As the post-pandemic world approaches, businesses shouldn’t rush to settle back into the old normal – or even to replace it with a new one, says strategist Warwick Cairns. Instead, 2021 offers once-in-a-generation opportunities to keep on experimenting to develop better, more effective working practices.
Everybody has a plan, Mike Tyson famously said, until they get punched in the mouth. Over the course of this past year, businesses have not so much been punched in the mouth as comprehensively battered to the ground. What matters now is what they intend to do about that, and how they plan to move forward in the months and years to come.
What’s normal can shift unexpectedly and easily
Setbacks often bring unexpected opportunities. Back in 2014, when strikes on London’s Underground network led to four weeks of unpredictable network closures, travellers were forced to take different routes to work. It was frustrating and annoying. At the same time, many commuters found that old routes they’d used for years weren’t the best ones, or even particularly sensible ones. As a result, they made changes, many of which persisted long after the strikes ended.
By 2017 an Oxford University study concluded that the time-gains achieved by those who switched routes outweighed the time-losses incurred by all commuters during the entire strike. Which meant that the strikes actually ended up increasing travel efficiency rather than decreasing it.
In life, and in business, we get ourselves into a rut, and sometimes it takes a punch in the mouth, so to speak, to shake us out of it.
Which brings us to COVID. It’s hard not to notice the way that, over the course of a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions, businesses have come to embrace new practices, such as remote working, online collaboration and videoconferencing. It’s hard not to notice the savings made in travel costs and office expenses. With corporate travel declining by 79% from April to December 2020, companies like Amazon now make savings in the region of $1bn annually.
Eighteen months ago, companies would regularly fly in teams from all over the world, put them up in hotels overnight, feed them and entertain them, all for the sake of a meeting lasting maybe an hour or so. Now that’s not nearly so common. Yet the technology for remote meetings has been with us for years: it just wasn’t seen as the ‘normal’ way of doing business.
But the ‘new’ normal eventually becomes the ‘old’ normal
There’s been a lot of discussion about how the world of work will evolve as the world comes out of pandemic mode, and what the new normal will be, whether we’ll all end up back in the office full-time, or staying at home, or some kind of hybrid of the two.
Some companies, like Grant Thornton, are set on full-time return to the office. Others, like Goldman Sachs, have succumbed to the work-life balance vibe, suggesting that its junior executives, famous for putting in 96-hour weeks, should consider occasionally ‘taking Saturday off.’ Then there are those like Salesforce and Spotify, which are implementing permanent ‘work from anywhere’ policies.
Efficiencies can be banked; effectiveness is a lifelong journey.
If studies are to be believed, a move to hybrid working, maintaining reduced office space for workers to use in rotation 2–3 days a week, is something many workers are looking to embrace. In a recent study by Sony, nearly three quarters of workers said they now expect to work remotely at least one day a week, with 65% expecting to work from home for at least two days. In advanced economies, McKinsey estimates that this could be a reality for around 25% of workforces. Which is to say, a real possibility for brand and agency workers, but not so much so for dentists and waiters.
In planning for the future, it’s tempting to pick one of those options and settle into it, until that becomes the new normal. But the problem with this is that every new normal eventually becomes the old one, with all the inertia that entails. Once we’ve changed our commuting route in response to the 2014 strike, or switched to hybrid working in response to COVID-19 and banked the savings from the changes we made, there’s a tendency to think we’re done. And we’ll never realise how many more opportunities are still out there, until or unless there’s a next time we get punched in the mouth by events.
Businesses need to fight inertia
Or unless we change. Unless we take the necessity-driven spirit of experimentation and innovation that we’ve learned during the pandemic and make it a permanent driving principle of business effectiveness going forward.
The novelist Ann Patchett, writing in The New Yorker, described how, for a long time, she was considering moving house, but how she failed, time and time again, to find the right one. Then she hit on a new idea: to stay in her current home but live there as if she were moving:
“Night after night, I opened a closet or a drawer or a cupboard and began again. Every table had a drawer, and every drawer had a story – none of them interesting. I found little things that had become important over time for no reason other than that I’d kept them for so long. I got rid of them all.”
That’s something businesses can learn from. External events can force changes on us, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be carried along by inertia in the times in between. So, while smart firms will pocket the savings they’ve made in their travel budgets, smarter firms will look to invest some of those savings in growth and transformation initiatives. These firms will look to leapfrog the ‘new normal’ and develop even newer working practices that both fit with the spirit and expectations of the post-COVID era and add up to more engaged and motivated staff, stronger market performance and greater revenue growth.
It’s the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiencies can be banked; effectiveness is a lifelong journey. Effectiveness-minded organisations will remain nimble, agile and fast on their feet, always ready for action and always moving towards greater effectiveness. And that’s got to be a whole lot better than standing around waiting for the next time the world decides to punch us in the mouth.