Why COVID-19 Is Good For The Future Of Work

We launched the “1-on-1 interaction counter” feature and talked about the emotional moments a team leader has to keep an eye on before, and I have spoken about the value of eternally being obsessed with customer feedback if you work in an Agile fashion in my other newsletter here, so at the intersection of the two, we should tell you we have just decided to change its name in our Psychological Safety Works solution, last week to “Human Moments” (and there’s a video coming up tomorrow to explain in further detail why) but one of the key things to reiterate, was that none of these interactions had to be live, in person. 

The topic is intensely current now that the pandemic will shake up the world of work. 

For years we have flirted with the concepts of flexible working and remote working and the relationship between the two but despite the lip service, the overall feeling remained that business was best (or “exclusively”) done in person. Being able to look into someone’s eyes and shake their hands either in a day-to-day meeting, a sales opportunity, or in the networking section of an event, had long been regarded as the only truly valuable type of interaction that ought to speed up relationship creation and therefore give us the results we needed. 

Equally, being in the same room was seen as paramount to most teams working together on joint projects and despite the rhetoric and the many studies that came out in recent years, it was often evident that while the nature of work no longer demands it (or really, even permits it) our ingrained perception of what is “valuable” largely still relied on the physicality and the proximity. 

The research in support of online meetings (arguably the ones based on regularity, common purpose, empathy and the perennial presence of the much-debated video interaction) being as good as a live meeting is starting to emerge but is still relatively obscure and even if the statistical data would unequivocally prove it, the underlying feeling for most professionals who have spent tens of years interacting differently is that online communication in all its forms is just an inferior means of relating with both business prospects and colleagues. 

Conferences and events still regard content and knowledge dissemination and creation as secondary to the networking side of things (and with select exceptions such as events who allow +1s or innovative design-based spaces the value of the corridor-bump is highly exaggerated) and organisations everywhere struggle with the practicalities of cross-departmental “Spotify-like” teams that are created cross geographies and that’s one of the biggest barriers to adopting the new ways of work and creating Agile and Lean teams. 

Should the pandemic not fizzle out in the next few weeks -and it is showing no signs that it might- it is all about to change with workers having been sent home from many companies’ campuses and with in-person events being cancelled and schools being closed. 

Ironically, working together online will require more EQ than we imagine. Reading the emotional state of others in writing or on a call or video conference does require sharper skills because we lose the environmental context and the some of the body language queues that inform our reactivity in a live interaction and being at the same level of shared purpose and common goodwill is mandatory and evident in new ways that are unencumbered by pleasantries or business convention.

Added to that, when we work remotely, we all have a different set of challenges when it comes to context switching, attention allocation and ability to focus depending on our respective personal and home set-ups. More and more of us will attempt to create home offices but for most of us with kids, in particular, in places where schools would be closed down, moments such as the BBC-toddler will become the norm and we may have to adapt schedules and expectations in far more flexible ways than we imagined. 

I personally think this will prove a turning point and amount to really good news once the dust settles on the panic of practicalities, and we all realise the world won’t stop if we don’t all punch in at a certain address. It will usher in an era where “remote” and “online” become the new normal and where we see ourselves forced to let go of fixed ideas on what is “professional” or not, from attires to hours of operation as well as concede that most of what we do in business today doesn’t require any of the proximity barriers we had previously held as obligatory. 

From one’s machine and not while shaking hands, we’ll have to be much more emotionally intelligent, much sharper, more connected, more focused on the team dynamic, more on-task and less concerned with the ceremony of live business interaction. When we have to read someone’s state of mind from a few emails, a Slack thread or a video call, we’ll find ourselves having to pay more intent attention and having to employ a lot more empathy than ever before, and if we have to drop out of a meeting when our toddler has followed the 30th “mummy!” or “daddy!” signal with a description of an acute need, -most of an urgent (and often disgusting!) nature,- we’ll rethink the concept of “work/life balance” as we know it, and focus on what counts - the work to be done and the humans we do it with, irrespective of how and where we do it. 

Let’s hope for a best-case scenario where a vaccine stops COVID-19 in its tracks having only given us a few months’ good scares of toilette-paper-shortage (!!!) and preventive self-isolation at home, which in turn, forced us all to wash our hands of the stale misconceptions and fixed ideas around workplaces and process and fast forward into the future of work where humans matter instead.

Related: If You're Not A Change Maker ... Who Are You?