Silence and hope

I’ve been writing on at least a weekly basis for over ten years, only taking time off for holidays, yet last week I didn’t write. And this morning as I sat down again, the overwhelming desire was to stay silent again. Whilst I’m hardly the Boston Globe, it just feels like the world doesn’t need another opinion.

I can’t believe you’re writing about x whilst y is happening.

I can’t believe you’re not writing about x whilst y is happening.

In the UK especially, our rhetoric, or dialogue and debate has, over the last 5 years become increasingly one of polarised anger. That anger has rolled across multiple topics, all just, all deserving of focus, but increasingly expressed in outrage. Fuelled by our social media habits, surrounding ourselves with like minded views, blocking those that disagree.

There are of course many balanced views, those that seek to understand, those that seek to find the data and information, to explore concepts, to research the history, to think, reflect, ask questions, seek to explore the contrary opinion. But there are also those that seek to shout, to point fingers, to accuse, to remain indignant regardless.

And there is so little change. So very little change. Just more anger, more division, more separation, more sadness, less hope. I cannot help, for example, to think of all the energy, all the action and outpouring of emotion that went into the anti-Brexit campaign but to absolutely no avail. What if that had been used more constructively, more directly, more positively to change the lives of young people in our society? What could that have achieved? This isn’t a political point, I’m a fervent Remainer.

As I sit here, it feels we need less opinions and more positive action. Less debate, less anger, more intervention and ultimately more hope.

I screwed up (again)

As the events of the last couple of days of Cummingsate have shown us, it doesn’t matter how clever, how senior, how powerful one becomes, we are all capable of getting stuff wrong. Watching the press conference, and putting aside for one moment the reason for it, I had some personal sympathy as journalist after journalist lined up to ask him ostensibly the same question, picking over the details again and again.

The sympathy came because, in my own small way, I was also recovering from getting something pretty badly wrong and figuring out how to set best to articulate it in writing. To be clear, this is in no way a commentary on the Dominic Cummings situation – I’ll leave that to those that are better qualified – more a note to self and maybe to others.

  1. You have to take it on the chin – The first and most important thing about getting things wrong is that you have to own it. The immediate desire is to try to explain and rationalise and whilst that is absolutely critical too (see below), you have to start from a position of accepting your sub optimal outcome.
  2. Differentiate between the what and the who – It is very easy to start an inner self narrative, “I screwed up because I’m useless” or “I’m just no good at these things”. At the moment you’re dealing with a thing – whether that is a conversation, a piece of work, an event doesn’t really matter. It is too easy to generically attribute blame to some fundamental personality fault and it doesn’t help you learn.
  3. Try not to over steer – Trying to get perspective quickly is important and there are people around you that can help – but you have to choose wisely. Some will lead you not to follow numbers 1 and 2 above. They’ll tell you that you’re wonderful and the other person/people are idiots or they’ll tell you you’re an idiot and they could have done it so much better – “I’m not sure I would have handled it like that”. Helpful.
  4. Get analytical with it – In order to feel better, to learn and to improve you need to start getting analytical. What exactly went wrong? What was the timeline? If you could go back and do-over, which bit would you change, how and why? What would the impact of that amendment been to the end result? How do you know? Contrary to popular practice and belief, this isn’t best done with cold sweats at 4am, but in the light of day with a steady mind.
  5. Move on – Once you’ve been through this process, you need to let it go. Take the learning, remember the feelings and emotions, but contextualise them as a power to take you forward, not to take you back. “I don’t want to ever feel like that again, so to avoid that I’m going to do xx”. Of course others will risk drag you back, depending on the context, but that takes you back to number 1. Own it, acknowledge it, learn from it, move on from it.

Not a bad process to follow if one of your team or colleague gets something wrong either. You know, it happens to us all. Right?

Here’s some things we can all do

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about the societal impacts of the pandemic, the way in which it risks increasing injustice and widening the already significant gaps that prevent social mobility. And more than ever, organisations need to step into the breach and make real meaningful interventions and sustainable changes to the way in which they do business.

Whilst many of the changes are going to require substantial changes to our education system, our economy and our industrial policy. There are also practical steps that each and everyone of us can take.

