During the lockdown I've been keeping in touch with our team and I'm pleased to say that, in the main, they've adapted well to new working arrangements. Many are now operating from home and communicating using technology. Does this signal a more fundamental change in how we all work?
The work we all do can be split into two distinct types. There's the routine stuff, the work we do every day, practising and honing our skills, learning more each time we do it, but essentially repetitive in nature. Whether it's creating a financial plan for a client, drafting a will, preparing a set of accounts, or one of the myriad actions that take place around all of these, it's a regularly repeated part of delivering what we do, whether our 'customer' is a client, a colleague or a supplier. It's work that ultimately makes a difference to someone else, and it's why we exist as an organisation.
Then there's the second type of work. In this phase, we step back from the 'doing' and think about the bigger questions. How do we do what we do, and why do we do it that way? What is the purpose of the work, and what value does it create? Has the world moved on, and do we need to revise, adapt or abandon some or all of what we're doing? How can we make it better?
The problem for most businesses is that they get so caught up in the routine work that they don't have any time or space to play with ideas. What works today might not work tomorrow, and without periods of reflection, research and experimentation we could easily miss something important. What would it be like if we created this time and space on purpose?
During our enforced confinement I've been reading "Quiet" by Susan Cain. It's all about introverts, and I've discovered that I definitely am one (although I guess I knew that already). In the book, Susan tells the story of the business owner who built his company on the idea of putting teams of people together to brainstorm ideas. Regular meetings were held where staff would share suggestions and contribute ideas, and out of these meetings action plans would be drawn up and thoughts brought into reality. The owner credited this method for the success of his company.
Yet, writes Ms Cain, academic studies have shown that as a way of generating fresh ideas and new ways of looking at things, this method doesn't actually work very well. Far more effective is to pose questions to the team, then send them off to think or research into possible solutions as individuals or very small teams, and come back with their findings. Other research shows that when the number of people in a typical 'round table' meeting exceeds five or six, there tend to be two individuals who dominate the proceedings and many of the participants contribute little. In this way, valuable ideas are often lost and never come to the surface. Is that your experience too?
If you're going to nurture creative thinking and harness the results it could deliver, you need a few things to be in place, including a willingness to take people off the front line, an ability to consider all ideas as potentially useful, and a structure to be able to harvest whatever comes up. But before all of these, the first thing you need is the physical space to make it work.
So maybe working from home might have other merits? Perhaps the traditional desks and working areas which populate our offices might be re-imagined as creative thinking spaces, and forums to share ideas and innovations? Maybe we could free up people to come together in the search for a better way, making the regular routine work more effective and enjoyable?
Of course, at a time when many businesses are battling for their very survival and furloughed employees are debarred from undertaking any work for their employer, it might seem like an indulgent extravagance to engage in such activity.
But one thing is for sure, and that is that the world has changed. This crisis is a potential game-changer. There will never be a better time to spend thinking about the future.
Maybe, if we grasp the opportunity, things might never be the same again.
1st September 2020
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