Everyday I read sentiments to the effect that the virus and the lockdown have changed us forever. Life cannot and will not go back to how it used to be. I beg to differ. I think once this is over the most likely scenario is that all the old pressures will come crowding back in and everything will fairly quickly revert to how it was. All that we are experiencing now will fade into a tantalising dream/nightmare. If we want things to change we had better learn the lessons now and act to make sure we don’t forget them.
My colleague John Beckford has written persuasively about how organisations might act to learn from how they have had to operate during the lockdown. I circulated his blog but if you didn’t see it you can read it here. There are many lessons of that kind. But I have in mind learning lessons from the way we might have found ourselves thinking and seeing things differently.
One of the most obvious features of the crisis has been the change in the way that certain people and certain organisations are perceived by the public and, perhaps, by themselves. People who once did what were seen as lowly jobs are now “key workers” and viewed with gratitude, as heroes. The supermarkets find themselves at the forefront of the national effort to “feed the nation”. The churches, banished from their buildings, find themselves seen as important purveyors of hope, community and reassurance.
Many individuals have been working from home, taken out of the hurly burly, the established routines of normal working life. For those of us lucky enough not to have to be preoccupied with financial worries, this may well have been a time for reflecting on what still looks important, what part our work plays in our lives, how we might live in a more integrated way – a way that does not involve having to enter a world of foreign values and assumptions when we leave home for the workplace.
I think there are some things we might want to consider and hold on to. We have learned something, perhaps, about how profoundly connected we are to each other, and, especially, perhaps, about our dependence on all the people doing pretty ordinary things. Maybe we can continue to value these people and, if we have influence in organisations, consider how that might be reflected in such mundane but telling matters as pay and conditions.
On the larger scale, perhaps we can hold on to the sense that what we do is ultimately judged by its social value. Might we hold on to the idea, for example, that business is not primarily about making money – it is about adding value. Organisations, businesses, agencies – exist to provide a service, a term I am using in its older, fuller sense, rather than in the somewhat limited and functional sense implied when people talk about an organisation’s “products and services”. This is not just a consideration for supermarkets. We depend on many organisations. Many of us have sustained ourselves in this crisis through the use of digital media for example. I am communicating with you now in a way that relies completely upon the facilities made available by such companies. Perhaps those companies might define themselves and see themselves more clearly in those terms. This is not just a noble sentiment. It is well-established that the longest-lived and, in the long run, most successful organisations are those that are clear on and dedicated to a purpose beyond the immediate and the instrumental. (And, by the way, organisations that clearly and meaningfully identify with society probably don’t stretch every nerve to avoid paying taxes in those societies in which they operate.)
And, individually, some of us might want to consider how we might bring to our work, whatever our role, the values that we have seen come to the fore in the crisis. Now, in fact, is a good time for us, individually and corporately, to think about what matters to us and how we can ensure that our working lives and our organisations can represent those more consistently and clearly in future – in particular, perhaps, the importance of community and concern for all. Once again, this is not only a noble sentiment. Good, effective strategies are built on clarity about our purpose (what we are here for) and our values (what really matters to us). This is partly because it is important to know where you need to focus and what you want your “brand” to be. But it is also because these are the things which motivate employees and direct their energies. Organisations that value individuals (all other things being equal) will out-perform others because, for the most part, people who are valued do more and better.
So now is a good time to be reflecting on what your purpose and values really are. Now is a good time to be thinking how you will build the future on what your organisation really stands for. Now is a good time to be asking what you really want to achieve in your role, what impact you want to have, what legacy you want to leave. If we put these questions off until the crisis is over, the lessons will be lost. There is a chance here, individually and corporately, to effect a significant shift in the way we see ourselves, the way we are seen and in the positive impact we create – one that benefits everyone. But we have to take it deliberately and with determination.
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