Make Omicron Work for YOU

Mr COVID, a.k.a. Kurt Beaudoin (Source: CBC)

In the weeks after the Twin Towers fell, corporate America wrung its hands. Markets were open and planes were flying, but less frequently and emptier. How much would the precipitous decline in business travel and similar practices hurt output?

As it turned out, very little. In the last quarter of 2001, the US economy actually grew 2.7% — and kept going.

What came to the rescue was something economists have pointed out ever since Thomas Malthus sounded the alarm about population growth outpacing food production in the late 18th century: we adapted our behavior.

Sure, distant colleagues and clients saw less of each other. Airlines would not fully recover until 2004.

Does that mean meetings didn’t happen? That sales dried up?

Of course not. Managers simply discovered how much could get done over the phone. Road warriors could stick to roads. Not every rep needed to go to every conference. We learned to catch up on emails in the departure lounge — and to buy water after security.

So it was that, in the years after 9/11, productivity growth actually increased.

Fast forward to today. Since the greater shock of COVID-19, leaders have lost even more sleep about their ability to keep creating value.

From Shanghai to Silicon Valley to Sarasota has gone up the rallying cry we heard way back when: the need to get back to “normal”.

Newsflash: that’s never going to happen. At least, not the way the criers mean.

Even in the carefree days of 2019, travel was far from what it had been in the summer of 2001. The terrorists were able to board without showing ID, let endure full body-scans, discard liquids or prove they weren’t on a no-fly list.

Anyone can argue the cost of modern security restrictions is excessive.

No one can say they haven’t got used to it — let alone that we can go back.

Learning from Omicron

The advent of the far more infectious Omicron variant has shocked many.

It shouldn’t. As disease experts have rushed to point out, it’s simply a reminder that we’ve a ways to go before the pandemic becomes endemic.

We had already accepted a world where the flu infects tens of millions annually, and will never go away. Where prudent businesses make sure employees can and do get annual shots.

Few complained as much about that precaution as they have about COVID vaccines, masks, and social distancing. Why?

In part, of course, because of political weirdness. But even before March 2020, managers — Americans in particular — cultivated a deep suspicion about allowing employees to work from home.

Many still hold onto the dogma that remote work cannot possibly be as productive as that done in the office.

Such concerns are not unwarranted. When Marissa Mayer took the helm at Yahoo in 2013, she rightly felt its tolerance of “flex” work had gotten out of hand.

Yet Yahoo was an extreme situation — many team spaces were perennially empty.

In truth, the best way to maximize productivity was never to permit a remote free-for-all, nor to ban it entirely. Prudence lies in finding balance.

Today’s managers need to work with another stark reality: they don’t have a choice. COVID is here to stay.

So how do you make this unwanted and fickle new “hire” work for you?

The New Rules

No one’s suggesting in-person work does not have benefits that cannot be reproduced remotely.

The media’s focus on how well white collar workers are coping in general has overlooked two groups whose opposite experience threatens long term harm:

  • Younger workers who require mentorship, and
  • Salespeople looking to develop new relationships.

The development opportunities afforded by face-to-face interaction will never replaced on Zoom.

The good news is they don’t have to. Managers simply need to embrace a new normal that involves a bit of both.

That means a world in which:

  1. COVID never goes away. There will always be new variants — on average more infectious and less deadly like Omicron and, well, most viruses — and the need for new vaccines that will be months behind providing optimal protection.
  2. We track infection rates the way we track weather. Just as you’d avoid a Chicago meeting during a winter storm, so will we postpone trips anywhere the infection rate creeps up above, say, 15 per 100,000.
  3. Prudent employers demand staff not endanger others: to have their vaccines up to date, wear masks in public, and self-test weekly— no different than drug tests in the energy sector, which even freedom-loving Texans have come to accept.
  4. White-collar employees are required to work from the office and home. The weekly mix is driven by business requirements and prevailing infection rates. This allows for face-to-face collaboration and business development. But to minimize risk, entire teams are rarely together.
  5. All this is accepted as normal. As inoffensive as having to put a laptop through an airport scanner— and as pointless to moan about.

This is the “normal” we’re heading for. We must all to get used to the idea that, however much more productive our teams might have been in a non-COVID world, we’re never going back to a non-COVID world.

As such, managers would do well to heed four principles going into 2022:

  1. Beware all or none thinking. Today’s best practices are not tomorrow’s. Human adaptability has served us pretty well for hundreds of millennia. There’s no reason to lose faith now.
  2. Pandemic mitigation will be a core business skill, even an industry. Much like business continuity planning generally, and climate change adaptation.
  3. Value remote and in-person work. There’s no other option.
  4. Penalize high-risk COVID behaviour (like vaccine hesitancy) as you would any dangerous activity (like operating machinery under the influence). It would be helpful if governments would step in to reduce direct employer/employee conflict — but if they don’t, put the well being of your most prudent, most valuable workers first.

2022 is going to be interesting. But if it’s anything like 2002, the best businesses are going to make it work — and surprise themselves by continuing to create ever more value.

Stephen Butler is a management consultant at Framework and co-founder at Rimrock.

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Entrepreneur, Advisor, Recovering Philosopher.

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Stephen Butler

Stephen Butler

Entrepreneur, Advisor, Recovering Philosopher.

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