Associate Originator, BP
London, United Kingdom
“Apologies, my camera is not working, can you please give me 2’ minutes to connect with my phone”
… and then I run into the bedroom, grabbed the first shirt and blazer I could lay my hands on and quickly changed into what would be considered in the old world as a more acceptable ‘business’ attire before logging back into the meeting. True story… which I believe must feel very familiar to a lot of Gen Y and Z’ers out there.
2020 changed a lot in our world, it caused a lot of pain and uncertainty and led a lot of people to reassess things they took as given. There were some silver linings to it though, and as a natural optimist, I would like to focus on those in the next few paragraphs. Lately, I have been very engaged in the debate around the ‘new normal’, trying to envision how the new reality will look like post COVID-19. I have done so both for my own personal reasons, but also from an institutional perspective as I am heavily engaged in the space of NGO’s and Entrepreneurship. I can tell you one thing… it has been immensely exciting experience!
There are people who believe our world will be forever changed after this trauma, while others argue that nothing will change. The latter base their view on the short memory span of our society which has led us to fall into the same behavioural patterns again and again, even though every time they lead to the same devastating conclusions (think of financial crises, wars etc.). Someone close to me always told me… The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, without changing any variable, but expecting different results.
It is funny but I think that this is the key. I firmly believe that something has actually changed. Don’t get me wrong; surely, we will revert to a lot of our normal practices, simply because people find comfort in familiarity. But there are three key learnings which I believe are here to stay for both individuals and organisations. These learnings contradict things that were considered normal, and it required a shock to the system to provide with the necessary proof points to the contrary.
People and organisations learned that connecting with colleagues, customers or suppliers online is a lot easier, a lot cheaper and in most cases a lot more efficient than travel – regardless of whether it is international or even within the same city or region. Granted, there are occasions where there is value in personal contact. But in many occasions travel results to time being wasted commuting back and forth for a meeting, when people could click on a couple of buttons and achieve the same result in an hour, sipping on a cup of coffee. This allows us to connect more frequently and effectively and dare I say it, it frees up time to get other stuff done! Isn’t this ultimately the purpose of work… Getting things done? So, if it can save us money, allows us to manage our time more efficiently and generally makes our lives better, how can one imagine us going back to our pre-COVID travel patterns?
If I don’t need to be present in meetings, then why should I commute to the office at all you might ask? As a big supporter of in person collaboration and a dynamic workplace environment, I love the feeling of comradery and the energy of gathering with your team around a whiteboard and hacking a challenge. But the truth is that I don’t need to hack challenges every day. And I certainly do value the space to think and focus that I get when I work from home. With COVID forcing people to work from home for an extended period of time, the fear that people might not be productive when they work from home flew out the window. The reality is, as many studies have shown (e.g HBR), that people tend to work longer hours and attend more meetings when they work from home. Flexibility in the home/office presence, wherever possible, seems to be more efficient for the employee and for the employer who can optimise office space costs. Unless there are legitimate reasons for a role to be 100% office based, how could anybody argue against the win-win that is offered by allowing employees the flexibility to work from home whenever possible?
Circling back to my opening anecdote, I believe that COVID has triggered a shift on what is important. We have been logging into a myriad of meetings where high-ranking professionals allowed us a glimpse of their personal life, seeing them in their house, wearing t-shirts and with their kids and pets joining our conversations. I have loved every minute of it. It has allowed us to humanise our leaders and to connect with them on a much more intimate level. Formal attire does not only feel unnecessary today, it feels more like an obstacle. Ultimately, I always felt that business attire was meant in many ways to make us all look the same, in a similar fashion to school uniforms. Which comes to a direct conflict with my own principles on diversity and inclusion. Why should we all be forced into a business mould in order to be accepted and valued? Don’t worry, I am not arguing that we should all go to the office wearing flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts tomorrow. I am simply advocating the fact that people have started to realise that it is what you do that really matters. Appearances are just that, and they don’t get the job done. Start-up’s and the tech industry know this better than anyone.
After having some time to reflect on it, I think that next time I feel the urge to run to pick a shirt and blazer from my wardrobe to join a meeting, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I’ll wear my Ziggy Stardust t-shirt and let my friend David tell you all about Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes and how it’s time to turn and face the strange…