Reinventing our Roles
A self-reflection on chances in the pandemic
It is one of these Friday evenings of this never-ending lock-down. I am calling it a week and looking forward to a relaxed weekend with no major highlights but the usual sports and calling of friends and family.
My wife, on the contrary, is loaded with energy. I watch her and cannot hide my smile. She bends like a professional photographer with her smart phone and tries to catch the perfect angle for a picture of a candle holder to upload to her online shop. Since all exhibitions were canceled, she is now selling her art online.
In my case, and since March 2020, my once extensive business traveling has been put on hold. Like all people in my field, we started trusting online video chatting applications as a substitute to physical meetings. Locked in our homes, we rejoiced at the human ingenuity connecting us all whilst separated by an invisible enemy: the Corona virus.
The pandemic, like in the case of my wife’s art, digitized our marketing and sales operations. Our communication activities moved to social media, e-commerce, and other online platforms. Virtual appointments replaced our sales calls, meetings, and conferences.
In the early stages, there was cheer and laughter. We stared closely at our screens, happy to reconnect with our customers and colleagues. Soon after however, we did not feel comfortable anymore. We did not like what we saw, not in the other participant’s image, but in our own. We thus pimped up how we looked, improved or applied virtual backgrounds, and when in doubt, simply shut down the camera.
Minutes in meetings and we were already exhausted. It was hard to remain concentrated on a screen and grasp what our customer on the other side was saying. We had to activate dormant parts of our brain to achieve the same level of understanding of a physical meeting.
Deep inside, we were torn apart. The introvert side in us has always dreamed of working remotely, on the beach or in the comfort of our living rooms. We would be wearing slippers and sipping Pina Colada, while shooting creative ideas one after the other. And these would all score well. Reality was different though. Remote work brought less human contact and confronted us with difficult persons, our own selves.
Soon our extrovert part revolted in this physical isolation. We wanted to go back to the office, sit in boring meetings or wait endless hours for our flights in cold impersonal airports. In a way, even the annoying colleagues did not seem that bad anymore and those difficult customers felt sweeter now.
After each virtual meeting, we promised ourselves and the others, that we would return to physical meetings as soon as the pandemic was over. Our normal life, which we often complained about, ought to come back soon; we liked to believe. Humans are social beings that thrive through connecting with one another.
While science will eventually find a cure to the actual virus and give us back our freedom of movement, some of the changes that the pandemic brought will remain, especially at work. In the end, businesses are reluctant to change what has profited their balance sheets.
The lock-down, for instance, has proved that certain positions and tasks could go uninterrupted, would cost less, and even function better when executed remotely. Video conferencing saved a lot in commuting time and business traveling. Not to mention the pollution that we spared the environment and the potential future savings of shrinking over expensive office space.
Besides saving on resources and offering flexibility to people and organizations, video chatting brought a tremendous advantage to companies: the possibility to communicate quickly and simultaneously with all their customers. Suddenly small and mid-sized companies could afford a swift presentation of new concepts to all their markets; something only the likes of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk could do in the past, and this only because of the strength of their brands and their product innovation.
What a business traveler in a non-glamorous industry did through days, weeks and even months, one virtual meeting could replace in their large part simultaneously with all customers. This would even be done in a better way, since the information would actually be given by field specialists from Product Management, Social Media, or E-commerce. Moreover, what a business traveler brought back as needed information from the markets, could be found to a significant extent online, unfiltered, and with end-users’ insights.
Certainly, business traveling and commuting to offices will not be eliminated. But these will not be needed in the same way anymore. This will allow free time and or make certain tasks and positions redundant.
Under the motto of “we have always done it this way”, many might resist this change and try to defend the status-quo. And the more profitable the company is, the longer it could afford ignoring change, till it is surpassed by smarter competitors.
Redundancy of old tasks could be disguised in different forms of busyness such as meetings and planning that give a sense of doing the right thing and controlling future outcome. But even if some companies could afford securing some redundant jobs, people performing the latter would lose their sense of purpose and soon resign in their hearts. No wonder then that mediocrity becomes the name of the game.
The changes that businesses are facing nowadays have been cooking on a slow fire for a long time. Following a century-old trend brought by the ever-increasing importance of technology in our daily work and the continuous strive to improve efficiency, these were only accelerated during the pandemic.
Jobs have partially or completely evolved on a path from being ‘Physical’, to ‘Mental’, and lately to ‘Conscious’. Certainly influenced by how companies are moving from Industrialization, to Information, and, more recently, to Connection Economies; this is also seen in the migration of jobs or tasks from the assembly line to office work and, recently, remote working, also known as telecommuting.
Until our current times, companies have adapted to environmental changes by acquiring new skills, often found among young talent. The older colleagues were relegated to simpler tasks or, whenever possible, simply laid off. ‘Young is sexy’ was the unspoken motto. In the industrial and information age, this was easy as life expectancy was shorter than nowadays and birth rates were higher. In the new connection economy, there are more senior people than young ones, and companies are expected to act responsibly, not only towards their shareholders. Hence, the need for organizations to act less egoistically by investing in their human resources. On the other hand, employees should act proactively by adopting a continuous learning mindset.
For us in Sales and Marketing, we need to let go of some of our old ways of work and acquire new skills more relevant to the digital transformation era. Acquiring know-how is no longer exclusive to people with access to expensive training; it is now within the reach of anyone with a WiFi connection. That is the easy part though. The hardest part remains to connect in a world full of noise, in which people are struggling with changes and uncertainties. The challenge resides in developing the emotional strength required whenever problems arise, with no quick fixes on hand, except for the empathy and will we thus bring in to help and act creatively.
In my wife’s case, the cancellation of the exhibitions meant she had to rethink ways to reach her customers. This did not only mean the need to learn how an online shop operates, but also to find the required empathy and courage to reach out to people who see value in her art.
The authorization to change our ways of work might, or might not, come in an organization. In the end, one owes to oneself the responsibility to stay fit and motivated in their job. Expecting the permission to change is often an excuse for not crossing our internal boundaries holding us back; in other words, a justification for not confronting our own self.
We will only dare the leap when we realize that if we do not, we would die from the inside.
Only then can external difficulties become surmountable. Only then we would be able to really connect with others, whether in a meeting room, in an exhibition, or simply through a screen.
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