The current future of work

Checking my library record I find I read Severance, by Ling Ma in December 2018.  It’s a dystopian novel in which ‘Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine: her work, watching movies with her boyfriend, avoiding thoughts of her recently deceased Chinese immigrant parents. So, she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps the world.’  The book’s New Yorker reviewer tells us that the plague ‘that has befallen the globe is called Shen Fever—it is believed to have originated in Shenzhen, China, the world capital of electronics manufacturing—and it is contracted through the inhalation of  ‘microscopic fungal spores.’

I remembered it, as I was thinking about the impact of coronavirus on work and working patterns.   It struck me that now we are thinking that the future of work is as much about epidemics and crisis as it is about technology, but it’s the impact of technology that has been the focus up till now.   And not just the speculative future but the current future.  In William Gibson’s words, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’.  And this week, the phrase rings particularly true.

During the week I got almost 50 emails from various organisations on their responses to coronavirus.  Holland & Barrett, for example, in rather stilted corporate-speak, says, ‘Amid the developing coronavirus situation, I wanted to take the time to reassure you of the actions we are taking as a responsible health and wellness retailer at this time.’ The specific changes mentioned are: ‘Cleaning in our stores has been intensified, with our teams requested to regularly sanitise their hands, and to maintain distance when working with customers, including encouraging customers to use contactless payments where possible. Sampling activities have also been temporarily suspended as an additional precautionary measure. …’

Marriott Hotels starts by reminding us of their core value, ‘For more than 90 years, Marriott has lived by a core value established by our founder, JW Marriott, Sr., to “take care of our guests and associates.” This enduring value guides us as we face the difficult challenge of responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19), which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on Wednesday.’

They then offer empathy, ‘Our hearts and thoughts go out to the people who have been affected by this unprecedented event and we appreciate the healthcare workers, local communities, and governments around the world who are on the front line working to contain this coronavirus.’

Before moving on to the business specific responses: ‘we have been adapting our cancellation policy over the past several weeks to the evolving nature of this epidemic. Today, we are updating our policy to provide our customers the most flexibility we can offer during these challenging times.  … we have made some important updates to our loyalty program to provide greater flexibility when planning future travel.’  They close warmly – ‘Whenever you travel, we are waiting with open doors and open hearts to serve you’.

Bank of America is brisk ‘We are prepared and ready to help. As the situation with coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to develop, our entire team is ready and standing by to support you. You rely on us every day for your financial needs, and we’re going to continue to provide reliable access to the important services you count on.’

Various running events, I’ve registered for,  have been cancelled or curtailed.  Gothenburg half marathon organisers let us know mid-week that the event is cancelled.  ‘Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon has been canceled for May 16, 2020 …  This is a very complex situation with many people involved. We hope you understand that we now need more time before we can give you new information about this situation.  As you understand we get a lots of questions about what will happen. Right now the information above is what we can give you. As soon as we have more information, we will share this with you.’

I won’t go on with giving more examples but reading through them, many questions come to mind:

Comms – what tone is ‘right’ for communicating with customers/stakeholders.  Who should the comms come from (some I have are signed CEO others remain anonymous)?  What should it say/not say?

Business design changes – what is going on behind the organisation’s scenes to rapidly respond to the emerging situation in terms of things like policy changes, legal clearances, maintenance of fiscal prudence, risk mitigation tracking, business process changes – specially to supply chains, promotional literature, training for staff, performance target changes …?  How easy and quick is it to make these types of changes?

Prioritisation – how are staff being reassigned at very short notice?  How is work being repacked to enable remote/virtual working?  What new skills have to be rapidly developed?  What skills are there which could be used but aren’t yet?  (Are people doing forward planning on a scenario basis for business continuity?).  Who is developing prioritisation criteria?  What is being dropped for the time being?  How is business continuity being compromised/maintained as people get redeployed onto other work or ways of working?

Leadership – how are business design changes being tracked and co-ordinated?  How is decision making being changed to respond to local conditions in an emerging context?   How are leaders managing the competing interests of various parties?

Well-being – how are the workforces concerns being addressed?  What are the plans for helping them through the coming months in the event of school closures, lockdowns, job insecurity, etc.?

There is an increasing deluge of information on handling these types of questions.

Some to consider are:  Harvard Business Review’s  series of 17 articles on various aspects of coronavirus including Lead Your Business Through the Coronavirus Crisis and  8 questions employers should ask about coronavirus.

McKinsey has got a very good briefing on the topic, COVID-19: Implications for business

Corporate Rebels has stories of seven companies who have thrived through a crisis

And if you’re looking for hope in the time of coronavirus read the heart-warming stories in Positive News.  It includes the story of ‘Quarantined Italians [who] have been singing and playing music from their balconies to express solidarity and suppress boredom during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown’,

An important point to bear in mind now is that made by Thomas Jefferson ‘He who knows best knows how little he knows’, We know that the current future of work is changing, is uncertain, and is unpredictable.  We know that we don’t know all we would like to about coronavirus.

Let’s acknowledge how little we really do know beyond this, and hope that we know that  dogmatic certainty, knee-jerk reactions and panic are likely to be a riskier strategies than ones of continuous, reflective, critical, collaborative learning about the situation and thoughtful but rapid trying-out new adaptations to your business design as the context emerges.

What are the specific business design changes you’re making in order to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic?  Let me know.

Image: From wraltechwire