Is The New World Of Work Here To Stay?
I started writing this post on the 27 April and it’s been over three months since my last post. The world is gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. It feels trivial to scribble down thoughts when people are dying in the tens of thousands around the world. I don’t believe there’s an end in sight either. As lockdowns ease, cases spike again. The cold and damp winter months will see a second wave, almost without a doubt. There is no viable vaccine in sight. This has heralded the new world of work.
Economic devastation has slammed the world. In the UK April saw the biggest drop in GDP on record by multiples. It has been at least 300 years since a depression this severe. Recovery will take several years and possibly longer.
I’ve been wondering when and if normal work-life will return. Will it return in months or years? Or will it change forever? I work in a business which has a factory and logistics operation, together with offices in four locations. The supply chain operations have continued to work in a semi-isolated manner, with different shifts not crossing. All commercial and administrative staff have worked from home for thirteen weeks. Salespeople deal with customers by telephone.
It’s difficult to predict the new world of work. I speak to a lot of people who are happy to work from home. The convenience is great and there’s no risk of catching the virus on public transport. Can people sustain it for months more, or possibly years more?
It’s Not Just The Work
It’s not just the world of work that has changed. The blurring of domestic life has been profound. I can only think of one person in my career who has been genuinely productive working from home. Quite often I’ve seen working from home as a vehicle for being unproductive. But now we have more than 50% of a company working from home and it’s effective. But a side effect has been a notably longer working day.
Video conferencing has a major role in this. As has people’s need to remain connected and to feel relevant and productive. I’m finding my day blocked out by phone calls, but even more video calls. There’s no casual stroll past someone’s desk, a few words exchanged and then carrying on with a task or train of thought. Now a decent piece of time is blocked out for each conversation. There’s no harm in that, I’m having some good conversations. The issue is that the time for reflection, the space to process the data has all but evaporated.
I’ve found a mental wellbeing toll. The days are long and busy and business, we have gone through huge change in remodelling the business operationally and financially to weather the chaos. Though the work is stimulating, I feel lethargic a lot of the time. It’s not straightforward. The symptoms are many. I put small personal tasks off for weeks, for example. Quality time such as reading and even blogging is sidelined. White noise prevails.
Longer working hours are not the total answer. The prevarication on small tasks and the pushing aside of creativity are clues. There are many more. My sleep pattern is poor, I’m not getting enough hours and I’m not getting quality hours either. Isolation is an issue, even for an off the scale introvert such as me. And the days can roll by, quite often I realise I haven’t left the apartment for two or three days. Boundary blurring between day and night, working and leisure. Too much digital stimulation.
The world is in an odd place and that creates a level of anxiety for possibly the majority of us. COVID-19, worries about the economic effect on us. Political craziness in key countries of the world. The sudden and long overdue rise of the Black Lives Matter cause. It struck me that it’s perverse that at a time when we face huge issues across the world, we see the rise of populism and the dubious leaders that foists on us. Maybe that’s how it plays out, when chaos and change are afoot, the populists see their opportunity.
I’m in a fortunate position, my apartment is relatively spacious and I don’t have young children running around. I don’t have an abusive partner. I’m fortunate to have a small office. A small outside space. A lot of people don’t have my advantages and I can imagine the mental wellbeing challenge is much greater.
Positive Personal Steps
Me being me, an action plan followed. It became clear to me that no action would result in a slide into further lethargy and possibly worse. Not to say ruinous damage to my physical health.
I’ve been using Zwift to cycle indoors regularly and that really helps. It also catches me up with my podcasts and audiobooks while on the bike. I purchased a set of kettlebells, which is no mean achievement, given they are as scarce as can be post-lockdown. I continue to work with my personal coach using Zoom and that’s working well. The lockdown belly has crept up on me though, so the report card at week thirteen says “knock the snacks off”.
I’ve continued to meditate, I’m only seven days away from my streak hitting the unbroken six-month mark. It helps. I was very anti-meditation, there were dozens of reasons why it wasn’t for me. Now it’s an integral part of my regime and my competence has improved too. It helps me to quiet the mind and find a boundary between work and relaxation. It’s important to be mindful of our own needs in the new world of work.
Still To Crack
Creating personal and professional reflection space is still very much a work in progress. 24/7 (bad) news is serious white noise, whether it be COVID-19, racial tension, having a sociopathic narcissist in the White House, looming Brexit. My wife rightly pulled me up for quoting GDP statistics last thing at night. Wake up and check the news, to find none of it’s good and that the only person who gets less sleep than me is Donald Trump.
Making space in the working day to think. How odd to hear myself say making space while home working; I thought it was feet up and do enough so the boss doesn’t find you skiving? There’s something draining about conversing via Zoom, seeing a 2D picture and hearing a slightly lagging voice gets only a little across. No body language, no sixth sense, no smell. I’m on the negative side about it being a healthy and sustainable way of connecting with other people.
Doing something creative. For me that means reading more to stimulate thought and reflection. Maybe a little writing. Creativity is been crowded out by the makeshift digital workplace and the chaos of the world.
Leading In A New World Of Work
Not easy. People are anxious, people are scared. Job losses are mounting heavily and my feeling is we are at the start. Once the Government furlough scheme ends many, many companies will fail. The job market will be barren. In our business we had to reduce around 10% of our headcount if we were to see our way through not just this year, but next year. And of course people will wonder if another round is coming, mere words can’t wash that worry away.
Communicating to the point of over-communicating has been my approach. People are anxious, but people are resilient and want as much transparency as possible. Do all the people ever trust or like a leader at any one time? Of course not. Still, it’s better to lay all the known information out and be as clear as possible. It’s hard to engender total trust in such turbulence. The only answer I have is to be as authentic as possible. It will work for many, it won’t work for others. It’s not possible to deal with everyone’s anxieties. You do need to be watchful of the psychological load one carries as a result of the stress, anxiety and projections of your team. You need a plan to manage that load too, do not underestimate its weight.
A New Leadership Style
The only certainty is uncertainty right now. Do we return to the office or not? Do we offer part home, part office working? How do we fit all the staff in the offices in a socially distanced manner? What happens if a second COVID-19 wave hits.
A leader can’t fix that. A leader can be empathetic, can listen. Can adapt the commercial strategy to roll with the fast changing environment. But the leader can’t make the uncertainty go away. In the absence of their individual certainty, people look to leaders to provide that. And they can’t. Political leaders can’t, economists can’t, medical experts can’t. CEOs can’t.
We can do something to give people the tools to help manage themselves to some extent. Our company is starting to develop a long-term mental wellbeing charter to help support all of our staff. We need to think carefully about team working. It’s possible that over time team cohesion will break down if connected only digitally. Clearly Google and Twitter think not, but we are in uncharted territory. What will the long term effect be?
The New World Of Uncertainty
The new world of work is one of uncertainty. It’s not insurmountable, it never is. Organisations are good at adapting, then forgetting to adapt and then dying. Then reinventing themselves and going once more. In the current scenario, more companies than not are faced with the choice of adapting or dying.
The best leaders will be the ones who are comfortable with weaving together the complex waves of uncertainty that the environment will present. While being more attentive than ever to the teams and organisations they operate in. Leaders with empathy will excel in the coming new world. There could and indeed, should be, a shift to leaders with a more collaborative and transparent style. What is valued in leaders will not be the same in the newly uncertain world.
Buckle in tight. Uncertainty is a given. Change is a given. Welcome to the new world of work and the professional and personal challenges it presents for all of us.
Also published on Medium.