It is hard to pick out many consistent themes from the intense disruption we have all experienced in 2020.

Coronavirus has massively accelerated a number of trends that were already underway – such as the shift to online shopping and what was a gentle move towards home working became the norm for most of us over night.

Coronavirus has also had reciprocal impacts on different sectors – cinema down – streaming up, aviation down – camping up, commercial property down – rural property up and so on.

Coronavirus has not been the only disruptor of 2020 either  – climate change is more and more visible and sustainability is now far more firmly on the agenda for many businesses.   Fairness and equality have also shot up the agenda with Black Lives Matter.

Many organisations reported a boost in productivity in the early days of the lockdown, but this came at an unsustainable personal cost to employees who found themselves seriously overloaded coping with their day job, plus the extra demands of adjusting to operating in a different way, plus the psychological challenge of the pandemic and for many juggling home schooling and child care as well.

For office based organisations the big questions are around how to respond to all of this disruption in a way that ultimately enhances sustainability from an individual, commercial and environmental perspective.

Firstly it seems unlikely that everyone will go back to the office every day, ever.

Both offices and remote working have advantages and disadvantages and smart working practices can help organisations benefit from both.

Offices are great for building relationships, workshopping, serendipitous conversations and creating a sense of belonging to something significant – all of these things are harder when we work remotely.

Home working is great for flexibility, avoiding commuting, reduced distraction (for some),  easier to have calls (for some) and levelling the playing field between head office and other locations.

To make the most of investments in offices space organisations need to rethink how offices are used.  Offices are not necessary to write emails or have calls.  Not everyone needs a desk every day.  So we have the opportunity to redesign them as far more social and collaborative spaces to maximise the advantages while expecting people to attend less frequently.  Offices could drastically reduce the number of permanent work spaces and replace them with more flexible work spaces, cafe spaces, collaboration spaces (not just meeting rooms) and even overnight accommodation space.

Less creative meetings, correspondence and other more administrative functions could all be done from home or in co-working spaces closer to people’s homes.

Another big impact will be the reduction in international travel.  Lockdowns and quarantines have proven that most activities can be effectively handled remotely using video calls and digital collaboration tools.   International travel is expensive and imposing travel restrictions has always been a popular cost saving method.  Layer the covid risks of air travel and the sustainability implications on top of the financial ones and it is easy to see business travel being drastically reduced.

All of these changes and impacts have big implications for leadership and management.

In this far more dynamic working model both leadership and management need to be far more intentional and planful.  Processes and working practices need to be obvious, articulated, trained, reminded and present for all team members as well as a well structured cadence of physical and virtual meetings and workshops.

Management, the practice of keeping things reliable, needs to be balanced with leadership,  the practice of creating change, such that teams are able to deliver on the day job at the same time as transforming themselves.

In this more fluid environment leadership and management of a team becomes a full time job.  It will be far harder for those with leadership and management responsibility to also do operational tasks.

Given our propensity for promoting people to leadership and management roles for their operational capabilities this can be challenging.  Those wishing to lead or manage will have to be willing to let go of and delegate virtually all of their operational activities in order to be effective in the new normal.

The role will be one of ensuring that everyone in the team is operating at their best as much of the time as possible and that all of those individuals are collaborating as effectively as they can.

Another skill that will be essential in the new era will be virtual working skills.  Those who struggle to work remotely or who can’t make their point on a Zoom call will find progress harder than those who can.  Virtual working is the new working and being good at it will be essential.

Covid19 is not a short term hit.  The current level of disruption and restriction is likely to last until an effective vaccine reaches about 60 to 70% of the world population.  Even if at the fastest plausible rate of testing, development and deployment that will not be achieved before the end of 2021.

Natural herd immunity, caused by people catching the disease, is a dangerous distraction.  At the highest rates of infections seen so far, 300,000 per day, it would take 42 years to infect 60% of the worlds population and the evidence is that immunity lasts 3 months at best.

The impacts will reduce as we get better at managing the disease and its effect, but the pandemic will last long enough to make deep and lasting changes in the economy, politics and society.

The impacts will not be evenly distributed across the economy – aviation, fossil fuels, hospitality, public transport, commercial property, elderly care and live entertainment will all need to radically transform their business model, just to survive.

Conversely healthcare, anything online and renewable energy will all accelerate.  Students emerging from their Covid impacted education will want to choose their sector wisely.

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