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12

May

Welcome to the new weird

What we are all going through isn’t normal; it isn’t even the new normal yet. It’s the new weird. It’s like the strange orange light that Australia and even New Zealand recently experienced due to the major forest fires. The objects are the same but cast in a strange new light.

Welcome to the new weird

This is my second blog about today’s tomorrow. These blogs are being posted on our website under the hashtag of #reimaginework. I wanted to take a step back though. I committed to calling a spade a spade. So, before we can systemically go about re-imagining work, I think we have to re-imagine life.

There is a name for this state. It’s called a liminal state – a ‘strange in-between’ as the complexity thinker Sonja Blignaut calls it. Her article in Medium, “Rhythm, ritual and boundaries” discusses some of the challenges that living in the liminal creates for human beings when they are taken out of the everyday.

I’ve been living and working in this liminal state myself. I’m actively re-imaging work at the same time as I’m re-imagining home life. I’m oscillating between working from home and homing from work. I’m messaging my wife in the room next door while I’m talking ‘face-to-face’ to colleagues 800 km away.

My bubble needs to cope with the needs of four adults, so I’m typing this sat in a (reasonably sized) walk-in-wardrobe. Laptop – check, power socket – check, small, round outdoor table ergonomic desk – er OK, background of 10 hat boxes – hmmm. Time to use the blur background feature in Teams

My colleagues have taken to calling my home office Narnia. It’s not as grim as it sounds, though. At least all the racks of clothes muffle the sounds of me apparently having conversations with myself. There have been the odd “Are you OK?” comments from the other side of the door. Other wits have been asking me when I’m going to come out of my closet. Note to self – dad joke humour survives COVID-19.

My experience isn’t unique. We are all experiencing distinctly odd dislocations – a developer trying to code a complex subroutine while wiping the peanut butter off her leg from the four year-old child under the table. Colleagues collaborating on a complex pricing sheet while a naked one year-old runs by in the background while being chased by a harassed parent loudly whispering, “Sorry!!”.

The point is this new weird is going to be with us for a while. Crossing the liminal space might take a bit of time. What are some of the coping systems that we can put in place?

Rhythm, Ritual and Boundaries

If you read the first blog you’ll know I love a quote. You might see this as me humblebragging about what I’ve read. I might even have to plead a bit guilty to the charge. Sometimes though, someone writes things so well that there is no point trying to paraphrase.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” W. Edward Deming

On the surface, that’s a brutal looking quote. Think a bit deeper though and it’s actually a big chunk of the theory of evolution. Successful species have evolved and mutated to cope with a changing landscape. Well folks, I think we can agree that we are in a changing landscape.

Going back to the alternate futures scenario in my previous blog, this quote also describes the path to decline and collapse. We are not playing golf; we can’t just take a mulligan and reset.

I’m tryring to treat the whole experiance as a learning one. For me, it’s not about about bouncing back, it’s about bouncing forward. Bouncing back is about hitting something square on and going backwards. Bouncing forward means hitting something obliquely while preserving momentum.

So let me tell you about the rhythms, rituals and boundaries that I’ve been applying to my liminal state. They might not work for you directly but they might help you bounce in a new direction. 

Rhythm

One of my fellow bubblees is my daughter. She’s a Berlin-based early music singer, trapped in New Zealand as a result of deciding to visit home at the wrong time (or the right time!). My daughter’s daily practice has also been a backdrop to my experience of the new weird, it has become an exended metaphor that has helped me to navigate this interesting journey.

Rhythm is essential to what she does. It frames how she performs. It makes sense of the notes on the page and converts those notes to events in time. It’s also essential to being able to perform effectively with others. If you want harmony involving multiple voices, then those voices need to follow the same rhythm.

It’s the same with Covid-working. Rhythm is an elemental human construct and it has become even more important right now. Lockdown means we can’t follow the visual cues of office life in order to know when it’s our entrance. There is no conductor waving the baton to provide the rhythm for us. We need to provide our own.

