Analysis: the current crisis caused by the pandemic is an ideal opportunity to reform the way work is performed in most offices

'Never let a good crisis go to waste': this saying is variously attributed to Rahm Emanuel, Winston Churchill and M.H. Weiner. We are certainly in the middle of a crisis now, so how can we take advantage of the woeful state of affairs? My modest proposal is that we take the current state of affairs as an opportunity to reform the way work is performed in most offices.

Many of us stopped going to the office early in the pandemic and there is an open question of whether everyone will go back to the office once it has passed. Of course, large sections of the economy never stopped going to work. Gardai, firefighters, front-line medical workers, the men and women who stock and staff essential stores and many others never had the opportunity to work from home.  But for office workers, the question is whether everything will go back to normal once the health crisis has passed. 

Let's hope the answer is no. We might have a unique opportunity to reform several aspects of "the office" that make work such an aversive and stressful experience for so many people. Unlike David Letterman, I cannot offer a good Top Ten list, but I have four suggestions for improving life at work.

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RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on the future of work with presenter Ella McSweeney and guests David Collings, Alma McCarthy and Kevin Murphy on the changes ahead for the 9 to 5 working life

Rethink leadership and management

Bad leadership is one of the most significant sources of stress in the workplace. Some leaders are abusive, harassing their subordinates and creating a destructive climate in the workplace. Some are bullies, who are self-seeking, or who betray their supporters (recent US election loser Donald Trump is the poster boy for this destructive pattern). However, it is not just abusive leaders who cause misery in organizations. Many supervisors, managers and executives are just not very good at their jobs and make life difficult for everyone else in the organization.

Our unplanned experiment with remote work has provided many organisations with data about how employees function when they do not have a supervisor breathing down their neck. This is a golden opportunity to ask questions about the many layers of supervision and management in most organisations.

Back in November, I wrote about how the end of the office might mean the end of your boss. "Might" is the operative word here. I doubt that many organisations have carefully analyzed the way they might function with fewer bosses once employees return to the office. However, this is a golden opportunity to take a look and to find better ways to organize work.

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RTÉ Brainstorm pocast on how the end of the office may also mean the end of your boss

Do we really need another meeting?

There are too many meetings in most organisations, and they rarely justify the investment of time and resources that they require.  Unfortunately, many organisations have kept meetings going using technologies such as Zoom or Teams.  Some offices even hold remote holiday parties, although anyone who has been to one remote office party is probably not looking forward to their next one.

Meetings, if they are held at all, can certainly be better. In his book The Surprising Science of Meetings: How you can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, Professor Steven Rogelberg summarizes decades of research on meetings and offers several suggestions for improving them.

First, leaders need to focus on what they want to accomplish and to recognize that their employees’ time is a valuable resource not to be wasted. Second, meetings should be small; a department meeting with 25 to 30 people in attendance is almost certain to be a waste of time. Third, train leaders to manage meetings effectively and to create agendas that actually get something done, as opposed to lists to be checked off. Again, there is no excuse to going back to business as usual.

Business travel: a waste of time and money

It might be bad news for airlines and hotels, but business travel is often a great waste of time and money. It's unlikely that business travel will return even after the pandemic has ended. Unfortunately, the end of business travel could also signal the end of "bleisure" – i.e., the practice of tacking a vacation on the beginning or end of a business trip. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Mark Simpson from Goodbody on the impact of Covid-190 on the business travel sector

Many organisations conducted extensive business travel before the pandemic, but have had to live without it for the last 10 months or so. They may never have a better opportunity to ask serious questions about the payoff associated with business travel and it would be  a wasted opportunity to simply go back to the old ways without a serious review. 

I worked as a consultant for five years, and flew over 100,000 miles a year for several of them. I do miss some of the opportunities for bleisure, but I certainly do not miss spending much of my life in airports. I suspect that the decline in business travel will be as welcome to some travelers as it is to the accountants.

Ban PowerPoint

If you have been to a business meeting, you have almost certainly sat through PowerPoint presentations that have bored you to tears. I worked at one university that had two hour department meetings every week, and I quickly learned to bring work so I would not fall asleep. 

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From TEDxStockholmSalon, David JP Phillips on how to avoid death by PowerPoint 

Edward Tufte, the virtuoso of data visualization, has written extensively on how PowerPoint presentations distort the process of communication. This method of presentation tends to break complex and interrelated ideas into small, discrete and often uninformative chunks.  Presentation slides often contain very little information, and a slide deck is rarely a good substitute for a brief, well-written report.  If you have ever sat through a presentation where the presenter reads each slide to you, you know the frustration of meetings organized around PowerPoint presentations. 

Tufte describes the practice in several companies of starting each meeting with a "study hall", where everyone reads a short report (eg four to six pages), followed by a structured discussion that focusses on recommendations and their justification. If you must have meetings, please ban PowerPoint.

My four suggestions do not exhaust the realm of possibilities for improving "the office".  My goal here is not to be comprehensive, but rather to suggest that we take advantage of our experience with different ways of organising work. If you go back to the office and find that nothing has changed, it is a good bet that your organisation is being poorly led. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