What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?

Running in deserted London the other day, I was faced with a huge gold ‘What’ on a pedestal (see photo above).  It seems just the right thing to come across unexpectedly right now and it amused me as I wondered ‘What, indeed?’ to myself.

When I got home, I looked it up.  It’s part of London’s Culture Mile wayfinding tour marked by artwork installations.  The ‘What’ is the first on the route and comes from a sentence in Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room: ‘What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?’  Each word in the sentence is at a different location on the culture mile.

In “Jacob’s Room” Virginia Woolf wrote: “The strange thing about life is that though the nature of it must have been apparent to everyone for hundreds of years, no one has left any adequate account of it. The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted. What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?”

This seems so right.  I like the word ‘if’ – what are we going to meet if we turn this corner?  I’m in multiple discussions where we are wondering what and how this pandemic will affect organisations, organisation design, the way we do organisation design, ways of working.  For example, Tricordant, an organisational design consultancy, invited me ‘to join a small group of our clients and close friends as we explore: the impact of COVID-19 on our organisations and people, what we’re learning at this time, how we reorganise to shift beyond surviving, how to identify and plan for the other game changers lurking out there, and how to lead in uncertainty.’  Mayvin, another organisation design consultancy is sending out ‘Our Stories: Mayvin’s reflections during these challenging times’, and has compiled a set of useful organisational resources around COVID-19.  Interestingly, they say they are there ‘to help people to find a positive way through this unsettling time’ and to ‘keep the wheels turning so that everyone is well-placed to get back to normal once the peak of the crisis is over.’

I’m curious about their phrase ‘get back to normal’ as I don’t think there will be a back to the normal we had a few weeks ago.  I’m seeing all various speculations on the effects of the pandemic on various aspects of society and organisation.  Geoff Mulgan has a very useful blog ‘How not to waste a crisis – possibilities for government after COVID-19’ outlining what we may see if we turn this corner.

I also have three questions (this week!) on what we are going to meet, which I’ve presented in a binary way, but which are likely to be more nuanced that this:

Are we going to meet an erosion or strengthening of human rights? Human Rights has published a document that ‘provides an overview of human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak, drawing on examples of government responses to date, and recommends ways governments and other actors can respect human rights in their response.’    Similarly, United Nations experts say that Human rights must be maintained in beating back the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘without exception’.

Are we going to meet a situation where we have collectively learned the right lessons or  one where we have quickly forgotten like we did with the 1918 flu?  A useful blog from Oxford University’s Practical Ethics group discusses this question.  Ethicist, Anders Sandberg, notes that ‘The availability heuristic makes humans unwilling to consider events that have never occurred before to them or in remembered history. This is a serious problem for mitigating big, unprecedented risks since before they happen few care about them (and afterwards it may be too late).’  He says it is our ‘moral duty to pre-commit to actually learn the lessons that need to be learned’ and offers suggestions on what the lessons are:

  • Be clear on what ‘strategies work and do not work, whether in epidemiological strategy, social life or how to handle the experience personally.’
  • Document. He says ‘Asking everybody to write a COVID journal might be cute, but the real goal must be to document the things that would otherwise be lost’. This echoes Woolf’s point about London ‘that though the nature of it must have been apparent to everyone … no one has left any adequate account of it’.
  • After it has been documented the information ‘needs to be shared. Notes need to be compared, data compiled and scrutinized’
  • Have people and organisations actually bringing up the lessons and not letting go until they have been learned. If policy X is robustly better than policy Y, that needs to be loudly and clearly told.

He says,  ‘the COVID-19 pandemic is not the end of the world. But it certainly is a wake-up call. … Given the stakes, it matters to learn well.’

Are we going to meet a world where people no longer go to offices but work and connect with each other remotely?  (We are in the process of running job interviews on Skype and a colleague remarked that this method may supplant face to face interviews).  An article by Mark Eltringham,  ‘The shape of things to come for the world and the workplace’ has a wide range of links and info to that point us to various perspectives on what the workplace and the world of work might look like.  He finishes the blog saying,  ‘we are in a new normal. If that’s the case let’s make it a better one. In particular, let’s use it as an opportunity to develop better habits and display better ethics. In particular let’s rediscover our connections with others and create better spaces to share with them.’

Looking at these three questions, I see that none of them are charting the passions that go with them.  I wonder what it would take to do that?  The closest we seem to be getting right now are variations on hints and tips to avoid going ‘stir crazy’ in lockdown, the difficulties of home schooling and descriptions of the roller coaster of emotions around lockdowns.  All of these are useful in showing us we are not alone in this,  but somehow lacking what I think Woolf was getting at it wanting to chart the passions – maybe it will take another novelist to do this effectively?

What do you think we are going to meet if we turn this corner?  Will we have good maps and will we have managed to chart the passions that go with the maps?  Let me know.