How to use the coronavirus crisis to develop resourceful humans not just human resources

5 minute read

Our quick adoption of new working practices during the COVID-19 pandemic shows just how obsolete many of the practices we take for granted have become. London Business School's Jules Goddard tells The People Space how organisations can translate the new experience into a radical new model of the workplace

New ways of working include video conferencing

Lockdown is an unprecedented experiment in working practices. It is highlighting what’s wrong with the typical office environment. We’re discovering new ways of working. The post-pandemic challenge will be to implement what we are learning from this unique experience.

A majority of people, albeit biased towards introverts and those working in the knowledge economy, would seem to be happier working from home. This mirrors a recent survey in the US, conducted by Gallup in March and April, that found that roughly 60% of Americans would prefer to work remotely “as much as possible” after the restrictions are lifted.

Away from the office we are recognising, as though for the first time, the counter-productive and neurotic character of so many working practices: interminable meetings, excessive bureaucracy, intrusive supervision and obsessive reporting – what the French call "infobesité".

As we slow down we recall, with a mixture of disdain and disbelief, the frenetic pace of office life, the misplaced focus on what is urgent rather than what is important, and the endless sources of interruption and distraction. So much rushing about. So little time to think. I recall Julie Burchill’s refreshing observation that “most of us would do our jobs better if we did them less”.

As we disengage from office life and create an alternative, more tranquil place of work in our home, we find particular pleasure – and productivity – in a less cluttered, less hectoring, and less frantic setting. This feeling of liberation is accompanied by a keener sense of our own creativity. Work can be as natural as leisure. It doesn’t need much managing.

As we take back control of our own time, we gain a sense of empowerment. How we plan our day, where we place our effort, how we pace ourselves – this is our choice alone, bringing us the simple pleasure of being trusted to do our job without constant supervision.

As we hold meetings on Zoom, we find that our conversations with work colleagues, at whatever level, are more relaxed, more candid and more inclusive. Every voice gets heard. There is a premium on listening. We notice what is being said. Seniority counts for less. It’s not so easy to boss the meeting and, as a result, the discussion takes on greater conviviality and creativity.

As we grapple with the difficult problems caused by the closing down of so much of the economy, we find ourselves, as in any emergency, discarding whatever is superfluous to the task, such as the rule book, the reporting line, the best practice, the job description, the risk register and the earnings target. When things really matter, we muck in, we improvise, we break rank, we team up, and we set to work on the real issue. There’s no patience for either hierarchy or bureaucracy.

And this brings us to the nub of the issue. The elephant in the room is the practice of management, which is the ideology of control, supported by the social technology of hierarchy and bureaucracy.

This is the lesson of the pandemic. Invented at the back end of the 19th century, managerialism is finally running out of steam. In large parts of the economy (though certainly not all) a different way of collaborative work is being shown to deliver. Working from home demonstrates just how obsolete so many of the practices that we take for granted have become.

So what inspiration can we take from the last two months of lockdown? How, if we put our minds to it, can we translate this experience into a radical new model of the workplace? I think there are at least six lessons, expressed in the style of a manifesto for post-pandemic organisations:

  1. Distribute power more equitably across the organisation
    Place greater trust in internal markets than in hierarchies to capture the opportunities for change that have been triggered by lockdown. Currently too many decisions are in too few hands. In some ways inequality of power is far more iniquitous than inequality of wealth. Open up the organisation. Tap into the collective wisdom of the workforce. Create an internal stock market where employees can buy and sell shares in the internal projects initiated by the company. We know that future-focussed decisions tend to be better made by crowds than by elites
  2. Simplify the bureaucracy
    Recognise that recent trends towards greater alignment of plans, standardisation of processes and sharing of services have harmed creativity, agility and innovation. If everyone is marching lock-step to the same top-down model of success, beware. The creation of wealth depends upon unique practices, not best practices. If we’ve learned anything from this crisis, it is that unanticipated problems cannot be solved by ready-made formulaic solutions
  3. Design jobs for self-managing teams rather than supervised individuals
    The economic principle of the division of labour has gone too far, with the result that almost all jobs are scaled to the individual. This may well serve the interests of strict accountability, but at the cost of collaboration and creativity. By scoping work packages to the scale of small teams of five to seven people, and encouraging them to self-organise, it draws upon the cooperative spirit that has been so visible and inspirational over the last two months
  4. Find other ways of rewarding effort and success than by bonuses or financial incentives
    Bribing people to perform is expensive and cynical. It insinuates that most people are feckless and lazy, and that they take no pride in their own achievements. Better by far to design jobs that are intrinsically rewarding and have no need of extrinsic incentives. Operate on the assumption, fully borne out by the efficacy of remote working, that most people come to work to do a good job and derive satisfaction in so doing
  5. Plan less and think more
    Dial down the attention given to budgets, targets and numbers, and dial up the importance of ideas, options and dialogue. Business performance is less a return on effort and slog and more on the truth of the assumptions underpinning the strategies and decisions. If our assumptions are flawed, then the harder we work, the worse we perform. In an uncertain world, such as now, plans should be bold conjectures to be tested rather than destinations to be reached
  6. Treat the organisation that employs people not as the end to which these people are merely the means (or the resources at its disposal) but as the vehicle for enabling each and every one of them to meet their own personal ends more effectively by working together more than apart. In a liberal society, purpose belongs ultimately to the individual, not the collective.

Most people will not want to return to the pre-pandemic workplace. They will be looking instead for something closer in spirit to the “kingdom of ends” envisaged by Kant as the model of a society ruled by the moral law. This is a community in which the categorical imperative holds sway, the principle that all human beings be treated as ends, not as mere means to an end for other people.

Jules Goddard, pictured below, is a fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School and co-author of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader, published by Kogan Page

Jules Goddard, fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School

Published 27 May 2020

Away from the office we are recognising, as though for the first time, the counter-productive and neurotic character of so many working practices: interminable meetings, excessive bureaucracy, intrusive supervision and obsessive reporting – what the French call "infobesité"

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