Amidst much hype of a ‘New Normal’, some things may well have actually changed for good. The Pandemic carries with it two fundamental truths which have finally fractured some dominant narratives of the past.
Firstly, real change happened fast, imposed upon us by circumstance and enforced action before any antibody effects could kick in. A wave of fearful social compliance and lack of organised resistance moved established behaviours fast. And secondly, there has been a protracted period for us to experience something new as a result. The change has been normalised, and if the current arrangements are not permanent, at the very least the old ones are fractured or broken.
Does this mean that things won’t snap back? No, but it may test the elasticity of the system, and some things are almost certainly broken beyond repair. Let’s consider five of them.
Space as Control: for decades Organisations have experimented with virtual work, but clearly it has taken a Pandemic to shift the experience onto the majority. That in itself is not the thing that i would call broken, but the notion of ‘space as control’ is.
The office, even when full of bean bags and dry-wipe walls, is a formal space, governed by formal rules, and under formal control. And ‘remote’ has always been at the discretion, or under the control of, that dominant view. We ‘negotiated’ remote. But that changed as everyone went remote, and a return to ‘normal’ became subject to mysterious ‘COVID Secure’ practices. In other words, to continue as we are requires little effort, but to return to the office requires new rituals, artefacts and behaviours, none of which are readily defined, rehearsed, or intuitive.
Organisations accrete hierarchy, and that hierarchy nests within physical spaces, but deprived of those spaces, a new balance emerges. Of necessity things have been done without negotiation, and for many Organisations, it’s worked remarkably well. Local, tribal, tacit, problem solving, coupled with pragmatic and largely consequence free rapid rehearsal spaces, have led to a new system establishing fast, but one where the Organisation was not central, but devolved.
To attempt to reimpose formal control on this system, especially as we are already seeing by reimposing the need to be in the office, is highly likely to backfire, because it’s imposed upon a largely invested system.
We will go back to the office, but it will be under a model of rebalanced power, and into less utilitarian space.
Teams as Tribes: coupled to the change in space, we have found that formal teams have evolved into social tribes, in a way that simply did not happen when the shared space was formal.
We know that shared experience helps people to bond, and the bonding of the rout to remote has led to evolved behaviours, and a new sense of belonging. Not universally, and not globally, but for many it is local (to team) and persistent, partly shaped by the ways that we are now often ‘sharing’ our family and social spaces and realities with people who previously did not know we had children or guitars.
Teams evolving to encompass an additional layer of social bonding may be a double edged sword for the Organisations that they inhabit: whilst providing what appears to be quite resilient performance during the crisis, they will likely be more unified against any imposed change that does not permit invested ideas, and indeed the co-creation of that future state.
Again, this speaks to the rebalanced power: a socially stronger Organisation, more tribal, is likely to respond better to negotiated change, than imposed.
Technology as King: the third aspect of Organisations has creaked for a while, but may have now broken, which is the idea that technology, as owned by the Organisation itself, is King. As our teams became remote tribes, and as they found their performance fast, it often involved connection, radical connection, through multiple and often emergent and social technologies.
Two years ago my own research showed that NHS teams typically used multiple social technologies in favour of the formally controlled ones, even when specifically not permitted to do so, because they ‘just worked’, but now we have seen this behaviour at much greater scale.
The enduring change will likely be a recognition that only certain systems need to be centrally owned, and fully controlled. More pragmatism around diverse ecosystems of technology will be the most robust route forward which may not be as bad as some may fear.
Technology keeps Organisations safe in one way, but real safety is a cultural phenomena more than a technical one.
Leaders as Managers: this is a more speculative sense of something that has broken, and it’s the ratio of ‘managers’ who allocate work, with ‘leaders’ who perhaps are more invested in culture. It’s an arbitrary and contested definition, but broadly i suspect that we have seen a rise in leadership behaviours of care and connection, and concurrently a diminishing of oversight and direct talk knowledge, largely because you cannot look over someone’s shoulder so easily. And the wheels have not fallen off.
Perhaps this one is just a hope rather than an observation, but i do think that at the individual leadership level we will have seen enduring changes in behaviour, although with the caveat that we will doubtless also have seen emergent inequality and some people more disenfranchised by the current context than are enabled by it.
Knowledge as Business: this one is again somewhat speculative, and i think represents an acceleration of something that was already in flow. Potentially a shift from ‘knowledge as business’ to ‘knowledge as network’. Arguably, we have already moved, or are moving, towards leadership as a collective and highly networked capability, necessitating an evolved mindset towards capability, knowledge, and skills, but the Pandemic may have accelerated this, with more knowledge and actual capability seeping into networks more so than into codified Organisations systems and doctrine.
Essentially it’s because the rapid evolution was not scripted and planned, but largely emergent and co-written, meaning that much information has overflowed traditional (imposed) boundaries, and may reside more locally.
As i say, this is half thought though, but it’s worth remembering that we have already seen a shift from a manufacturing, to a knowledge economy: there is no defining reason why we will stick at this point. Perhaps we stand at the start of the network economy. Post industrial, post knowledge, post control, distributed, devolved, democratised… who knows. The only thing we can be sure of is that it is the innocuous traces of change that are often overlooked as indicators of a paradigm shift.
This is a time of risk, and opportunity, but the opportunity will most likely be held or seized, by those who can reframe their own understanding, and to recognise that change, even change where things are broken, is not the same as loss.