The Background

This week we’ve seen further structural shifts to every component of work to the biggest scale in the fastest time most of us can remember. The rapid changes to work have interchangeably and equally become wholesale changes to the way we live our lives. And that’s big.

In our technology-supported team conversation across 6 locations, we came up with two concepts to describe how we need to reshape our thinking on work and life as individuals to handle this right now. One we’ve called Working-Life Plasticity, and on the flip side, we’ve looked at the experience for organisations, which we have called Cultural Plasticity.

Naturally, work and life are not separate. These two are inextricably linked. Equally an individual’s working life is not disconnected from the culture of a business. They’re hand in glove, which aligns perfectly to mwah.’s core way of looking at People & Culture. We always look at Wellbeing (of the individual) and Culture (of the organisation) as two halves of the same thing.

Way of Working Reimagined

Work-life plasticity is not intended as a term to reignite the old debates of ‘work-life balance’ or ‘work-life integration’ or anything close to that.

Instead, when we spoke about this, we were trying to describe the mindset and tools that allow us to deal well with the sudden dramatic change in work and in life. As we all face this ‘locked down’ situation what is most useful in helping us all to move quickly and as painlessly as possible, to a whole new way of not just working, but of being. How do adapt to the directive to totally reshape the way we are working and living?

The physical location (likely to have been some form of office or collaborative space, and is now our homes), the mix of key tools (from the total death of in-person face-to-face meetings to booming industry that is online meetings and calls) and the shift in delivery method (from learning together in workshops to online training looking at headshots, from eating-in and sharing a coffee, to holding a mug up to the screen). Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg – and you’ll know what it looks like for you personally – but remote working and work-from-home is really the easiest path any of us have had.

For others, it’s a much bigger mountain to climb. It has gone beyond a structural shift in the way you do your work, to whether or not you have any work to do. Employees stood-down, others laid off. A traumatic experience, uncertainty abounds. Others still feel dreams and years of work shattered as their beloved businesses close or dwindle significantly. Teams have been torn apart, and connections broken without warning.

 Grief and Growth

The significant and well-known work on grief by Kubler-Ross often called the Grief Cycle, but one that I prefer to call ‘the Emotional Rollercoaster’ is true across these cases we’re discussing at the moment. As we lose work, or at least a way of working, we can recognise the phases of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, even if they’ve been masked by hastily deployed  technology and on-the-fly instructions.

As we discussed this, we thought about using the word Resiliency, and it is absolutely needed, but it’s so over-done. It already has lots of space in Business Continuity Plans, IT Testing, Backup Sites and Systems, and a fair old space in contemporary workplace psychology and thinking too, so we left it out of these considerations

Another consideration was the idea of post-traumatic growth – a topic we love and have studied and written about many times.

So where did we land? We landed on a new idea – working-life plasticity.

What is Working-Life Plasticity and why it Matters?

Most of us know Neuroplasticity – rewiring or reorganising your brain to cope with changes in circumstances – an accident, trauma or disease. That seemed so close to rewiring your total way of working and living, at speed to cope with something beyond your control.

Technically, plasticity refers to how easily something can be moulded, shaped or reshaped with changed conditions. And literally, all I can think of is plasticine or playdough, the toy used to shape many a fun object (or as a playtime snack..) that would be in the childhood of so many of us!

But work-life plasticity is not so straight forward. We are not so easily malleable, not all of us are so willing to be reshaped. But where we have largely had no choice, the mindset of work-life plasticity – of recognising our patterns and behaviours and of enacting new ways to help navigate the change, to be reshaped and reformed – is incredibly useful.

So, how do we mould ourselves to this current situation with all the uncertainty. And with the absolute knowledge that we will come out the other side, albeit with some good implications and some bad ones, and most definitely changed.

How can you get Working-Life plasticity?

If you are stuck processing the chaos, and how to navigate your individual circumstances – we get it. It’s worth finding the right people in your life, network, and when needed, experts to talk to.

For those that are trying to sift through the change and transition, to things you might consider:

  1. Acknowledging the Emotion, and moving forward

It should go without saying, that it is ok to show emotion . It is ok to take a moment or two to think things suck right now. It’s ok to share that with people, in fact it’s healthy to do so. Acknowledge the emotion. Of loss, of work, of purpose, of changed social interaction. It’s a process – and we know that dwelling on that with prolonged internalising of it (‘bottling it up’) is less healthy.

It’s important to make a ‘new normal’. It’s very ok, that this new normal is different. It can be and it will be. And it will probably change again. So, your new normal, is just a for now normal, and not a forever normal.

  1. Creating Space and Boundaries

In creating your ‘new normal’, it’s important to set the right space and boundaries. The right routine. Again, this can and will be different. What is important and this goes to Cultural Plasticity we’re also thinking through, is knowing the rituals that matter to you as an individual, and those that are important to the collective and start thinking how you can reshape them at speed, while still holding on to what matters most. The week-starting meeting, the casual drinks, the banter – these are key. Where not possible, it’s about creating new, maybe more temporary rituals that can create connection.

It is very likely your needs have changed. Life now means that you have a different set of requirements. It’s about working that though, and creating the right new boundaries and space, but also being flexible to the new conditions.

  1. Integrating with your new ‘co-workers’

This one is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I’d say there has never been a time when spouses, partners, housemates, friends, families and others are working in such close proximity in their employment than now. While you love them, care for them, and get on with them, of course, integrating them as your new ‘co-workers’ is worth a conversation, being considerate and will no doubt have compromises. It’s a new parameter to your existing relationships. This is ok!

It’s about knowing when you have calls, meetings, gaps, need quieter deep-thinking time and whatever your new work environment looks like – planning out your days together. It creates structure, and it also gives the ability for some variety. After all, “how was your day, honey?” is going to a fairly short, if you spent it on either side of the dining room table.

  1. Acknowledging that Working-Life Plasticity is fluid

And lastly, to truly apply work-life plasticity, you need to realise it will change again, and you will need to change again. It won’t be easy, but it will be easier than the first time, and you’ll handle it better with a different mindset and more experience. This current pandemic is extreme, it’s tough and elements are very sad. But, despite our sometimes sluggish uptake of change, we are actually inherently capable of shifting – we just wish it wasn’t for these reasons right now, and that the pace wasn’t quite as fast as this needed to be!

To borrow from Governor Cuomo from New York City, “Stay Home, Stop the Spread, Save Lives”. And to borrow from me, hang in there. You got this!