Australia is now seeing a lifting of COVID restrictions in most parts of the country and for many of us, this also means an expectation that we will return to working in an office. However, there is growing tension between those who have adjusted and benefited from working for home for almost four months, and those with a strong desire for everything to ‘return to normal’ – and regardless of which side of the office-fence you sit, we’re all feeling a little uncomfortable about the situation.
For those yearning for the ‘good old days’ of early morning coffee meetings, interacting with cheery faces around the office all day and the feeling of relief on returning home after a productive day at work, there is a lot to miss. However, beneath the shiny veneer of these positive and productive interactions, there was, and has been for a long time, a cancerous growth on society. One of stress and anxiety, time-poor parents and spouses, and a system of work that was designed during the first industrial revolution and that, for many years now, has been increasingly not fit for purpose.
There have now been decades of discussion among management consultants, management and leadership researchers, sociologists, anthropologists, politicians, policymakers and many others about the future of work (e.g. Birkinshaw, 2010; Hamel, 2008). At the heart of this discussion is the belief, held by increasing numbers of people worldwide, that – work doesn’t work. In fact, for many of us, the way we’re organised makes it harder for us to do our work instead of easier. Pre-COVID many people found it easy to set aside the discomfort of work because of the necessity of needing to work and just getting on with the job, most likely believing they didn’t have the power to change anything anyway. Many of these people have now discovered they can’t set this unease aside again.
Now, there are more people who are aware of the ways work wasn’t working for them. There are more people who have experienced the benefits of flexible working arrangements and who can see how this could keep working for both the individual and the organisation. For those of us who have been banging on about new ways of working for a while now, the rise in numbers in favour of exploring, collaboratively, how we might all benefit from this new arrangement is very exciting. But not without its challenges.
Because we still have a reasonably large number of people, many in management and leadership positions, who do not want this to happen. They are uncomfortable with the growing momentum around new ways of working for a variety of reasons: their old ways of managing people won’t work under the new arrangements; they feel out of control; the privilege they enjoyed under the old system is slowly eroding. As one writer put it: these people long to return to “a time when we could be unconscious and carefree about so many things. That’s white privilege, in a nutshell” (Killian, 2020).
The resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not a coincidence. The system of work, the way we organise ourselves (or are organised by others) to get work done absolutely and without a doubt privileges some and disadvantages many, many others. For years we have been led to believe that this system is set in proverbial stone and unable to be changed. However, the COVID-19 pandemic showed the whole world how very wrong this assertion is and how quickly the world can change, particularly the world of work.
So why are we uncomfortable with this idea of returning to the office?
Because for everyone, regardless of what you believe or what privileges you do or do not enjoy, the world has changed, many of our beliefs about the world have been challenged or simply proved wrong and we are experiencing wide-spread, collective cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). The discomfort arising from the realisation that you hold two or more thoughts, beliefs, values or attitudes that contradict each other.
Examples of cognitive dissonance might be:
- I am a good person and want the best for others – clashing with – I won’t have control over everyone if they keep working from home.
- I‘m being told to go back to the office, I like my job and need to work – clashing with – I am much happier, healthier and more productive working from home.
So what to do in the midst of all this discomfort?
We sit with it. And we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable and be curious about what is making us uncomfortable and why. We allow awareness to surface.
And we listen. We need to listen to each other and try to understand the other’s concerns and wonder how we can help each other through this transformational time in history.
And finally, we co-create. Once you understand your own needs and those of the people around you, your colleagues, your customers, your stakeholders, then you can start designing a way forward together.
Change does not happen without discomfort; transformation cannot occur without disrupting the status quo. We know there are better ways of living and working in the world, let’s explore them.
Birkinshaw, J. (2010). Reinventing management: Smarter choices for getting work done. John Wiley & Sons.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance, Row & Peterson.
Hamel, G. (2008). The future of management. Human Resource Management International Digest.
Killian, K. (2020). A place called normal: Why not returning to it is good. Psychology Today. Accessed 03/07/2020: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/intersections/202006/place-called-normal-why-not-returning-it-is-good
Dr Shari Read facilitates in a number of QUTeX Short Courses, click here for details.