The world has ground to a halt and entered a prolonged and unexpected hibernation. We are all being forced to live in transition from an old world towards a new reality that requires deliberate translation of hope to practice. The climate crisis and Coronavirus will surely be defining moments of our century, much like the World and Cold wars defined the last. So what do we do about this potential new dawn? What can we hold on to and what do we let go of?
When I was a child, there was absolutely nothing wrong with riding in the backseat of the car without a safety belt. It was a time when cigarette companies dominated the most prestigious event sponsorships, and within every restaurant, the haze of smoke hung about. In the olden days, these things were all considered entirely normal, like calling a friend on the landline.
I often wonder what we will look back at in the year 2030. Will we be stunned by how we behaved and what we valued in the 2010s? I do not doubt that there will be many seemingly normal aspects of our current reality that will look awkward and maybe even absurd.
We are already turning our backs on plastic, and we will reach a moment when society rejects carbon-belching cars entirely. Will we feel ashamed at how thoughtlessly we put our garbage bins out each week, rather than once a month, without a care for where this rubbish all ended up? Will we be shocked at how much food we gave to our pets when people were starving? I wonder if we will be disturbed about the amount of drinking water we flushed down our toilets. My son believes we will need pilots’ licenses more than drivers licenses in the future, maybe he’s right. Time will tell.
When I think of businesses and organisations today, I often try to imagine what may seem weird, odd and possibly inhumane in retrospect. I already think the idea of sitting in hours of commuter traffic or public transport will be viewed as ridiculous, as will the need for employees to wear certain types of clothing as a quasi-demonstration of their credibility and gravitas. We already see most forms of dress code from 100 years ago as laughable.
It may even seem strange that employees are paid to come to an office, or compensated for their time. Emails will probably come under harsh criticism and may have disappeared altogether, and we will marvel at how people were so busy, and yet did so little. We may also be shocked at the extent to which people allowed themselves and their opinions to be shaped by a faceless community on social media and how much faith we put in career politicians to improve our world.
All this reflection on the past then prompts me to think about the possibilities in the future. I am no futurist, so I find it easier if I pick a trend line in the present. The questions I will often ask is not, ‘what is going to progress?’ or ‘what will the future be like?’. Instead, I start with ‘what is unlikely to regress or go backwards in the future?’
For example, it is unlikely that the supply of single-use plastics will continue to rise, and we will never go back to planes that allow smoking on board. We won’t tolerate the use of more potent chemicals and pesticides on our crops, and we will not take the vote away from women.
This approach to thinking is also useful when I am challenged on the relevance of developing people in organisations. I still regularly engage with business owners, or share notes with colleagues, where people development work is questioned, and even resisted at times. The questions are initially very constructive, such as ‘how will development truly help our people be better at their jobs?’ Or, ‘what evidence is there that a purpose statement and clear values enhance organisational performance?’
But eventually, sometimes after months of deliberating and even some exploratory work, I observe leaders leak out their more honest personal perspectives, revealing that they would prefer their people to ‘show up, shut up and get sh*t done!’ Soon after that, the HR leader comes searching for more evidence to prove the case for people and to lament the self-serving management teams in their organisation.
My freshest approach to this challenge is to ask the question, ‘how likely is it that people development in organisations will reduce, and people will become less important in the future?’
I don’t believe that this is going to happen. Yes, technology will replace much routine, mundane and even highly advanced analytical work, but people’s needs and development will continue to grow as key differentiators to organisational competitiveness and performance.
The importance of increased psychological awareness from leaders will not regress, executive coaching will not go backwards, and neither will online education. Remote working and the use of meeting technologies will not decrease. Holding down two jobs, and the need to partake in the gig economy will remain a necessity for many. Increasingly, the focus will remain on deliverables, outcomes and contribution rather than hours in an office at a desk.
A useful measure of where we may be heading can be explored by dwelling on the question ‘what is likely to stay the same?’, rather than ‘what will change in the future?’ Of course both are useful questions but people’s desires to be their best selves will remain, their need to feel safe and secure will stay the same, their happiness as dependent on the quality of relationships will stay the same. People’s energy rising when they have a sense of purpose and meaning will also likely stay the same. As will the truth that the more valued you feel, the more loyal and engaged you will be. What will stay the same is a need to be seen and heard, to be supported and treated kindly.
So when you look ahead, what do you see? What do you think needs attention and preparation now? Above all, what do you believe will go backwards or regress that will impact how we work? And, in the future, what do you think will stay the same?
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