As the nation and the world grapples with the fallout from the novel Coronavirus / COVID-19, individuals are responding with their own immediate action plans to maintain self preservation. It’s hard not to feel like we are living in a science fiction novel. In Seattle, where I live and work, the city has been effectively shut down for several weeks. It is a near ghost town.
It is an effect largely due to many white-collar organizations that have already instituted mandatory work-from-home policies for extended periods. If you live in a place where this reaction hasn’t occurred, get ready. This is the future of work, until further notice.
The situation reminds me of a quote that we at B+H refer to frequently:
“The future is already here - it is just not very evenly distributed.”
The quote is from prolific, and at times prophetic, science fiction writer William Gibson. In an interview with NPR in 2018, he was asked how he forecasts the future, to which he responded by saying, “What I do is point in the very general direction of the parts of where change is occurring… I am writing about an unthinkable presence using science fiction as a pair of oven mitts to handle contemporary reality that is - in fact - too much for most of us.”
Some organizations will operate as if no public health crisis exists, while others will struggle to function in their basic operations. Those that struggle will do so because they’ve been caught flat-footed in their ability to enact flexible working.
Building operational flexibility into a workplace strategy is something that nearly all of our clients want, yet few are fully committed to achieving it once they learn of the investments required in technology like remote access file sharing with adequate connection speed, laptops, and - more importantly – in flexible organizational culture. The technology piece of the puzzle certainly can be expensive, but in many respects it is much easier to tackle than changing culture.
What do I mean by a flexible organizational culture? It is one that embraces outcomes over process, that tends to reward contributions from all levels of the organization over hierarchical position, sees work as ubiquitous rather than an activity to be observed, and builds a management structure that exists to support individual contributors rather than dictate to them.
When a physical office environment is set up to enable people to choose how they can be most productive rather than a place to monitor productivity, it not only makes the organization more innovative and successful, but it builds inherent cultural flexibility. It is something that easily translates outside of the walls of an office space.
Ultimately, it comes down to trust. Leaders must ask themselves, “How have I communicated in my language and with my actions that I trust the people who work for me to do their job effectively?” For some organizations, the answer to that question will be easier to answer. Their competitive advantage already exists and - in the future - will likely become more unevenly distributed. COVID-19 will accelerate that reality.
About the Author: Sara Benson is a Senior Strategist in the Seattle studio. In her career in consulting, Sara has advised some of the largest and well-known companies in the world in how to leverage their assets to elevate their strategic objectives. She is experienced in facilitating workshops, ethnographic studies, geographic analytics (GIS), building strategies and assessing complex topics through data analytics. She has worked across public, private and non-profit sectors.