The pandemic revolution

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The pandemic revolution

It’s going to take us 25 years to reap the true benefits of flexible working… that’s if the industrial revolution is anything to go by.

During my camping holiday in Cornwall I finished reading Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed and I cannot recommend it enough. I have highlighted so much of the book but a few paragraphs about electricity in the innovation chapter really stand out for me. They stand out because they reinforced my thinking around hybrid working and why I think we need to be careful not to miss the opportunity that’s in front of us.

I’ve written and spoken about hybrid working a lot in the last five months. You can hear me talking about it on podcasts, read my thoughts on it both on my own blog and other publications and I’m due to speak at virtual events on the topic over the summer too.

To summarise, I think we are missing the point. Hybrid working isn’t about rules about two days here and three days there. It’s not about the location of where we work either really. It’s about a need to fundamentally change how we think about work. We need a more flexible approach; recognising that work is not the same as it was years ago and that technology has changed what we do for many. Not only this, but life is different. The balance and flexibility needed by everyone when there is no longer a “work until you’re 60 and retire” requires a different approach to work, and a shift from the division between work and home. Adding to this, the globalisation we have seen in recent years means the concept of “out of hours” work is archaic.

This doesn’t mean we blur all our time or that we don’t need to put boundaries in place. It does mean we need to think differently about it all. We shouldn’t try and change one component, which at the moment seems to be location due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to look at society and work as one and stop trying to separate the two in the same way we’ve done for years.

But let me get back to the book, because if we can learn anything from ourselves, this is the time to be aware of what has happened before. Syed says:

Electricity, it is worth noting, offered huge dividends, not just in terms of power but in the redesign of the manufacturing process itself. In a traditional factory, machines were positioned around water and, later, the steam engine. They clustered in this way out of necessity. The production process was umbilically linked to the sole source of power, with the various machines connected via an elaborate, but often unreliable, set of pulleys, gears and crankshafts.

Electrification meant that manufacturing could break free of these constraints. Electric motors do not suffer major reductions in efficiency when reduced in size, so machines could have their own source of power, allowing the layout of factories to be based around the most efficient workflow of materials. Instead of a single unit of power (the steam engine), electricity permitted ‘group power’.

But this didn’t happen.

Instead of streamlining their factories, they dumped a large electric motor in the middle of the factory, as if it were a substitute steam engine. In doing so they completely – almost inexplicably – missed the point.

This would prove catastrophic. The economist Shaw Livermore found that more than 40% of the industrial trusts formed between 1888 and 1905 had failed by the early 1930s.

On top of this failure, there was also an impact on the pace of the industrial revolution:

The second phase of the industrial revolution came with electrification in the late 19th century this meant that electrical motors could replace the older, less efficient steam engines. It created a second surge in growth and productivity, the consequences of which we are still living with today. Except for one thing. This surged was curiously delayed. It didn’t happen instantly, it seemed to pause, pregnant and static, for around 25 years before taking off.

So, the technology and opportunity were there but we replaced the old with the new without thinking about the broader constructs around us. For me, hybrid working is being talked about in exactly this way. We’re focusing the conversation on being in the office and how to communicate with each other when people are located in different places. We’re discussing what this means for meetings and working together as a team – but it’s not about that.

The pandemic revolution – as I’m calling it – can only happen if we look at things as one. This makes it a bigger, more uncomfortable conversation, but it is the one we need to have this year. We can move into hybrid working practices, but this has to be interim. It must be while we have these conversations and there has to be action that follows them.

Five steps to making hybrid work for the long term

How do we get hybrid working right for the long term? Using elements of The Field ModelTM and the three phases of understand, diagnose and fix, we can do this. But it’s going to take time and conversations and the acceptance that things need to change for everyone at work; not just the office worker.

1. Understand the symptoms and what they mean

We must start with the symptoms that teams are experiencing today. Mainly because they have been here long before the pandemic. The challenges people have around juggling childcare and work, or other family care and work is one. The need to be able to swap shifts if things come up is another. There has been a challenge for years with people not being given the ability to manage their work time around their whole time – the symptoms we see are burnout, unhappiness, low retention rates and more.

2. Diagnose what this means for your organisation

Every person, every team and every organisation is different. We cannot standardise how to operate even by industry because there are too many variables. We might talk about organisations and how they work but organisations are people – they don’t exist without them and they are all very different. So, we have to take time to work out what people actually need and want from life and work – together. What would make things easier? What makes things difficult? Does the shift pattern work or does it need to change? Can people job share? Will they be in the office or working from home?

3. Diagnose what this means for how you get things done

Diagnosis must include business processes. And because processes require communication, it all falls under the changes that can be made when we work smarter together. What are the options to get the work done? If we currently do it like this, could we do it like that? You have to be challenged to think differently, especially if this is how it has always been.

4. Give everyone a voice

This doesn’t mean you can’t create something that works for everyone – think “freedom in a framework”. Give people the chance to share their ideas and what they need. Make sure you obtain this information without a bias on hierarchy, team or individual. Listen. We have spent a year talking about the need to be more human at work – now is where we demonstrate what that actually looks like.

5. Fix how you work for a flexible future

The fix has to be about changing how work gets done and changing how people work together. This will include the hours people work, especially for those that are office based. If it’s more convenient for me to work 6am to 8am and then 10am to 2pm, then that’s ok. It’s about getting the work done, not the time at a desk. If the meeting is in person and I have no others that day, I can come in for the meeting and then go home. An office can become a place to get together and collaborate and nothing more.

We can’t put electricity in the same place we had the water and the steam engine. We can’t focus on locations of work, when there is so much more to look at and so much opportunity ahead of us to change how we work and live in the future. Let’s not wait 25 years to reap the benefits that could come from one of the most challenging years for so many.

Pull quotes from Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed. Find out more about The Field Model. If you’d like to discuss any of these issues, please get in touch. Jenni talks about The Field Model in her book, Influential Internal Communication.

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