25 June, 2020
Over the past 3 months, we have been talking to our clients to help them to make sense of the crisis and how they can respond. We decided therefore for our client event in June to bring them together for a conversation about what we are learning from our experiences. And, secondly, to consider how we can support constructive change with empathy and understanding. In small groups, we explored our experiences of working through the crisis, what we are noticing and what we want to take forward or leave behind.
The event happened in the wake of events that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the day after the pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. Our conversation consequently touched not just on the impact of the pandemic but also responses and reactions around power, race and discrimination.
We covered much of the ground that perhaps we already knew or could have imagined. Whilst offering no surprises, it’s a sobering reminder to us not to make generalisations or act on simplistic assumptions. The conversation also opened up some important questions for all of us.
Themes in the conversation
“We are all sailing in different boats in the same storm”
A central theme that emerged was a recognition that each of us has our own unique experience of the crisis and that we can easily make the mistake of assuming that our experience is the same as others. As one participant put it: “We are all sailing in the same storm but in different boats. Some of us are above deck in a cabin with a balcony and view, whilst others are squeezed below deck in a cabin without windows”.
Individuals who work in different sectors or different countries have very different experiences, depending on how they and their stakeholders are being affected. For some of those working in the NHS, the last few months have been an intense, demanding and emotional experience. Whilst in other sectors, such as transport, they are engaged in a fight for survival. Within the same organisation, the experience of employees can also differ dramatically. For instance, staff who are furloughed are having a completely different experience to those who continue to work during the crisis. As time progresses, this gap is widening, making mutual understanding and communication a challenge. Within these groups people’s experience can be dramatically different because of their home situation: some find themselves home schooling, others on their own and isolated, some shielding and others who have been very sick.
All of the above, not surprisingly, has been an emotional journey. Anxiety levels have been high for most, moving in and out of the foreground. For some, this has receded over time. One person commented that: “constant shadows and anxieties are with me all the time”. The loss of routine and collapsing of physical and psychological boundaries between work and home life also creates strain. We are all missing human contact, and connection with others has been necessary as part of the lockdown. At one level we are all grieving. Virtual working and the pace of work is also proving to be a draining and exhausting experience for many. Stress, pressure and anxiety appears to influence people’s capacity to step back and reflect on events. Many organisations have consequently become concerned about well-being and are exploring ways of helping their employees with their mental and physical health.
Perceptions of reality, time and risk
Linked to the above, people reported that both their own and other’s experience of ‘reality’ were altered or challenged. Time could feel like it was accelerating, slowing down or halting altogether. Individuals could find themselves ahead of or behind others in making sense of or reacting to events. At least one participant expressed frustration and bemusement that her colleagues were unable to grasp the sheer magnitude of the crisis as it unfolded. Some noticed how their colleagues have jumped into action and are being very busy. However, this has restricted their ability to see how the world is changing or acknowledge that they do not know what to do.
Individuals also reported very different perceptions of risk. Some employees are very worried about their health. In stark contrast, others appear to be ignoring guidance about social distancing in their offices. This can make the role of management very challenging – on the one hand needing to ensure that staff feel safe by giving reassuring and clear messages, and on the other ensuring staff protect themselves and others.
Disruption of power and control
The conversation raised questions around power, exclusion and control in organisations. Virtual working has required managers to trust and empower their teams to make decisions. This has meant that power has become more distributed. One person observed that virtual working had led to the ‘loss of the trappings of power with issues more likely to be discussed on their merits’. Another observed that in their organisation communication is now direct and clear, coming straight from CEO to front line rather than via a long cascade.
Questions of purpose
The pandemic has confronted us with a question of what we do and why. Over the past few months, some have found themselves asking deeper questions of purpose and thinking about their futures and what they value and want from their lives and work. For some, their work during the crisis has re-connected them with the important work their organisations do in society. Several organisations have started to re-visit their values or core purposes. Others have experienced a reinforcement of or return to their core values.
A catalyst for change
The impossible has become possible. Most people described how their organisations were changing at a degree and speed that only a few months ago would have been considered impossible. For instance, those working in the NHS described how they had to collaborate across boundaries and re-organise working practices to respond to Covid-19. Everyone talked about how virtual working had become a norm out of necessity, and the voices of scepticism about whether it was possible had been quashed overnight. Another organisation described how enabling staff to work from home required their IT department to re-configure how their systems operated to enable staff to access sensitive data legally. In many cases, changes appeared to have gone beyond the point of ‘no return’. So, in the case of virtual working, the general sense is that there is no going back to how we worked in the past.
For some, the crisis has been an opportunity to make choices about how they work and changes to their habits. Many have taken the opportunity to be more reflective about their work. People have been experimenting in their practice. They have also come together to take action and make changes.
Not all of the changes are seen as positive. Some worried that virtual working is not sustainable. Others had started to experience intolerance for anyone who could not keep up the pace.
The pull back to ‘normal’
In tension with the change is a desire to return to the familiar and a hope that the situation will return to ‘normal’. Some managers for instance had been heard saying: “when people are back in the office we can get back to normal”. Some employees are also desperate to return to offices and workspaces, even when they have been encouraged to do so only if it was essential.
Most people pointed to personal or societal changes that they wanted to hold onto and not lose, such as taking more time to reflect, less commuting or being less busy. Some also fear that as the crisis abates, people will gravitate back to the traditional centres of white, male power.
The above summary offers an account of people’s experiences across a range of organisations. It provides no definite answers or solutions. We perhaps need to sit with the discomfort of grappling with the unknown and our desire to go back to the familiar. After reflecting on the conversation, we are left with the following questions:
> Is it better to think of the pandemic as being a long-term condition rather than an acute illness that will require us to adapt our way of life and how we organise?
> How do we adapt how we organise, formally and informally, following the experience we have had and under these different conditions?
> The absence of social contact has highlighted to us its importance to our work and well-being. How can we support safe yet meaningful social contact in our organisations?
> How can we ground ourselves in our experience during this period of uncertainty and not lose touch with reality? And, how to help people to recognise other’s experiences and emotional responses when they are different?
> How can we be inclusive and bring people together to reflect on and make sense of their experiences and to actively construct the society and organisations that reflects their values and what they want?
> How do we take up a constructive role in changing historical power dynamics to create more inclusive and just environments with respect to race and other forms of identity?
And, finally, what is clear is there is no going back.
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