The Mirage of the “Return to Work”

By Lisa Slayton, reprinted from The Wholeness Journey.

As I work with leaders around the country, I am paying careful attention to both the words being used as well as the intent behind those words. “When we get back to work…” or “When we can get back to normal…” is a common refrain.

These words and the thinking behind them are troubling to me. The idea that we are simply going to return to work, that some kind of switch will flip that has us back in pre-March 15 conditions is not grounded in reality. 

This week, I was invited to do an interview for TechVibe, the weekly radio broadcast of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. (Listen in: Part I and Part II of the interview, broadcast 5/6/20 on PGH 1020 AM KDKA)

The discussion was both sobering and hopeful as we talked about the need for every organization to re-imagine themselves as a startup, and what will be required as we enter the next chapter of what will be multi-chapter story. This post was crafted to support and offer resources the broadcast as you navigate this with your organization.

If your business or organization has not already begun a drastic examination of your strategies and tactics with a bias to throw much of it out or radically re-think it, then you may have work to do.

On March 15, self-described “medical detective” Dr. Michael Osterholm, author of the 2017 book Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview that quickly went viral: “This is not going to be like a Minnesota blizzard. . . we’re talking about something that I call a coronavirus winter.”

Colleagues at Praxis Labs, an entrepreneurial incubator and accelerator in NYC, took this metaphor and built on it a few days later in an excellent essay called “Leading through the Blizzard: Why Every Organization is Now a Startup.”

They assert that while the current environment is like a blizzard, with hostile conditions and little safety; we will soon be entering the winter, where you can go outside, but not for long and not without protective gear, knowing that the threat of another blizzard is imminent. This mode of operating is focused on survival. They extended the metaphor to propose that what follows winter may be something like a mini Ice-Age where previous conditions don’t return, but we begin to find new ways to live and even thrive. The need is to innovate and begin rebuilding.

The economic and medical experts are also looking at the impacts on the global economy and their early comments are sobering.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner, indicated early on that “it would be unwise to expect a full economic recovery until a reliable vaccine can be developed that will give people peace of mind about returning to normalcy — and that is at least a year or more off.”

“Absent that, this is going to be an 80% economy,” Gottlieb said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” over the weekend (April 5)” Article here

Gottlieb is one of the key authors of “National Coronavirus Response; A Roadmap To Reopening,” published by the American Enterprise Institute on March 28, 2020, and “Public Health Principles: Guidance for Governors Reopening,” published on April 17, 2020 by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

A more recent Economist article, “The 90% economy that lockdowns will leave behind,” suggests a pullback of 10%.

By comparison, the economic pullback during 2008-2009 was approximately 4.5%.

Either way, returning to work as it existed in early March is not a viable option. We can’t return to something that no longer exists, that has been forever changed.

In my work with leaders and their teams, I am seeing them come to terms with the new realities that are slowly emerging. Here are a few that have been thematic. While this list is not exhaustive and will continue to grow, it does provide some insight into the conditions- winter and even ice age – that we are facing in businesses and workplaces.

  • Remote working and virtualization have been normalized – people will want flexibility and safety as they return to workplaces, including more protected workspaces. And they will want to continue to work from home more often, knowing now that it is possible and even desirable.  
  • The predictions for an 80-90% economy indicate a strong recession or even depression for the next 18-24 months.
  • The social and political climate is increasingly polarized and tribal. People find themselves on a continuum and there are real tensions to navigate. Example: Stay at Home v. Restart the Economy (hint: it is neither and both). Most of these positions are not binary and we, as leaders, will be navigating in the gray uncertainty as we make decisions. We need to be prepared for people who represent the extremes and everything in between.
  • New and emerging policies, regulations, and guidelines will have huge implications for workplaces. Federal, state and local governments are all working on policies and legislation that may be helpful, or create more roadblocks, to both safety and economic activity. How we respond to the ones that affect our businesses will make a great deal of difference in the overall health of our organizations.
  • The level of anxiety and stress – mental and emotional health – that our people are experiencing is unprecedented. We have experienced a kind of Collective Social Trauma that will take time to recover from. And workplaces must be prepared for the implications of this for their people and organization. 

However, there are signs of real hope. While this season will be hard and present new, unprecedented challenges, opportunities will emerge that have enormous potential, we can do much to be prepared. Here are a few critical shifts needed.

  • From Return to Work to Realign to Work – leaders must do some deep empathetic listening to their people to discern where they need to re-imagine work flow, work environment and workplace habits and requirements, while also considering new regulations that must be considered. (Note: Salesforce has just launched a platform Work.com with tools and resources – worth reviewing)
  • From Guiding Principles to Grounding Principles – identifying core values or guiding principles has been a key part of building healthy organizational cultures in recent years. And while in theory these should be timeless, they must be reexamined and redefined for the new conditions. Some of your deeply held assumptions about your business are likely no longer valid and unless you dig deep to excavate them, examine them and then adjust, you will be stuck in past that is no longer viable.
  • From Employee Engagement to Employee Well Being – engagement is not possible if employees don’t feel safe and are anxious and stressed. More important than ever will be the need for leaders to create conditions for social cohesion, meaningful contribution and most importantly, high trust. These three elements are the hallmarks of organizational health and social well-being. Ensuring that this is present in your team or organization is of primary importance. You must be trustworthy, now more than ever
  • From Problem Solving to Complexity Navigation – we can’t fix this problem. Navigating in complexity must be the muscle that leaders build right now. Traditional decision making and problem-solving methods will limit your ability to respond to the opportunities that begin to emerge. Complexity requires a very different framework and road map that includes:
    • Listening and probing first, not jumping to categorizing and analyzing
    • Abductive reasoning, not just inductive or deductive.
    • Thick Data, not just Big Data, that leads to Rich Data.
    • Exaptive Practices (future oriented) , not Best Practices (past oriented).

To make these shifts will require interventions in all of your existing systems. The mindset will take some time to step into. This is a radical shift from problem solving. Deep listening requires empathy and a slower pace that will feel counter intuitive right now when there is a sense of urgency on all fronts. To reason abductively is to observe and then make simple moves based on a set of observations, even when the data seems incomplete. When you begin to add some discipline to the observation process, and build a simple system for gathering stories and experiences that will help you to see patterns emerge, that is the collection of “Thick Data” that will inform how you interpret and make sense of the patterns. That helps you to develop adaptive practices – the re-purposing or co-opting of one model or system or process or product for a new use it was not designed for. This is the heart of innovation. Without making these difficult but necessary shifts, you and your organization are at real risk for rubber-banding back to obsolete ways of doing things.

The danger of simply rubber-banding back to pre-pandemic norms is that you will extend the trauma and pain your people are already experiencing and will have profound impact on productivity, innovation and effectiveness. Rather you must be creating new conditions to realign around that create safety, possibility and hope.

If you are relying primarily on what you know and what has worked in the past, you may find yourself and your organization in dangerous territory. Our work at Tamim Partners is to provide conditions for the grounded growth leaders require if they are choosing to work at the edge of complex change. Which is where we are today, right at the edge.

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