Pivoting, profiting and posturing – The new normal?

My work always feels privileged, but the fascination with people has gone “next lev” as my elder daughter would say during this crisis. It started with early denial as people flocked to beaches and had corona carnivales in their back yards. Then reality set in as we witnessed the toilet paper wars which sounds like a Netflix series and feels like it happened an eternity ago.

Clients scrambled, so severely and unforeseenly disrupted. Strategic plans were not cast aside, they were thrown aside as we members of the #zoomnation assembled and tried to gather our #coronacomposure.

Random smiling at strangers on morning walks has become the norm to the point where we (well, I) feel indignation if they don’t smile back. Of course, some never walked much less jogged in the mornings, but a lot do now. Apparently five year olds have learnt to “upload their work for school”. When my little niece told me she was going to do that, I could have eaten her whole except that she was Face Timing with me at a safe distance.

Some leaders were adamant that what we’ve all been able to pull off would never have worked. Some staff have been quietly pleased and others are blowing big raspberries as an “I told you so”.

But here we are now three months later with everything that has ensued. I confess. I have been caught somewhat by surprise at the number of people who have said “Corona was a blessing in disguise”. With clients in state government at the forefront of Covid-19 response and others, including elite sporting clubs whose season and revenues were torn asunder, I had a ringside seat to some of the plotting and planning to navigate Stage One Covid Response and then Stage Two.

But what of Stage Three? It may well be that this stage will test us just as much or more.

Because the path laid out during a crisis and the willingness of people to relinquish autonomous decision-making, to basically do what they’re told seemed safe, responsible and necessary.

The good old ‘command and control’ kicked in because we were on a war footing. But as we approach Stage Three of this crisis, employers and leaders must understand the new normal will not be the old normal and we won’t take it all lying down.

Some staff will undoubtedly be relieved and excited to return to their workplaces. Some had little solitude at home and few chairs could swivel and tilt. No influential corridor conversations. No fresh air and incidental exercise walking from one building to the next. No catch up with a friend or a work colleague over a quick sandwich before hightailing it back to the office. For some, sadly, home is not a haven. In the worst of cases, it’s plain unsafe. In others it’s energy-sapping and if loyalties must be divided because you’ve become reluctant Principal of Home School Primary, how do you manage the guilt that comes from not feeling as if you’re doing anything well enough? Another kick in the guts for the struggle with juggle.

But some will have found a peace, an autonomy , a lifestyle, more disposable time without a commute that mean they don’t see the point in returning. We’ve pretty much proven we can work from home and that most of us can be trusted to do so. Some of us (thought we) loved the rat race and now find we don’t miss it. Some have found renewed joy in more time with loved ones, even taking up jogging again without running for the train. This is intentional, mindful, productive. Some are blossoming with more autonomy and distance from the staff they didn’t get on with. Unfair dismissals might be up but other workplace grievances are down. Absence may not make the heart grow fonder, but it may make the heart less angry, bitter and stressed.  Weekly quizzes, children or pets on laps for catch-ups and hard wired personal check-ins at the end of team meetings, have brought out the human even in austere and hard-nosed bosses. So many clients have talked about very deliberate attempts to stay in touch with staff that live on their own. Was this something we really thought about (much less acted on) before Covid? Was it even legitimate? For most of us, I think not.

So as the immediacy of the crisis and some of the day to day fear subsides, there is a lot of soul searching and by lots of people.

Some will decide to pivot into other jobs, pastimes and ways of working. That will have cascading effects on decision making, recruitment, consumer patterns and organisational benchstrength.

Some companies are surveying their staff to understand who wants to work from home and how much. This has been met in some quarters with enthusiasm and in others with cynicism. Will attempts at workforce planning to maintain social distancing and extension of peak hours be seen as practical and safekeeping or profiteering? Some employees like to walk out of the office and not give work a momentary thought or a backward glance once they’ve stepped onto the pavement. That doesn’t necessarily make them lazy. That makes them compartmentalised. Not everyone will welcome home lives and work lives that bleed into one another. So how will they feel about employers who push it? Or managers who seem mostly absent? And how will employers regard unions or workers who are too zealous in posturing for conditions or flexibility that are not operationally or financially sustainable? I foresee tension between employers and anxious staff who are reluctant to return to pre-Covid paradigms but which are in fact inherent requirements of the job, still.

From what I’ve observed, we’ve surpassed everyone’s expectations of what we could achieve under such pressure. The same resolve, empathy, measured response and focus on the most important imperatives will need to continue. We will all need to decide what to hold close as the context changes. We will need to strip away the white noise and decide what really matters including what leaders we want to be.

Many organisations have given a great account of themselves with compassion and understanding these past three months but that could dissipate quickly if seen to be callous, rigid or opportunistic. An article yesterday noted Qantas had jumped into third place on our national trust index because of their rescue flights bringing Aussies home. But dancing on the grave of Virgin Airlines was gauche. If Qantas rubs its hands with too much glee, profits too much from others’ misery or maintains its hallowed safety record but with little regard for #CovidSafe, Aussies will turn on them.

To everyone I meet on my jog tomorrow, let’s run around each other but let’s smile as we pass.

Let’s listen, negotiate, remain open and work had to find a win/win with staff that balances the legitimate needs of the organisation with the reasonable requests and the awakened values of employees.

Let’s resist the chance to take advantage as leaders because we think they’re lucky even having a job but also acknowledge as employees that is a big deal and not to be taken for granted.

And let’s continue to be grateful, putting politics aside as we remind ourselves, despite the undoubted hardships ahead, that perhaps, this has never been as lucky a country as it is right now.

Leanne Faraday-Brash is an organisational psychologist, speaker, coach and media commentator. She is Principal of Brash Consulting, a Melbourne-based practice specialising in organisational psychology, organisation development and “workplace justice” (Equal Opportunity, ethics and employee relations). Leanne is the author of “Vulture Cultures: How to stop them ravaging your performance, people, profit and public image” published by Australian Academic Press. Leanne can be reached at www.brashconsulting.com.au