There is a huge change underway. No, not the Coronavirus, that’s just the catalyst. The change is about how we work and how we will accept to work in future. Let me explain.
Every generation or two a massive event challenges society and economy. It might be a war, a revolution or, as in this case, a pandemic. To meet the challenge we change how we live and how we work. People make the changes because they must, the situation demands it. Many, even most, imagine that it’s short term and that afterwards all will return to ‘normal’, like it was before. They are always, always wrong. Once the event is over some will try to turn back the clock and put the genie back in the bottle, and to some extent they will manage it, but it will be an illusion. Change has already occurred, there’s no going back.
As an example the Second World War brought massive changes, let’s focus on one; the emancipation of women in the workplace. Before the war women worked, even in factories, but they were typically relegated to menial, unskilled jobs. Skilled roles and particularly white collar positions, were by and large the preserve of men. The idea of a female secretary was seen as bizarre.
The war transformed this picture. Sure afterwards there were those companies who tried to turn things back, get women back into the home and give their jobs to the men returning from the war, but it didn’t work. Women had shown that they could work just as well as men and administrative roles in particular became predominantly female in the decade that followed.
Today we are in the midst of another challenge and the enforced changes brought in to meet it. We are working from home, meeting via Zoom, Skype, Hangouts and Teams. We are working flexibly and for a lot of us it’s an uncomfortable change, but even after a few weeks we’re getting used to it.
By the time all of this is over we’ll have worked it out, it will seem normal, easy, and even better.
So what’s going to happen the next day?
What happens when we’re allowed back on the train, in the office, in the meeting room?
Sure our immediate response will likely be, ‘thank goodness for that,’ but what about a day or two later? You see by then working from home will be simple, proven and easy. We’ll have shown that we don’t need to commute, or be in the same room to have an effective meeting. We’ll have shown that we don’t need to be in the same office to be part of a team, even that we don’t need to work the same hours as everyone else. We can work to our own speed and rhythm, so long as we get the job done.
For workers this then demands the question, why can’t I keep doing it that way? Maybe not every day, but the idea of being in an office five days a week will seem absurd to many. They will have adapted to this new way of working and won’t want to go back. For employers they will realise that there are advantages too, they don’t need to only hire from a pool of people in an easy commuting radius, and they don’t need a big office with room for everyone on the payroll.
There will be different levels of engagement with this changed world, they’ll fall into five levels:
Level 1: Early adopters: They’re already there and have been for a while. They’re fully networked and have teams spread all over. This is business as usual for them.
Level 2: Willing adopters:This has come as a bit of a shock but they’re embracing it. They are open minded and seeing the advantages. They won’t be going back.
Level 3: Reluctant adopters:They didn’t like the changes and are still sceptical. They may even try to move things back to how they were before, but they will see that there are benefits and will recognise the challenges of going back. They will adapt and adopt.
Level 4: Refusniks: They changed as little as possible, and preferred to furlough than to adapt. Once the crisis is over they will try to roll things back immediately and refuse to embrace the changes many now take for granted.
Level 5: Structurally unable: Organisations that cannot change, because they absolutely require onsite staff, be they factories, hospitals or similar.
Level 1 are already there, well done them, they’re ahead of the curve.
Level 5 can’t change. For the others the choice they make will define their future success or failure, because history teaches us that changes don’t go backwards.
For those who embrace the change they will gain a host of benefits:
For those in Level 4 who try to resist the tide the result will ultimately be:
There will be other changes too, and who knows what they will be?
Perhaps the day of a universal income has come, as some suggest, and the furlough system is its parent.
However, what is certain is that flexible working, homeworking and distributed working are now here to stay.
We can either embrace it and the future it brings, or cling to the past and become the latest corporate dinosaur.