Thursday 22 October 2020 9:07 am

Embracing ambiguity: Why empathy and patience count more than false hopes of returning to normal

Keith McCambridge is a partner in the organisational effectiveness practice at Oliver Wyman

When the pandemic first struck, the prospect of returning to the office by September was a light at the end of a tunnel of uncertainty. 

Rising Covid-19 case numbers now mean many of us face a long winter of remote working. In fact, it’s likely that the next few years may be defined by periods of release and re-confinement. 

So if companies want to come back stronger from the Coronavirus Recession, it’s time to shift the expectation away from getting “back to normal”.

One of the riskiest things business leaders can do is set false hopes through unrealistic deadlines, with a full return to the office glorified as the ultimate prize. This can make people feel punished every time new restrictions are introduced, or another milestone passes. As harsh as it sounds, it may be better for managers to help their people accept that office working may never be the same again, and find a new, more meaningful, mission that does not revolve around the concept of physically getting “back to work” full-time.

It is, admittedly, a depressing prospect that our foreseeable working lives could be void of quick trips downstairs to grab a coffee, lunch hour banter and water-cooler moments. But the best way to face a changed reality is to be honest about what is not known and focus on how to make the best of it. Embracing ambiguity is the most practical, and kindest, way to make up for the sense of loss that your employees are no doubt currently experiencing. 

I first learned this lesson when I was in the British Army, including more than a year in the siege in Sarajevo, during a complete lockdown of the civilian population. Panic and shock revealed the best and the worst sides of human behaviour. Some days felt like there was no end to the destruction and sense of confinement and isolation. There was no knowing when it would end. 

But the rhythm of the day was eventually established. We learned when it was safe to cross the street. We learned that the sense of community was everything. We also learned to identify ways to rise above our situation. For example, we helped a local artist stage an exhibition in the middle of a lockdown. Although tragedy was never too far away, people knew they had found a new norm, albeit different from before. 

Today, I recognise parallels between that experience and what is happening in the corporate world. Working from home is not quite akin to living in a war zone, but as a consultant, I often see it’s the business leaders who focus their teams on a higher purpose who are managing to keep their people motivated. In the case of Covid-19, these managers focus their people on much more than returning to a desk in Canary Wharf. They put a spotlight on problems they want teams to achieve or solve, and then stop short of telling their people how to do it. Like my Sarajevo artist friend, they are constantly surprised at the levels of creativity, adaptability, ownership, and innovation that employees are capable of in a bad situation. 

So, build an inclusive and sustainable environment for employees to give their best in this new world. With millions being laid off, it’s natural for employees to hide how they feel. We often talk about creating a climate of “psychologically safety” where your people can speak candidly and separate their working and home lives. Companies should also be prioritising employee mental health and ensuring that appropriate training and coaching services are available.

The old corporate world may be gone, or at least on hold, for the medium term. Instead of focusing on what we have lost, make it your mission to be as happy and productive as a remote team, rather than one defined by a physical setting.

Main image credit: Getty

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