As The Pandemic Becomes Endemic, What Can We Expect For Business?
We won't return to the pre-pandemic status quo.
In recent weeks, we are seeing more evidence that the Covid pandemic may be becoming endemic. I reached out to some contacts to ask them what they think that will mean, asking this question:
What impact will the shift to a Covid endemic have on trends in the future of work, such as the indefinitely receding Return-To-The-Office plans of traditionalist corporations, the structure and ethics of organizations, the shifting role of leadership in uncertain times, and the meaning of work during a semi-permanent crisis?
I also have pulled some observations from other published sources.
What lies ahead is, still, a big uncertain mess, which the word endemic does far more to obscure than to clarify. | Jacob Stern and Katherine J. Wu
Jacob Stern and Katherine J. Wu, in COVID Endemicity Is Meaningless, set the stage fairly well:
What lies ahead is, still, a big uncertain mess, which the word endemic does far more to obscure than to clarify. “This distinction between pandemic and endemic has been put forward as the checkered flag,” a clear line where restrictions disappear overnight, COVID-related anxieties are put to rest, and we are “done” with this crisis, Yonatan Grad, an infectious-disease expert at Harvard, told us. That’s not the case. And there are zero guarantees on how or when we’ll reach endemicity, or whether we’ll reach it at all.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said to Chuck Todd on NBC News’ Meet the Press:
We’re not going to manage this to zero. We have to learn how to live with this.
Executives Want To Get Back To Strategy, Not 'Putting Out Fires'
An IBM report, COVID-19 and the Future of Business, polled senior executives:
Executives are tasked with defining their organizations’ vision. But it can be hard to focus if they are continually putting out fires. While workforce safety and resilience, cost management, and organization agility emerge as top priorities for the short- and longer-term, the pandemic has amplified old business fears and introduced new ones. The result? Executives are enamored with the priority du jour.
The conclusion to draw is that ‘traumatic stress has hijacked corporate strategy’.
Céline Schillenger, the author of Dare to Un-Lead (in press) who I recently interviewed offered several powerful insights.
The physical presence of employees in the same place (the office, and even the unwalled office since the open space trend) and the pervasiveness of a corporate discourse around "purpose" maintained a fictional unity of identity and collective destiny. The typical organization was, supposedly, a "community" at the service of its clients, driven by its desire to "change the world". It kept silent on employee disengagement and the lack of internal collaboration; quality, innovation and culture were seen as technical issues that could be addressed with solutions. The pandemic has shattered these illusions – but not everyone has realized it yet.
The classic dinosaur tail effect: it may take a long while for that change in environment to get to the head of slow, lumbering corporations.
Social Capital, not Social Coercion
Céline also points out that organizations need to shift to a new, employee-centric reality:
"In a post-pandemic world of work, organisations will need to orchestrate employee experiences that have the highest return on social capital," Frederik Anseel writes recently.
What does this mean for leadership? A profound change. Leadership conducive to social capital is all too rarely practiced in organizations. Instead, standard corporate practices destroy social capital through internal competition, siloed management, the pressurization of individuals under an engineering, productivist and short-termist logic, and above all, outdated mental models that shape our representation of leadership. In a world of work disrupted for long by the pandemic (and pending future disruptions), this model is untenable.
New Leadership = Unleadership
And Céline offers specific guidance for leaders:
The good news is that a different kind of leadership is possible, that enables engagement, networks and collective mobilization. It is so far removed from current leadership that it could be called "un-leadership". Yet, it is a proven, accessible form of leadership, effective both from a business and a human/societal perspective. I hope to make more people aware of what’s possible. You and I talked about it in a recent dialogue, and I explore it in my soon-to-be-released book "Dare to Un-Lead: The Art of Relational Leadership in a Fragmented World".
Lost Opportunity, or Just Deferred?
Paul Millerd, the author of The Pathless Path and source of the Reimagine Work podcast, wonders if companies will take advantage of the opportunity before them:
In the early months of the pandemic, it was clear that companies had what I called a "free strategic option." They had the no-downside option of developing new capabilities of working remotely. Not just turning in-person meetings into zoom meetings but starting with the assumptions of how work is done and experimenting with new possibilities enabled by a distributed workforce, and new technology. This was in contrast to the default option: muddling through.
Almost two years later, companies STILL have this same option and many people are using all their energy developing, updating, and backtracking on "back to office" plans. I do see the office as vital in most companies hybrid work strategies, but to the companies that are still forcing their employees into energy-sucking Zoom meetings twenty times per week? They might not have any employees left by the time they go back!
