In my life, I’ve seen a few things that changed the way people work and live forever. The triggering events cause shifts in behaviour that are fast, but not instantaneous. We do not go back to the exact world we left behind.
Some of those things had a narrow scope, Aberfan changed the way mining spoil was dumped and had impacts on our landscapes. Some have a global scope. 9/11 changed forever the world’s view of terrorism, and we all accept far more invasive security checks as a result. Assassinations crystalise change, those of Archduke Ferdinand, Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy had worldwide implications. Politics too: Perestroika, Solidarność, and the fall of the Berlin wall changed much. Now it is a disease, a virus, spread by people all over the globe that is affecting everything from our basic freedoms, to the price of oil and the value of pensions.
Coronavirus has already had a significant and immediate impact on the world as a whole. I believe that it too is a moment that we will look back on and say ‘This was when things began to change’. There are obvious immediate effects, of illness, and, sadly, deaths. There will be longer-lasting impacts too, and its these that seeps into the psyche, and change people.
Choosing to self-isolate or taking 14 days away from the office in case that cough and temperature is the virus make real sense. That time also exposes people with office jobs to the possibilities of working differently. They will find the things that work better and the things that don’t. They will start to think about how their future could be better. Managers and leaders will learn that control and oversight in most situations isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Influence and open transparent communication are more important than ever. Trust is a currency that must be spent wisely. In a world with limited resources, an office that requires hundreds, or even thousands, of people to travel for fractions of the day, increasingly looks archaic. That it then lies empty for hours, whilst outside homeless people freeze speaks more to our failings than our success.
Offices may have been a good post-industrial solution to creating value, but do they fit a 21st Century service-based economy? We may well find that 9-5 working in communal offices were all just a habit and one that we should break. If this virus disrupts for more than a few weeks, organisations will start to address the original issue in novel ways. Novelty becomes normality very quickly.
Can we tell you what these changes will be? No, novelty is novel after all. Can we tell you with certainty that there will be long-lasting change? I think we can, If I listen I can already hear the tectonic plates of corporate England creaking as they start to move.