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.

Injustice is at the heart of this crisis

I’ve written so many times over the past years about social inequality and the role that organisations need to play in starting to right the wrongs of many decades of looking the other way. Whether that has been through investment in skills and training, fairer recruitment or simply through the ways in which we contract and pay employees.  If it was an imperative before, it now becomes an obligation.

“People living in more deprived areas have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas. General mortality rates are normally higher in more deprived areas, but so far COVID-19 appears to be taking them higher still.”

Nick Stripe, Head of Health Analysis, Office for National Statistics.

The fact that the mortality rate is more than double in deprived areas is a stark reminder of the systemic issues the underly areas of deprivation.  And whilst there is no more sombre measure of inequality than death, The impact of the virus won’t be simply contained to mortality.

As schools are closed, there is a disproportionate effect on those children living in deprived areas. Their access to technology, the role of parents and relatives in home schooling and the greater risk of disenfranchisement has been raised by the inspector of schools. It won’t just impact on those taking qualifications, but could impact throughout schooling, leading to growing attainment gaps for a number of years.

And of course, we mustn’t forget the impact on the labour market. Which will disproportionately impact on those in low paid, low skilled jobs.

“Some workers are disproportionally economically impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Low paid workers are more likely to work in shut down sectors and less likely to be able to work from home. According to the IFS, one third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners work in shut down sectors, and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners say they can work from home.”

Commons Research Briefing CBP-8898

Health outcomes, Educational outcomes, Employment outcomes. Three of the factors that are fundamental to restricting social mobility. And that is before we look at the disproportionate impact on BAME communities and the overlap between ethnicity and deprivation – which we absolute cannot ignore.

So when we are talking about the future of work, when we make statements about the structural change of workplaces, let’s try and take our thinking beyond the offices of the secure, educated and highly paid. Let’s put aside broadly inessential discussions about flexible and home working arrangements and how Zoom and Teams are going to be part of everyone’s lives. Instead let us start to debate the issues of fundamental, structural inequality and how we as businesses can step up and take our share of responsibility for the sake of our society, our economy and our future.

What next?

It was noticeable last week that the conversations across organisations and networks started to shift from how we “endure/survive” the current situation to how we “recover” (with no intention to be insensitive through language). Shaped in the context of the debate about  the possible lifting of restrictions,

Understandably, we focus on the short term. What will social distancing mean for our organisations? Will there be different expectations on work spaces? How will people feel about travelling on public transport? What will we do about childcare and schools? Can we afford the current workforce?

And whilst we will need to answer all of these questions, whilst we will need to understand the practical implications. At the same time, there are perhaps more serious, longer term considerations that will come to test us.

The economic impact of the virus will be long term, not just for the organisations that have had to close their doors, lay off their workers or close down. But in the money that Government has invested to respond to the current situation. A generation could be set back by the financial burden, as we saw in the financial crisis.

And whilst we can’t definitively know, opinions on life, society and the economy will also be shaped by the experience we are having. There will be the demand for change, a level of recrimination, but hopefully too things that we have observed and experienced that will act as a future force for good.

As I’ve said multiple times, organisations are in effect a microcosm of society, we exist in a bubble at our peril. The debate will ultimately involve us having to explore our social purpose, consider issues of equity and fairness, challenge us on the treatment of all our stakeholder groups and in some cases require fundamental change and adaptation.

In many ways, the challenge for leaders is far from coming to an end, and not just because restrictions will go on for some time,  it is just starting. The virus and our ability to respond and manage it is one thing, the likely change it drives in society will raise a whole other series of fundamental, ethical and structural challenges.

The importance of being (a little less) earnest

All around us there are signs that we are changing the way in which we want to spend our existence on earth not least the rise of the experience economy. Some will argue about the use of the term millennials, but frankly that misses the point.  And the human race is adapting and changing to its circumstances in work as much as anywhere else. Societies evolve and change and we have to ask ourselves what we need to do to follow suit in the way we run our organisations?

Immediately we jump to solutions, whether that’s flexible benefits, flexible working, our approaches to pay, learning or careers. But in many ways the answer starts well before the baubles and trappings of vendor led “solutions”. It starts with who we are, how we are and they way we choose to be.

I’ll give you an example from my own profession, but it is equally as true for every single one of us that works inside an organisations. In the world of HR, about 10% of the things we have to deal with require a level of seriousness and sobriety. There are moments in our days and weeks where we need to bring deep and meaningful thought and focus.

But there are 90% of moments where we don’t. We can choose exactly how we want to show up and the experience that we want others to have of us. My career has been full of disapproving looks from HR professionals who somehow feel that they are the standard bearer for the earnest and serious profession of Human Resource Management. Jokes are met with with comments about “appropriateness” and any suggestion of light heartedness met with a steely, and deeply underwhelmed, air.

Our experience at work isn’t driven just by the processes and systems that we put in place, in fact I’d argue that these are absolutely secondary, it is driven by the atmosphere and interactions that we have with those around us. If we are having a great time with our colleagues we can put up with all sorts of suboptimal situations, and we do. Who we are and how we are will always trump what we have to do.

So as you start your working week, just have a think about the levity and light you can bring to situations, the way in which you can change the experience for everyone around you and for yourself. Life is too short to stuff a mushroom, but it is also too short to listen to the cardigan wearing, tissue up the sleeve brigade. Let’s create an experience at work that people want to invest time and effort in and let’s do it by being a little lest earnest and having a little more fun.