The coronavirus pandemic will probably have a lasting effect on our workplaces, and that had me wondering how we can handle such sudden, dramatic change.
At first, I was thinking about personality differences that might determine how people react. One of the five basic personality traits has to do with our openness to experiences: in the simplest terms, some people are prone to be early adapters while others are prone to be guardians of past solutions.
Consultants like me are more likely to be on the early adapter side, and we can become impatient with the guardians (even though I value their role in making sure we don’t change merely for the sake of change). So COVID-19 rolls around, and I’m telling myself how ready I am to adapt–until I realize how I still want to fly to my conference in a few weeks, and how I shared a cup of wine at church, and how I reached out my hand to shake hands with a veteran at the coffee shop. I realized that we all want to continue doing what we have enjoyed the most in the past, and we can easily ignore the recommendations for what our “new behavior” should be very quickly when placed in old familiar settings.
I am not resisting change so much as I am forgetting to change and then lamenting the change. But on March 11 the NBA put the remainder of the regular season of basketball on a hiatus. I saw stunned fans minutes before a game should have started told to leave the building. I saw professional athletes anxious because they were not sure if they would be allowed to travel home. This pandemic that I had been writing about for weeks became real that night. Now we’re making new plans for virtual meetings online instead of in-person meetings. We are communicating more frequently at off-hours, probably because many more of us are working from home. We are debating the risks of traveling across the country or even across town for fear of picking up the virus that someone else left behind.
Are we ready for these changes? I seriously doubt it.
However, I am very confident that we may learn–very quickly–how to get work done in a way that we had been rejecting prior. And the reason I am so confident is that we have to learn. We have to get the work done. It’s a new challenge, but a familiar game. We have customers, deadlines, goals, and of course a need to work. (As my coworker says “Pitter patter, let’s get at ‘er!”)
Fear of change will fade
If COVID-19 hits the US as hard as it hit China and Italy, and we are kept away from the public for weeks, then I believe many employees will create remote solutions that will outlast the epidemic. I believe leaders who were reluctant to allow remote work will realize that there is no longer anything to fear, no longer any counterargument. We, by necessity, will be made agile.
Yes, our personalities will still vary our adaptation to what must be done, but all of us will adjust because we have to. My hope goes even further. Our country has become so divided in our politics, our news sources, and our lifestyles. We often forget that this is not the first time the US has been like bifurcated. What brought us back together in the past? A crisis. Just as world war put Republicans and Democrats side by side in trenches, I want to believe that taking on a pandemic – one that attacks our weak and our seniors but makes victims out of our storefronts and public gatherings – will teach us to be not just more agile, but more tolerant.
If we lose the things that let us become rigid, then what else is left but agility?
Paul M. Mastrangelo is a Principal Strategist at CultureIQ. You can reach out to him with your questions and comments around agility, strategy and all things culture-related, at AskAStrategist@cultureiq.com – he’d love to hear from you.