The Virus could make work, work better, for more people

Sipping a cup of coffee, looking affectionately at the rapidly depleting antibacterial gel pump – I wanted to take a balanced view of the Coronavirus situation.

As I slowly sipped, and read the headlines across new sources and locations, I asked myself:

‘Will the Coronavirus be an exercise in social isolation, or be a (forced) push in to new and novel ways of working?’

As dire as the situation is globally, could Coronavirus cause a pandemic of better ways of working?

Start here. Where are we at.

Before we get to that. It’s clear that the impact of the virus is as real, as it is polarising. Crisis management and business continuity plans have been enacted, with constant flexibility to include precautions and measures to line up with the updating advice of the World Health Organisation and other public health agencies. This is good.

We are seeing a real toll of human life – and that is not to be discounted.  We are also seeing writers, thinkers, officials and others in the public eye share their models and read on the severity of it all. My sense is that’s still largely an unknown. I’m trying to only read the logical, and even with that filter there’s a spread from optimistic to truly dystopic.

Then we have the obvious implications of panic, fear and contagion in organizations, and the financial markets – and you can use whatever descriptors you will beyond the data – conditions are deteriorating, choppy, near recession (?) and many eyes stare at central banks everywhere (not that many of them have many moves left), so now it is for their words, sentiment and perhaps extraordinary measures.

I get all of that.

The way I see it, there are some big implications that are more well known yet less discussed. Some bad, some with the opportunity to be good. All of particular interest to those that care about the mechanics of work, and the people in the workforce.

Social Isolation of the Already Isolated

On one hand, with talk of ‘practicing social isolation’, including in the New York Times to help protect kids at school in spreading areas and high risk groups like older people, the already unwell – I worry about the impact of social isolation. Ok, most kids will probably cope just fine, they might get a little fed up (and their parents) but it will be manageable enough. In the East Coast of the USA I have it on good information that school authorities have a few days of room up their sleeves in the curriculum as snow days have been lighter than normal, attendance higher – so learning disruption from ‘short range’ isolation measures would be fairly minimal.

I do worry about people in nursing homes, hospitals, other care facilities – yes, the virus risk – but more so the risk of further isolation. I remember when my Pa was in a nursing home for a few tough years of dementia. My Nan saw him every day, or very close to it in her 80s. This was not uncommon, but many people had little connection with others outside the amazing staff in care. There’s all of those now as my Pa was, and my Nan, where the risk of the virus – and the isolation – is very real.

And then, we have the social isolation risk to community connectedness more broadly. As someone 3 months into life on the other side of the world – this is actually as daunting as the physical risk. When you’re new to a community, or for some other reason (rightly or wrongly) on the fringes or outer, there is a need to be included and there is a need for you to be willing, energetic and seeking of that connectedness. The bridge goes both ways.

Will this bridge shut, and if so, for how long?

The impact of social isolation is pretty dire, at the best of times, let alone these less than best times – and it is getting very little airplay.

Human Connection through Isolation

On the other hand, I’m fascinated by the sweeping travel bans internationally and domestically (in place in Australia and USA for many organisations). Not for the precautions or staff care, but for the wide-reaching slowdown. Way beyond airlines and tourism. But businesses don’t sit still, they adjust quickly to be safe and carry on.

We have seen and heard large organisations splitting teams and locations, restricting big ‘in person’ group meetings for technology based ones, moving conferences and get togethers.

We should not be making light of a crisis, but could this actually be a forced blessing for laggards or doubters of flexible work? Of technology? The final straw in the death of the long or unnecessary meeting?

As I looked into a neighbouring office, I saw 30 odd faces on one of those ‘all-in’ conference calls. No judgement passed on it, it could have been the best meeting ever or the most pointless –  I couldn’t read the emotion of the faces or engagement at that distance…

The Answer is still Belonging.

To land all of the ‘what ifs’, clearly a sense of normality is key. For those at work, in whatever capacity, I would be doing these 3 things to foster belonging even through physical separation.

  1. Check in frequently

This goes without saying. I know I have been checking in with our team, with friends, clients and prospects. How are they going, what precautions are in place, what precautions are being considered in their context, what can you do to help. I’m not suggesting every 5 minutes but at this stage weekly feels right.

  1. Ensure the blinkers are off

This is about keeping good peripheral vision, and flexibility. What’s happening in their region/area/location, what’s likely to happen, what do they need to keep their family safe and their work going. Does the current situation actually give some space for them to look at that thing you never quite get to? Can you solve a long-run problem harnessing a bit of isolation?

  1. Use the bad to find the good (that can continue well after the bad).

Find out if you can work better than you have before. What meetings are core to your team and rhythm, which ones meander and miss, and where do you have time to just connect – space is where the best ideas come from – not the land of the back to back. What other practices can you put in place, and what opportunities and solutions will help you ride out this cycle?

Stay safe, stay well, stay calm.