The pandemic has forced us to reconsider conventional approaches to management as we are united in a common experience, barriers between the professional and personal are blurred, and ultimately we realise our stakeholders are human. There is now huge potential for positive change in both social and economic spaces, if organisations look for the opportunities for good.
01 October 2020 • 4 min read
The current disruption facing society and the economy could leave us asking ‘What’s the point?.’
But while a deeply changing context may take the ground away from not only businesses but entire sectors of economic life, confronting emergent realities head-on can also be a source of renewal, rejuvenation and innovation.
We may find our greatest purpose by leaning into our most pressing challenges. Many of the most successful businesses were launched during our most difficult times. As commentators have been keen to point out, AirBnB, Disney, FedEx, General Electric, HP, IBM and Microsoft – to name just a few – were all founded during periods of recession.
Conventional approaches to management thinking de-contextualise key stakeholders. The humans who work for us become ‘resources’ as if they were a raw material to be mined. The people who buy our products become ‘consumers’, as if their human agency were limited to their capacity to diminish the world’s supply of whatever we happen to be selling them.
We may find our greatest purpose by leaning into our most pressing challenges.
The relative merits of alternative courses of action are evaluated with misleading precision in spreadsheets that are too often specifically wrong rather than approximately right. Frontline staff may be ordered to follow a ‘computer says no’ mentality rather than exercise common sense and empathy in the moment. The exceptions to these rules are so glorious that we can often remember them forever.
De-contextualisation limits our perceptions of what is possible; it causes us to overlook the real meaning of any situation that we face. And it tends to reinforce prior assumptions, rather than provide a healthy challenge to them. Above all it causes us to overlook the wholeness of the people we work with, serve or live alongside.
Recent times have made that wholeness impossible to overlook. A single issue has impinged on each and every one of us and caused us to change the very fundamentals of daily life. Working remotely has blurred the lines between boundaries, as we see colleagues become people again, stroking their dogs, getting surprised by curious toddlers, or losing the plot over their noisy neighbours in the middle of meetings.
One aspect of working from home that we have enjoyed is the increase in autonomy that it has given us. Many people leave the corporate world to go independent, but less often does this seem to happen the other way around. I have long suspected this is because we value our autonomy greatly enough that it is even worth a pay cut or a reduction in other benefits.
It has become fashionable to use phrases such as ‘employee experience’ in designing improvements to workplace culture. But like many other management constructs, although well-intentioned, the concept born of the prior notion of ‘consumer experience’, could be said to belittle employees, as if they are the passive recipients of something being done to them: an audience at a show rather than the actors on the stage.
Autonomy can trump improvements in employee experience alone because we are psychologically disposed to be more comfortable with action that we shape, influence or control. That is why we can’t tickle ourselves – we know exactly what we are going to do, so know we have nothing to fear!
Open plan office spaces can be a horrible compromise: not quite a meeting, not quite working in solitude; too noisy for reflective work and not gregarious enough to drive the creativity that comes from getting out and about. Working from home and ditching the commute has extended the realm of the possible for many and given us a flavour of an additional level of independence that we’ve come to appreciate.
Once we accept the ‘Zoomification’ of work, all of a sudden the ground becomes more fertile for other forms of decentralisation to emerge, that could open the door to gains in diversity and inclusion and the performance boost these gains can bring with them.
No longer are managers limited to hiring candidates within a daily commuting distance (and nor are candidates forced to pay extortionate rents to get access to good jobs); the digitisation of work lends itself to a greater variety of contracts, such as 3-day-weeks or job-sharing. The added independence of roles makes them more amenable to an older workforce with experience but commitments, or who simply want to extend their career beyond retirement age without the stress of a traditional full-time role; and people who might for health or other reasons struggle with traveling every day may find it much easier to contribute in a role that’s 2 days in the office for every 3 at home. It makes work ‘people-shaped’ rather than trying to make people ‘job-shaped’.
Such a diversification also has the potential to drive important social and economic benefits. In the UK, it could ease the path to the ‘levelling up’ of the economy to raise levels of wealth across the country in regions that have lagged behind for too long, overshadowed by a London that has come to dominate the economy to the exclusion of people living elsewhere.
It could also support environmental drives such as the ‘15 minute city’ concept, becoming increasingly popular across Europe, that aims to make everything we need to do on a daily basis available to us within a 15 minute walk – improving neighbourhoods and slowing climate change in the process. It could alleviate the devastating proportion of people affected by disabilities who remain long-term unemployed, and help us deal with the burgeoning challenges of ageing populations.
It is also a great opportunity for businesses who have been missing a trick in restricting recruitment to demographics willing and able to fit themselves into the confines of ways of working. We can recognised that this takes usus out of our natural environment, and inevitably reinforces the siloed thinking that economists blame for lack of advances in productivity.
More inclusive thinking from more inclusive staff, working in more inclusive ways to serve more inclusive communities. That’s one way in which a true sense of purpose, and not just charity, can begin at home.
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