It is just after dark. A bell is tolling in the distance. There is a rumbling of a wagon moving down the village road. A man calls out: Bring out your dead.
The year is 1348. The bubonic plague, aka The Black Death, arrived in Europe from Asia just the year before and would eventually kill over one third of the population. There would be successive pandemics every twenty years or so, not just plague but typhus and many others. The impact of these waves of pestilence led to what some historians refer to as the shattering of society. Questioning whether all this suffering is really God’s retribution and asking if this is the best we could do in how we build communities. The Reformation to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment can all be traced to the shattering these pandemics brought to the Medieval world and Medieval thought. To be sure this journey had many horrific chapters from the Inquisition through endless religious wars.
These tumultuous centuries leading to the birth of the modern world were about questioning and resisting. Some seeking enlightenment and possibly a new path for mankind, while others, perhaps out of fear, sought a way to preserve what was and confirm the certitude of God’s order. Extending the nature of these societal challenges to our present-day situation with COVID-19 may seem like a stretch, but perhaps not too much of a stretch. In around three months we have gone from bare awareness of the challenge we were facing to efforts to mobilize the global community in an organized resistance. Things move faster now than in the 14th Century.
Like in the 14th Century, our primary defense is social distancing. We have not yet come to the point of torching our neighbors’ homes, and hopefully this will be avoided! Our efforts at a coordinated response can best be described as uneven. Even now, much of our response is to formulate a path that gets us back to the other side as quickly as possible and a return to normal.
For the world of work, COVID-19 though has sown the seeds for possibly revolutionary change. For companies where most staff are engaged in office work, the readiness of these organizations to support virtual work is being sorely tested. The painful determination of “essential” from “non-essential” and on which side of that line you may fall again brings into question how we are organized as communities of work. Understandably, the focus now is on somehow maintaining some semblance of operations, keeping people gainfully employed while hopefully sustaining business operations to the extent possible. What happens when we get to the other side of this virus? Will it be a return to normal? Probably, and unfortunately, for most organizations this is most likely.
The technological advances which enable the virtual world are ever present and at our disposal. What is lacking is the mindset to envisage a virtual company on a pervasive and on-going basis. This is the greatest impediment to a revolution in the workplace. This is the same mindset that thirty years ago was uncomfortable with computers on managers’ desks and the need to figure out how to use that contraption called a keyboard. This is the mindset that fondly remembers steno pools and carbon paper. While fading as the baby boom generation moves into retirement, it is still a dominant perspective which has created a deep and enduring legacy in organization design.
It was noted in a prior post that there is an insidious quality in traditional office structures. Built around vertical hierarchies that often resembled a caste system, the focus on the integrated relationships which govern work and job design is on inputs. By this, we mean jobs have been defined as a series of inputs which support the hierarchy. Tasks are enumerated linked to processes which often detaches the staff member from the ultimate and overall purpose of the job. Staff then cling to the processes which have defined their jobs and take comfort in noting their secure place in the hierarchy. Changes in how things get done move slowly and often face institutional resistance. We are all uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.
The challenge of overcoming the traditional organizational mindset and the input focus on jobs cannot be underestimated or overstated. It is so deeply rooted that it is accepted as an immutable norm of which we are hardly aware. It is a given that this is the nature of work and yes, like the divine right of kings to rule, it is ordained. Today we can look back at the office of the 1980s and reflect on how quaint that world of electric typewriters, carbon paper and mail registries was. Yes, we can chuckle at the memory of first seeing a manager hunt and peck his way through an email and think to ourselves how far we have all come now, working in the cloud. We all have memories of senior managers insisting that the trappings of rank justified having secretaries print out emails and type responses from handwritten notes. Are these people still will us at work?
Unfortunately, yes, or at least their kindred descendants, are all around us. The ultimate characteristic and purpose of the traditional input-based office structure is control. To keep staff narrowly focused on a set of defined tasks, rather than concentrating on the broader purpose and continually questioning is this the best way to get things done, is the result. What makes this so insidious is how it traps staff in rigid definitions of work and impedes natural growth and advancement. It perpetuates hierarchical relationships which do not promote team empowerment and has a lingering unpleasant whiff of gender bias.
If COVID-19 accelerates the demise of this feudal structure, we will all be the better for it. Our “New Normal” must be a world where virtual and office based work blends and co-exists, seeking the optimal combination of the two, and in which the purpose of the job becomes the new focus of work, instead of just inputs and process.
Birches Group welcomes the opportunity to assist your organization in traveling down this new road of work and organization design. Reach out to us (virtually, of course).
Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group. He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years. Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries. Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform. He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world