As the historian and sociologist Yuval Noah Harari points out, pandemics push the fast forward button on history. We see the acceleration and sudden embracing of new technology. Mindsets and changes in institutions and legislation that were previously dismissed, resisted or opposed are welcomed in. Perhaps most obvious is the dramatic way we have changed where and how we work. There have been huge challenges but there have also been silver linings. We are humans and we are born to adapt. And we have been adapting, and wonderfully so. But this situation is temporary and when it is over there will be a natural pull to try to return to the way things were. We have the opportunity to learn from this time, but it has to be an active decision. We will return to a more certain and stable “normal”. It will be shaped by current events to some degree, how much is up to our decisions now. We must decide together what we want to take forward with us to create a truly progressive "new normal".
A Remote Working Experiment
The pandemic has become a giant remote and flexible working experiment. Most days we have tried just to do as well as we could in the office. But some days we have exceeded it. Being in an actual office is great for interpersonal dynamics, but not always the most productive way to work. The model of work has been trying to evolve, needs to evolve for quite some time. It’s long been acknowledged that remote working can offer huge benefits in terms of wellbeing and productivity. The barriers to its adoption have slowed its advancement. These have ranged from mindsets, to simply a lack of tools or skill sets. Suddenly we have been forced to overcome these barriers overnight.
With the barriers falling down we have the opportunity to create a new working paradigm where remote and more flexible working becomes a genuine option to many. An option that can increase wellbeing and productivity. Implemented well now, supported by managers properly, remote and flexible working can increase productivity, leverage the alternative workforce and even help reduce the gender divide. But how we act now will impact our options in the future. Without the right support employees at home will develop frustration, isolation, and simply lack the tools to successfully build-remote working into the new normal.
Rebuilding and a New Normal
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should or will shift into a future of remote or flexible working. But what would be useful is to have remote working as a viable option for those employees where it is possible. 9 to 5 and a giant commute isn’t always efficient especially when you are working on a global, collaborative project. Nor does it always attract new talent who want independence, flexibility and are digitally savvy.
Covid19 has driven the intensification of digital infrastructure in our cities. From health providers to shopping, to exercise, where people had access they could go online. Many already could. The difference now is that it is no longer an option. As Benedict Evans points out we are having a Green Eggs and Ham moment with technology. We have been forced to try things out. Not everything will stick, but some most definitely will.
Let’s take for example online video meetings. People have been talking about remote work and video calls for decades, but it took a pandemic for most people to actually download an application and learn how to use it. Almost overnight meetings, coffees, and events have gone online. Zoom has gone from 10m to 200m daily users, and added to that is Google Meet Up, Microsoft Teams and many more. How many meetings will go back to actual physical meeting rooms?
Now, it depends on what you’re trying to do. If the job is ‘forming a human connection’ or ‘empathy’, then a face to face meeting currently still wins. But if the job is to exchange information or update a project status, we are realising that a video could be sufficient, cut time and costs. You could also ask whether it needs to even be a call? For we are not just learning how to use these tools, we are learning how to use them better.
Evolving and Learning
Every time we get a new kind of tool, we start by making it fit the existing ways that we work, but then, over time, we change the work to fit the new tool. Today a video call is often a poor substitute for human interaction, sometimes we are realising, there needs to be no meeting at all - you just have to put a slide share or document in the cloud for a far more efficient real time collaboration. The update status call is obsolete when everyone is connected and working together online.
We are finding our way, we’re going through a vast, forced public experiment to find out which bits of human psychology will align with which kinds of digital tools work for us, just as we did with texts, email and once upon a time phone calls. But we are trying. At the same time software engineers at home are also getting frustrated with their current tools and making them better, and faster. Solving the opportunities that no-one realised was there. We are going to see a surge in companies appearing this year challenging Zoom, Slack or Dropbox. It’s exciting.
The COVID-19 crisis has become the accelerator for one of the greatest workplace transformations of our lifetime. We shouldn’t be saying “what will the new normal look like?” But rather “what do we want the new normal to look like?” Last year I toured a talk called the future of work. A key point was the rise of the alternative workforce, agile, flexible, often remote. The benefits had been seen and yet there was still so much resistance. It was too much of a change. That was then.
Innovation is excelling, digitalisation is accelerating and the alternative flexible remote workforce is if supported right now, learning and growing ready to be a dominant force in the new normal. The pandemic has forced us to learn the tools, overcome resistance, and change mindsets. We can all be part of deciding what our new normal will look like and our decisions, actions, and support of employees will determine how successfully we move forward. We have the opportunity to evolve. Let’s take it with both hands.