As more and more countries extend their vaccination campaigns, with the US authorities saying that 99.992% of fully inoculated people can resist Covid, the de-escalation process, the supposed return to normality after an 18-month hiatus, is underway.
But what does normality mean? Within a few weeks of the first lockdowns in March 2020, forced to work from home, we quickly learned new habits: few of us had ever tried videoconferencing, and if we had, the call was usually set up for us by the IT department. Now everybody is doing it.
Then there’s the half hour or more we used to spend sitting in a traffic jam to get to the office, and that for many of us is now largely banished to the past. In some sectors of active labor markets such as the United States, the pandemic has led many people to relocate from particularly expensive cities such as San Francisco, Seattle or New York to outlying locations. Places that would be functionally unworkable if people had to commute to their company’s headquarters every day, but which now, with a full or partial distributed work approach, allow access to much larger homes, with a garden or a pool, for similar amounts to what they used to pay for a cramped downtown apartment. For many of these workers, the prospect of returning to normality is a nightmare.
The same goes for managers who used to spend half their lives on an airplane and evaluated their quality of life inversely in terms of the color of the metal on their frequent flyer card: in most cases, they haven’t been through check-in for more than a year, and have seen for themselves that their companies do not go under when things are coordinated via videoconferencing. In some cases they may think it wouldn’t hurt to physically stop by their markets from time to time, but they certainly have no particular interest in going back to their old life. As Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb, rightly says, “business travel will never go back to what it was before the pandemic.”
However powerful the evidence, however, there is a negative force in play here: isomorphism, the inertia that pushes many companies to return how things were before the pandemic. Many business leaders cling to the belief that the pandemic was an exceptional situation they are very grateful to have come out of alive, and all they have to do is leave it behind and go back to business as usual.
In many ways, the ability to resist the forces of isomorphism is what separates good business leaders from bad ones: either closing the pandemic chapter and refusing to learn anything from what we’ve been through, or taking cues from a new context, understanding that some things have changed forever. A bad business leader simply goes back to doing things as they were before, because that’s how they’ve always been done: nine-to-five, Monday to Friday.
And of course there is a whole tier of managers out there with good reason for wanting their companies to go back to the old ways: their survival. I’m talking about a particular subspecies, middle management. The pandemic has shown how, as workforces become more distributed and work is more asynchronous, the traditional role of middle management, that of overseeing the individual performance of those under their command, is becoming redundant. The result is that many organizations will flatten out, while becoming significantly more productive.
In some countries, the end of the pandemic restrictions will probably see millions of workers switch companies. They will be looking for companies that offer them environments where they can work as they want, from wherever they choose.
Seeing the end of lockdown as simply a return to the old ways, without learning anything, is for the dinosaurs. And for them, the pandemic is going to be an asteroid.