Illustration by Mr What & Mrs Why ©️ 2020
You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til It’s Gone
Upon his return to work following his recovery from the Covid-19 virus, Prime
Minister Boris Johnson sought to enhance his boosterism by leveraging the credence of
medical science into his speech. “We will be relying, as ever, on the science to
inform us, as we have from the beginning” he said.
Back at the office, we mere mortals are making similar attempts to enhance the credibility of our arguments.
We repeatedly make seemingly authoritative references to the need for decisions to be evidence-based, informed by big data, driven by data science, and futuristically connected to predictive science.
As an emergent digital native faced with a pandemic, I’ve tried to borrow from the problem solving styles of the digital age and the GEMs I know well, to fathom out just what’s going on and where this rollercoaster of a virus is going to take us next. It’s true, I’m not exactly a data scientist – but then Boris is hardly a doctor.
My conclusion? It’s business unusual so what might GEMs and their colleagues expect?
I believe my analysis is evidence-based, though a purist would argue it’s anecdotal
and somewhat empirical, and I readily accept it’s certainly not algorithmical. But it is
grounded in what I’ve experienced over the last seven weeks and it’s encrypted in
my head as N + A = (M x B) … but more about that later.
I would suggest the first challenge we face relates to the mass return to work in the coming weeks. After months in lockdown, going back to the office sounds more daunting than we ever realised it could be. Imagine having to wear a different outfit every day!
But for me, it’s the big issues of providing ‘contagion-friendly’ work practices which keep our staff and customers as safe as possible that remain firmly front of mind.
I say as safe as possible, because until we have a Covid-19 vaccine and/or enhanced treatments, we can only take the measures which maximise personal health, safety, and wellbeing.
Of course, this becomes a judgement call, and judgements will be varied, as was demonstrated in the differing responses to the crisis from governments around the world.
We’re bound to see organisations around the world introducing all sorts of practices to return to work and we must learn with and from each other.
Already colleagues are speculating about the business unusual office environment, from adding more space between desks and workstations to staggering start times and breaks. There could be barriers between desks, greater use of PPE such as face masks, antibacterial coatings on surfaces, more contactless technology in lifts and door systems and in general.
Moving on from our offices, the next big question is this: how do we make our services safer for customers to access?
The vulnerability of older people has been exposed by Covid-19.
Many social landlords provide homes for tenants who live in areas which are economically-challenged and where the pandemic seems to spike. During the pandemic, our key staff have given their all to protecting our tenants. On returning to work can we enhance safety with more testing and tracing, temperature checks, and contactless technologies?
Alexa has been my constant companion at home for some time now and routinely ask her to control my music and answer questions on weather and travel, as well as to enhance my security.
Why can’t the touchless, voice-activated AI tech of Alexa be employed to make the lives of staff and customers safer?
Similarly, we use our phones as a means of payment and as an entry pass, so why not extend this tech to the workplace? The same goes for facial recognition technology; if it meets the criteria for border control then surely it’s good enough for our security applications?
I don’t think it takes much creativity to see how we might bring these widely-used and well-established technologies into the new world of work. It’s just about being brave enough to take the first steps…steps that might be easier for GEMs and their generation to take.
And what about business unusual in the medium term?
The watchword of work organisations for at least two hundred years (it feels longer) has been efficiency. So unsurprisingly, the experience of the pandemic has piqued interest in the gains it can bring in terms of efficiency and productivity.
We plunged overnight into home working on a scale some would not have believed possible; we’ve toyed with the concept for years and now it’s unquestionably here.
This has forced us to recognise that a combination of office and home work
can reduce the inefficient aspects of office based life.
Think about it. Far fewer stressful commutes, inter-office journeys, hotel stays, unnecessary meetings, coupled with improved flexible working, increased productive time, and a whole heap of environmental benefits. Only recently, the Chartered Institute of Housing announced its first virtual international housing summit will take place this summer and it is well subscribed.
All these experiences have forced me to ask: when so many individual tasks can be successfully completed from home, enabled by tech, what is the real point of an office?
For me the answer relates to the importance of collaboration: real collaboration and co-creation.
Zoom and Teams are useful – I certainly don’t know how we would have got through the pandemic without them – but they do have their limitations when it comes to collaboration.
Being in the office enables vital informal collaboration, as well as the planned and structured collaboration we get with virtual meetings. It also influences culture, creativity and engenders that all-important sense of shared purpose.
These face-to-face processes are subtle, but in my experience of leadership, they
are profoundly powerful. Working from home allows us the opportunity to
reset the dial and give clarity on what can and should be done from home, and
what’s essential to do in the office.
To lose face-to-face contact would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The upshot of the crisis is that in a world of business unusual, leadership, de facto, is changing and is unlikely to return to where it was; the genie is out of the bottle.
Most staff have experienced working from home and demonstrated in a number of ways their autonomy in managing their time and workload. They’ve had the information they need and have solved the problems on a daily basis.
I’m not saying that homeworking suits everyone, or is without its challenges, but the
home working/office working balance has shifted and with it, the ways we manage and lead.
The omnipresence of hierarchy and silos may have meaning for some senior leaders but these historical influences on how we work are quickly becoming even less relevant to staff and the GEM generation. In these days of business unusual it’s time to reopen the leadership debate.
So has data science and my evidence-based approach helped me get through the pandemic so far?
At a time when the country desperately wants an R rate of <1, we all want to believe this will be achieved through evidenced-based, robust decisions that will lead to triumph over this horrendous plight.
We all want to play our part in making them work, and we will ground our decisions in the same logic.
But at the same time I’m persuaded by the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention. Having spent my career responding to, and bringing about change, the pandemic reminds me of my own ‘leadership science’.
When there is the necessity to change (N), it leads us to act decisively (A), the cumulative effect of which, changes mindsets (M), that enable people to behave in ways we wouldn’t have imagined possible (B).
So business unusual is N + A = (M x B). It’s simple; the bigger the N the more unusual the
Geraldine Howley, Chair GEM Programme, CEO Incommunities Group, Chair CIH Governing Board