  1. Stop asking for educational qualifications. This summer, for the fist time in living memory, hundreds of thousands of young people will leave school without having taken a single final exam – not to mention those that are graduating at the same time. The rest of the school system has been put on hold, risking significant disparity between different social groups. If you haven’t removed qualifications from your recruitment process already, now is the moment to do so.
  2. Invest in apprenticeships and retraining schemes. As people start to lose their jobs as sectors contract and the economy changes, we will need to create opportunities to retrain and re-skill. Where we’ve struggled to attract, to fill positions or to build succession. Now is the time to think about the opportunities to solve those problems  and provide good quality career prospects for people needing work.
  3. Think more broadly than working from home. There’s understandably been a lot of talk about flexible working, agile working, remote working and everything that we’ve learnt. Whilst of course we have some fantastic data and evidence, let’s not forget that not every one can work from home. And moreover, lots of jobs are based around people working in offices. Let’s think about all jobs when we’re making our plans.
  4. Engage with schools and colleges. When schools get back and running we need to double up our efforts to support them and build skills and confidence back into young people. Looking at how we can work better together as organisations, how we can reach those schools that need support the most and we can support the charities and organisation that act as intermediaries that will have struggled during this period of time. We need to create hope, as much as we do jobs.
  5. Consider jobs as well as technology. If there is one thing that we’ve learnt over the past few weeks is that we are better when people and technology come together, where they’re additive and not replacements of one another. Decisions that replace jobs with technology, without addressing the societal consequences will come back to bite us sooner or later.
  6. Be open to all, not just those you know. I’ve seen a number of people offering help to their connections either online or in person. Whilst well intentioned and well meaning, the problem is this only helps people you’re connected too. And we know one of the biggest challenges in terms of closing the social divide comes in the collateral that comes from personal relationships. It is no different to offering jobs or internships to your friends – find organisations and charities that will help you translate your offer to a wider group based on need.

What exactly is fair?

One thing that is certain, is that the current situation has brought to light a new separation in the workforce – one that was previously undefined. The notion of the key workers. The UK Government set out what they meant by this here. What was striking at the time and remains so, is the breadth goes way beyond the definition that perhaps  any of us would have given if stopped in the street 6 months or so ago.

So we emerge from this, either as a key worker or not.

The peculiarity of the mainstream debate on the post Covid world of work is that it falls predominantly on two separate groups. On one hand we have debates about flexibility, working from home, the impact of too many Zoom meetings, which predominantly falls on the “non-key worker” group (I appreciate there are exceptions before this is pointed out). And on the other hand we have the NHS, who have courageously and valiantly been on the frontline of some of the most extreme situations in this event and demands for better pay and conditions.

But if we are truly to consider the future world of work, we need to consider it for all. That is in no way intended to make comparisons between groups, to say that support for one is by definition at the exclusion of others, simply to say that it is more complex, more challenging and full of contradiction than a simple Meme or tweet can assess.

The reality is that the we are going to see a lot of people lose their jobs – predictions suggest as high as 6.5m in the UK. People will lose their businesses, their livelihoods and perhaps their homes. These aren’t those “key workers” or those that are working from home, they’re the people that are furloughed, hoping that in some way, the economic stimulus will be such to allow their bosses to start up their businesses once more, or self employed and unable to provide their services yet with no Government support. You could understand  how they will look to those that can either work at home are deemed critical with some sense of envy.

Those that have been working throughout, with concerns and fears about their wellbeing and safety, the teachers in schools, the postal workers, those keeping the water flowing and the lights on and of course the medical and care staff are maybe less likely to be impacted by job losses and directly by the economic impact. Does job security and a decent pension compensate for the physical and psychological challenges they’ve been through?

And of course not all key workers are created equal, the delivery drivers that we have depended upon, bringing food and essentials to our doors. The people picking and packing in the warehouses, or growing and distributing our food. These are the areas where low wages, job insecurity and the invasive use of technology have been prevalent for so long. What reward will they get for their contribution? What do they deserve?

The current situation raises more questions than it does answers. If NHS workers are to be paid more, when tax yields will be falling and the Government has made such expensive interventions to try to protect the economy, how will we afford it? If our distribution workers and delivery drivers are to get more, who foots the bill? Would we pay more for our Amazon purchases to ensure a better lot? Should those people working in industries that can survive remotely be the beneficiaries, or should they be punished for their choice of work and career?

I don’t have the answers and I probably haven’t asked all of the questions. But these are the debates that we need to have honestly, openly whilst trying to avoid factionalism and reactionary positions. You could argue that all this is fair, these are the life choices that people make, or you argue that this exposes the inherent unfairness of our society and the world of work. Working it out though, is going to take time and thought and moving beyond simple statements, to consider the whole.