above two cans with a string in the middle. Considering better technology would require a shift to long-term viability, which would also mean reviewing the value of “in-person” and asking, “do we really need to be in the office 40+ hours a week?” or “should we really silently judge people who work from home unless they are beset by unavoidable calamity?”
Decide What We “Do”
If your organization has come this far and has fairly looked at the data, deciding what the long-term strategy should be, is the next logical step. This will require a careful design of the future and a detailed plan to get there. Organizations will struggle with how to address all the options, permutations, and accept the inevitable risks. Here are a few themes as guide:
Defy the very human desire to swing to an extreme: Keep your offices and your values that underlie them; but also modify them for flexibility and a variety of working styles. Is the goal to be in the office 5 days a week again? Why? Is remote working such a failure that you managed to survive the crisis with it but suddenly all you’ve learned goes out the window. Assume instead that somewhere in the middle is likely the right answer – and hopefully the assumptions will be based on actual analysis reviewed in getting there.
5 Day office weeks. 40+ hour weeks. “Being in sight means working hard”. Stop thinking the old way. Be intentional about time – don’t force people to be in the office for 40 hours so that you can have 10 hours of meetings and 10 hours of “oh, you are sitting next to me so let me ask you…” and ignore the other 20 sitting at a desk in silence (or worse sitting in the break room, staring out the window or avoiding carnies on the commute).
Also, when employees do work from home, define expectations and outcomes. This will help you resist the urge to micromanage and insist on facetime that doesn’t really help them achieve those ends but is really just designed for you to check that they are doing work.
Invest in better ways of collaborating remotely. Invest as if you need to. Invest as if it will truly help you. Invest as if it matters. And through this investment, identify tools and features that not only facilitates business, but perhaps changes your entire point of view. Those solutions are out there.
Patrick Lencioni argues that we should resist the desire to go back to “professional boundaries” that instead we should adopt “Personalism” and be “way more concerned about, interested in, and genuinely aware of what’s going on in the lives of the people (we) work with.”
YES! So what if your three-year-old shrieks “I pooped!”, while you are on an important conference call? Did that kill the deal? Did it ruin the implementation? Unlikely. So who cares? People you shouldn’t be working with in the first place, that’s who.
And so we return to the fork in the road, the starting point of the journey. Whatever you and your organizations choose to do with this time and opportunity, the road will be long and hard. But if you take the correct, balanced, proactive approach you may come across new and important paths and perspectives that will validate at least some of our current suffering.
First, breathe. Think of this as the opportunity it is and wipe the bias away from your eyes. Second, consider every aspect of work and how your organizations approach work and define new options for yourselves. And third, do something about it. Build your own future rather than scurrying backwards. The choice is yours.
Article also featured on LinkedIn: Going Forward to Normal: 3 Tips to Being Better “After”