Looking Beyond the Novelty to the Future of Work

September 1, 2020

Navigating the Paradox with Four Questions

The current paradox requires effectively managing the crisis, AND looking beyond today’s accomplishments to take actions now, that will sustain the vital lessons for the future.  These four questions help guide the journey through the paradox, to create the most pivotal value for the future of work:

  1. What are the new and important lessons being learned and experienced now, due to the crisis?
  2. Which of those lessons should sustain after the crisis?
  3. Which sustainable lessons will be challenging, due to inertia, ignorance, or other factors that push to snap back to before … or worse?
  4. For the challenging lessons, what are the pivotal and essential actions to take now, while the crisis provides motivation, attention and awareness, to avoid missing the window for change?

The Temptation and Danger of Celebration

There is justifiable celebration now.  McKinsey notes the “quickening” is the “whiplash” from moving ten years forward in 90 days’ time.  accelerated the use of virtual working arrangements and technology that would have taken 5 years, into just the last 3 months.  Pundits celebrate a new awareness of inherent racism and inequality in social and corporate systems in society, organizations, Boards, corporate leaders and politicians.

Most attention now is devoted to describing best practices that embody rapid adaptation to the current crisis. Those are the Lessons of Today, but it is vital to make those lessons sustainable after the crisis.  It is wrong to assume that those lessons will be sustained, simply because they are exciting today.  For example:

Today’s Celebration: “Work-from-Home works!  We have moved our virtual work capabilities years ahead in just months! Some want to work from home forever!”

… Leads To …

Tomorrow’s Challenges:  “Virtual is different from Digital, so how are we balancing the flexibility of virtual work against the digital work strategy it requires.  We will have massively more digital data on our workforce (electronic meetings, login records, temperature/virus checks, etc.).  How do we balance digital empowerment against digital intrusion?”

 

Today’s Celebration:  “We pivoted to making masks!  What an amazing sense of purpose in helping first-responders!”

… Leads To …

Tomorrow’s Challenges:  “How are we balancing the new desire to swarm to purpose-filled challenges against the need to return to long-term strategic goals that may have less obvious short-term excitement, but much greater long-term impact?”

 

Today’s Celebration:  “We are paying so much more attention to the safety and health of our workers who must be physically present!  Remote workers love the flexibility to pursue their well-being by being free from their commute!  Our leaders are more committed to workforce resilience, mental/physical health, purpose, etc.”

… Leads To …

Tomorrow’s Challenges:  “Maintaining COVID-level safety/health precautions goes far beyond standard compliance requirements and costs much more.  How do we balance cost-effectiveness against the expectation of greater health risk mitigation?”  “Encouraging, requiring and even monitoring things like Resilience, Mindfulness, Temperature and virus checks are now looking more intrusive.  How do we balance a commitment to worker mental and physical health against being intrusive into personal preferences and habits?”

Avoiding the Honeymoon-Hangover Effect

The “Novel” Coronavirus has created lots of “novelty” in organizations and work. What does research show about novelty and how it fits sustainable change?  In a recent LinkedIn post, I noted that the latest Gallup Workplace survey first showed an the initial historic increase in employee engagement, followed by a historic decline.  This is actually a well-known phenomenon, as my colleagues Wendy Boswell, Jan Tichy and I found when it came to executive job change, in our 2005 article. It’s called the “Honeymoon-Hangover Effect.”  The initial euphoria of a big change, like a shift to working from home or taking on a new job, is often followed by a big drop in excitement as reality sets in.

It’s an important reminder of the importance not only celebrating the very justified excitement of meeting the immediate challenges of these unprecedented times, but also to remember frameworks that can offer sustainable lessons for the future.  What are the sustainable lessons that must survive beyond the euphoria and not be subject to a “hangover” effect?

The Paradox:  The Future Must Be Built During the Crisis, not Afterward

The idea that “we should not waste a crisis,” from Saul Alinsky’s book, “Rules for Radicals,” is an appropriate idea now.  Eric McNulty and Leonard Marcus admonish leaders to clearly distinguish managing the response, from leading through the crisis.  The paradox is that there are important lessons being learned as organizations manage the response to the current crisis.  However, those lessons can be sustained into leadership for the future only by taking action during the crisis.

This message is getting a lot of attention from the coaches and advisors of top organization leaders, but it applies to all levels of the organization, as leadership arises throughout the ranks.  It is also vital to CHROs — and the entire HR discipline — because of the unprecedented spotlight that HR has received as a result of recent events.

The Economist heralds CHRO’s as the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis, just as CFO’s were the heroes of the 2008 financial crisis. Arianna Huffington’s article in the Harvard Business Review celebrates a CHRO who  “now meets virtually with company leaders twice a week — instead of in-person once a quarter — to discuss key people and operations issues.”  CHROs tell me how easy it is to fill their days with valuable tasks aimed at managing through the immediate crisis.  HR will be tempted to bask in the well-deserved attention and kudos from Boards, CEO’s and others on the C-Suite team.

This is all valid and important, but identifying and sustaining the key lessons and changes will require something more, and the immediacy of the current crises may actually help.

When the crisis has passed, there will be a “hangover” effect, with less shared imperative and fewer of the vivid experiences that are essential for articulating, teaching and sustaining the key lessons of today.  To Sustain today’s lessons, leaders must avoid the temptation to fixate on managing the current crisis, celebrating short-term achievements, or basking in the naïve assumption that the behaviors and awareness that have changed during the crisis will automatically sustain.  It is only during the crisis that leaders have the opportunity to identify and establish the foundations for sustaining the unique lessons learned.

It is precisely during the crisis that HR must actively identify how to harvest today’s excitement, capitalize on the attention and authority that HR has earned now, and turn that excitement, attention and authority to create the pillars that will sustain beyond the crisis.  Now is when HR can draw attention to the key lessons and insist that the organization establish the frameworks, values, decision rules and working relationships that will allow today’s lessons to be sustained.

Getting Beyond Novelty:  Lessons, Changes, Sustainability

In the coming weeks, we will take up the challenges of the paradox of novelty.  We will offer examples, observations and frameworks to help leaders anticipate and prepare for the long-term challenges, by taking advantage of the lessons, examples and change opportunities available now.

It’s cliché now to observe that it’s time to build a future beyond the crisis.  However, in that process, the right questions matter.  It’s not enough to ask these typical questions:

  • What’s next? (Because uncertainty guarantees that will change fast)
  • What are others doing? (Because simply matching a benchmark won’t distinguish you)
  • What do the successful companies do? (Because past success won’t predict future success)

The four questions described here will provide clearer answers.  My future articles will illustrate how these questions can guide your thinking about specific vital issues, to humbly contribute to your important and necessary conversations.