Physical distancing has forced us to move forward faster than we ever imagined

By Bill Zolis

I think we’re seeing what would have been the next 5 or 10 years in the evolution of work land on us all at once. We’re making it work by necessity in a ready-or-not, take-it-or-leave-it shock to our systems. But in a year from now, we’ll be wondering why we ever did things the way we used to do them.

Like me, you have probably spent a lot of time and effort making sure we can get the job done in the middle of the coronavirus crisis – and trying to foresee all the ways in which it will affect how we will be working in the future.

I won’t say “when we get back to normal.” It seems like everyone agrees that normal is never going to be the same again.

From where I sit, what I’m hearing and what I’m experiencing myself, I think that what’s happening is that changes to the way we work were already well underway on all fronts – and if you think about it, we’re very lucky in that regard. All of the infrastructure for working from home (or working off-site) was already in place. Cloud storage. File sharing. Virtual meetings. And, just as important, a great many people were already using the technology to coordinate with their teams.

So what we’re seeing right now is a very large and very sudden leap forward to the next level of work. You can see it as enforced adoption of new technology and new work protocols. Workplaces that had been slowly introducing changes, or that may have had a five-year plan for new models of working remotely are suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool. No time for planning or discussion or committees or working groups with charts and Powerpoints.

So much for the long-term change management plan.

The fact is that many workplaces, including almost all of the financial and technology sectors, were already pushing forward. There was a long list of perceived benefits:

– Quality of life. As we have discussed here previously – it seems like a long time ago, when we were discussing the “well workplace” and how to retain the new generation of employees – the old 9-to-5 in a cubicle doesn’t inspire people nowadays. And if we can cut out commuting and parking…

– Physical infrastructure reduction. I recently read about one of our large banks which, in a recent reorganization of its operations, set up its downtown headquarters to accommodate 60% of its employees at any given time. Come to work there and you just take the next available cubicle, plug in your laptop and go to work. The rest of the time you may be at other sites or working from home.

– Focus on results orientation. Many employers have found that having the entire team working in a virtual office, with everything visible through file sharing and rolling status reports puts the whole team literally on the same page, all the time, and in real time. In that environment – in that mindset – “being at your desk” or “business as usual” don’t cut it: you are constantly working toward the next goal (and everyone can see exactly how that’s going).

– Organization of work: One of the big drawbacks of having employees in cubicles – literally or figuratively – is that they are in cubicles: isolated. In the virtual team, with physical separation suddenly irrelevant, teamwork stops being a goal we hope to achieve and becomes the only game in town. The way we do things – the only way. Supervisors become coordinators and facilitators. Managers can focus on goal setting and vision sharing. And performance review as an annual ritual becomes irrelevant when everyone can see your performance on a day to day basis.

These changes to the way we work were all moving forward and gathering speed, but many workplaces struggled with the sheer scope of the changes they would have to make. Many were proceeding cautiously. Some were holding out. But caution and reluctance and five-year change management plans are all out the window when you’re suddenly forced to adapt.

There will be winners – probably not right away, but in the long run. And I’m thinking that will be most of us. But there will also be losers – businesses, services, jobs – that will become obsolete a lot faster than they would have under normal circumstances. Perhaps the next phase of our response to the crisis should focus on helping all the people at risk of being left behind.

So I’m thinking that a year from now a great many of the changes we’ve been forced to make in the emergency will have become a permanent part of how we operate. Like all the big changes in this world: sudden, out of the blue, and completely unexpected.

Keep safe, stay healthy… and carry on.

Credit and thanks for this Blog to Penmore Callery Group.