Business leaders were once celebrating the pace at which they had pivoted to remote working. One said, several thousand people working in an office was a ‘thing of the past.’ A year on, the novelty of dispersing for survival and high hopes of increased productivity have been replaced by Zoom fatigue, domestic frictions, in-person connectivity deprivation and mental health concerns.
The Next Step. Goldman Sachs’ CEO has described current distribution as, ’an aberration’ to be ‘corrected as quickly as possible’. Others also champion a return to the office, acknowledging the need for social interaction and importance of physical proximity for creative spontaneity and team building. It is a tacit recognition that traditional management levers are harder to pull when people are dislocated. Driven by employee expectations, variations in lockdown experience, and economics, other business leaders favour greater optionality. HSBC’s CEO has talked of a ‘hybrid’ model and the likes of Facebook and Twitter have stated there will be no mass office return.
Regardless of where one sits on the spectrum, between full return to remaining highly distributed, what is not in question is that the nature of working has changed. The virus has shone a spotlight on the inadequacies of old-style management practices. Just as it has accelerated the pace of digitisation, it has also fast-tracked the need for different critical thinking, delegated decision-making and a shift from management to leadership. Whatever the future workspace looks like, this requirement has immediate relevance for how a company decides, plans, and executes its transition. HR, facilities, and resilience functions will be grappling with the logistics of testing, social-distancing, and vaccine implications. However, I suspect few will draw on lessons from other sectors, where managing transition from abnormal situations is routine.
Progressive Transition. Last week, I spoke to Sir Martin Narey, former Director General of the Prisons Service about the reintroduction of offenders back into society. He agreed that there were some parallels to be drawn. Martin commented that TVs were introduced into cells, partly to help prisoners prepare for the end of their sentences; his point was that prolonged absence from normal circumstances requires a progressive approach.
Martin also agreed, that while the offender rehabilitation processes could be improved, the military experience of people transition is worthy of study. Combat in places like Afghanistan is abnormal but managing its psychological impact and transitioning from a tour of duty, is something that the military have spent decades refining. When 3 PARA returned from 6-months of intensive combat, our transition plan was progressive. We went through a period of deliberate de-compression. This included therapeutic sessions and re-socialising before our actual return to work, which was staged and incremental, having decided there would be no immediate return to business as usual. Six lessons from that experience are relevant to today’s business situation.
Mission purpose is crucial to people who have gone through an experience beyond their normal ken. They need clarity on what they have been through, where they are going next and how they are going to get there.
Empowered all-levels leadership – It was my junior leaders not just my seniors, that made the transition work. We consulted them, seeking out what they and their families wanted when we returned to the UK. We also empowered them by equipping them with tools needed to execute the plan, including a team mental-health management protocol, which mitigated the psychological impacts of what people had been through.
Communication effectiveness was key – We messaged the intent of transition in a manner formatted for precise understanding, which was compelling, inspired and had a unifying purpose where every person knew their role in the plan.
Collaboration mechanisms were employed, which cut across functional departments, ensuring there were no silos, mutual departmental dependencies were clear and collegiate accountability was established and diversity of thought harnessed.
Agile decision-making methodology meant the most junior leaders could employ their initiative to deal with rapidly evolving circumstances at the coalface of execution. Consequently, there was no frozen middle and people were able to take appropriate action without constant reference to senior management.
Right behaviours through codified culture – Culture is how a collective body and individuals act; especially when they have been stressed. Actions require decision-making and leadership at every level. It worked because our leaders were taught how to decide and how to lead.
3 PARA returned home knowing that we would be going back to Afghanistan in just over a year. However, the combination of the above allowed us to transition, adjust and overcome the impacts of the abnormal experience we had been through. Whatever solutions companies choose, or circumstances force them to adopt in their own transition, most will be operating in uncharted territory. While the context may differ, the parallels are clear and the logic of leveraging the military perspective and adapting it to the situation facing business today is compelling.
Matero Consulting – empowering organisational purpose with precision. Started in 2019 by Stuart Tootal and Dan McDonough, Matero Consulting has designed a proven new way of working methodology called MECCAR. It leverages military experience of purpose, empowerment, and delegated decision-making for the benefit of business change agendas. Using a framework adapted from combat and applied to commerce, MECCAR empowers teams with purpose based on a flexible framework of process, tools, and skills. This framework decentralises authority, brings clarity in ambiguity, resilience for change and disruption when pace, precision, and the ability to thrive in uncertainty and pivot faster than the competition, is key.
Mission Purpose, Empowerment, Communication, Collaboration, Agility and Right Behaviours (codified culture and leadership)