The Pandemic as it stands has been an accelerator of change rather than a cause of change. | Paul Higgins
Accelerator, not Cause
Paul Higgins of Emergent Futures, disarmingly summarized the impact of the pandemic in what is almost a zen koan:
The Pandemic as it stands has been an accelerator of change rather than a cause of change.
John Higgins, the coauthor of Leadership Unravelled with Mark Cole, elaborates on a similar take to Paul (no relation):
How organisations are responding is often an amplification of existing cultures.
If a company likes to micromanage, visibly see what people are doing, be directive, then that is how it will respond to the future of work. Elsewhere patterns of discrimination followed traditional gender and ethnic lines.
The risk will be that established social patterns within teams will simply get amplified with dominant voices setting work patterns that meet their needs first.
John is hopeful that at least some companies are looking to self-organization:
Companies with a more adult-to-adult culture will continue looking to their employees to self-organise and choose ways of working that fit with the priorities of their collective work group
John worries that a subtle confusion between tacit and explicit knowledge will downplay the social aspects:
Anecdotal stories tell of new joiners in professional services failing to acquire the tacit skills and knowledge acquired by simply hanging around colleagues in an office.
The risk is that explicit knowledge will be viewed as a substitute, especially given a business school culture that remains wedded to a curriculum, test-based view of business knowledge [with] knowledge as content rather than social process.
Flexibility and Resilience
Gabriel Engel, the CEO of Rocket Chat, hopes leaders might have learned about flexibility and resilience:
The leadership of the organization might have learned from the [pandemic] the value of flexibility, and of building resilience as a response to uncertainty.
Gabriel hits on the default response to disruption by micromanaging:
Are managers trying to micromanage from a distance? Very quickly, you realize that that's not viable, you cannot micromanage from a distance: you're just going to drive people crazy or you're going to be driven crazy.
From a macroperspective, it feels like we are always fighting yesterday’s crisis and not necessarily thinking what needs to be done today to prepare us for what comes next. | Luciana Borio
The Office As A Resort
Gabriel shared a new practice his company has adopted, where members of a distributed workforce might travel to headquarters and stay for a long visit, and they even have lodgings onsite.
We and I like to think that we because we started remote company from start when we were to build our office was always the very thing in mind, like how can you make a place where it's going to be more for people to socialize, are having the discussions and then then actually sitting on a chair to do the work. So our office is even have a mini Airbnb site where people can come because people live abroad. They can come and actually have a place to stay. Some people come and spend the whole month in the office like because they want to see the city and live in a different place. I see a lot of companies restructuring the office with that in mind.
In the business setting, leaders didn't do the right thing. They were more interested in being seen as decisive, and really treated employee safety and health as interruptions to their grand strategic plans. | Stowe Boyd
A Truce, Not A Victory
Trip Gabriel, Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Medina look into the political side of the war against the pandemic:
To merely battle the virus to a truce, rather than to defeat it triumphantly, might strike some voters as less of a victory than the president promised. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked on Mr. Biden’s campaign, said that the president and his party were paying a political price for an unpredictable pandemic.
“This up and down is really taking a toll, and it’s taking a toll on all elected officials,” she said. “Voters appreciate Biden’s style, they appreciate that he listens to the science, but people are just so frustrated that it’s always going to seem like too little too late.”
“They wanted to believe if we all did the right thing we could make this better immediately,” she said.
But we didn't 'all do the right thing'. A large minority rejected vaxxing and are the ones jamming hospitals nationwide.
And in the business setting, leaders didn't do the right thing. They were more interested in being seen as decisive, and really treated employee safety and health as interruptions to their grand strategic plans.
Prepare For Another Omicron, Or Else
Rick Bright, the chief executive of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, cited in Former Biden Advisers Urge a Pandemic Strategy for the ‘New Normal’:
Our vaccines are going to get weaker and eventually fail. We must now prepare for variants; we have to put a plan in place to continually update our vaccines, our diagnostics and our genomics so we can catch this early. Because the variants will come, and we should never be surprised and we should never underestimate this virus.
Easier said than done.
Always Fighting The Last Crisis
I will let Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, close this piece, cited in the same article as Rick Bright, because she hits the perfect cautionary insight to close with:
From a macroperspective, it feels like we are always fighting yesterday’s crisis and not necessarily thinking what needs to be done today to prepare us for what comes next.