I’ve been doing this by establishing my own metronome. I still get up when the alarm goes off. I shower, shave and dress then head to the kitchen. Toast in, kettle on, check for a ripe avocado, if not then peanut butter. I keep the beats going throughout the day. Morning remote standup with the team, coffee and a gingernut at 11, lunch with family and so on.

It’s the same thing for collaborative work. It’s about working in ensemble without a conductor. It’s about getting in sync as a team. It’s about taking those half-beat rests when you are on a conference call so that you provide spaces for other to speak. It’s about breaking up the work into parts that can be worked on individually or in small groups.

It can be done, I assure you. A number of us worked together to complete a large and complex RFP bid without the usual shared physical space. It was different; it was less directed than normal but with that lack of external direction, we were able to set our own tempo.

Ritual

If rhythm provides the tempo and the ability to orchestrate activity, then rituals provide the means to create context and relevance. Rituals are the things that frame the performance. It’s tightly bound to rhythm but it’s the things we do that mean we are ready to start performing.

Rituals are the things that allow us to prepare for the roles we need to undertake. They help us to transition from one thing to another. For a singer it might mean singing a few practice scales or reading through the score. Those of us learning to work from the home stage will probably need to create new rituals to transition for home to work to home again. The rituals of going to the office have been removed.

As an example, I still commute, except I take a round trip – a 30 minute, socially-distanced bike ride around the neighborhood. I leave the house and on that ride I transition from being a husband at home to being an employee. I realise that the ride is unnecessary but for me the ritualistic transition really works. It allows me to go into my work space in work mode. I don’t even notice that I’m working in a wardrobe. The ritual has changed my perception of the space. I do the daily morning quiz from the digital newspaper and post my score to the team site where we have our virtual cooler chats and wait for the comments and others scores. Now I’m ready.....

The same applies at the end of the day. I close down my computer and put it away. I take the chair back to the kitchen. I go out into the garden and spend 5 minutes watching the fish in our pandemic pond we built just before lockdown. I come back into the house in my new role of husband, father and chef. I’m usually greeted with a ritualistic, “How was your day?” from my wife, which reinforces the transition.

As Sonja Bignaut says in her article, “Rituals are powerful, use them”.

Boundaries

There’s another factor beyond rhythms and rituals that is important in managing the liminal. It’s about applying boundaries and constraints. In the musical metaphor, these are the things that shape the melody and the harmony and frame the choruses. In music, it’s the key signatures, the chords, the motifs and the phrases.

In a COVID-19 work situation, the traditional boundaries and constraints have been dissolved. The distinct physical divide that we used to live in between home and work represented natural boundaries and constraints. Externally, they are mostly gone and in the process of being redefined.

Internally, though, we can still apply new boundaries to manage our work performance. With blurred boundaries we are in danger of falling prey to Parkinson’s Law: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. Boundaries describe the distinct spaces in which to get the work done. Without them, we are in danger of work being like a drone – an endless single note of limited productivity. I think we want to avoid that. There is a saying along the lines of ‘design loves constraints. I think this new world of work will too.

Boundaries are tightly connected with rituals. Rituals are a means to cross boundaries; they give purpose to the step from one context to another. But without those boundaries the rituals become meaningless or just purely wasteful.

I’d like to finish with a quote from Dave Snowden, another complexity thinker. He has written that, ‘You can’t start your journey at the end of someone else’s’. By that I believe he means that you can’t simply adopt someone else’s ways of doing things and follow the exact same trajectory. You have to develop and apply your own rhythms, rituals and boundaries in order to manage your own journey.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t observe and analyse other journeys to design your own approach. I don’t expect anyone else to build a pond and watch their fish as an end of day ritual, but I’d enjoy talking about what you might do instead.

Kia Kaha

This blog is part of the #ReimagineWork series. For more experts' insights, clients' experiences and to download our datasheets, click the banner.

For more experts' insights, clients' experience and to download our datasheets, click the banner #datareimagine

Posted by: Mark Smith, Head of Consulting and Architecture Services, Intergen | 12 May 2020

Tags: Digital Transformation, COVID-19, #ReimagineWork


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