New or old normal

We’re seven months into what has been hailed as the greatest social upheaval in decades. But already some of those solemn “nothing will ever be the same again” predictions are being reassessed. Certainly in Kenya, where, thanks to prompt action and clear communication from the Government, sunshine, fresh air, a youthful population and any number of other factors (real or imagined) we seem to have escaped total disaster. Economically, there is no doubt that Kenyans are facing hardships. Medically, lives have very sadly been lost.  But socially, we do not appear to have been upended. Any journey away from urban highways reveals a country full of people getting on with life as best they can. Going to work, where work exists. Hustling; trading. Shopping in markets. Masks akimbo or reserved for wear in the proximity of authority. But more care is taken with personal hygiene (and may reduce the incidence of petty ailments). And more than usual concern shown for the young and elderly. In short, our society is adapting to new circumstances but not abandoning established habits.

In the workplace, the Western world is convinced that, with so many discovering the expediency of working from home, the labour force will undergo the most radical change since men left farms for cities at the dawn of the factory age. But even there it seems neither workers or bosses are keen on this new Industrial Revolution. In The Wall Street Journal last week, Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix, was asked whether he saw any positives from having almost all his staff working from home for the past six months. His answer was cast entirely in the negative. And that is the perspective of a technology-enabled business whose revenues have leapt during the pandemic.

Global business leaders already realise that business is not sustainable without human interaction. And anyone who’s had to sit on a Zoom call with colleagues will have had this demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. Video calls may oblige on-time attendance, but they certainly don’t facilitate engagement. How many of your colleagues switch off cameras and sound and get on with whatever else they are doing? Reducing identity to a pair of coloured initials (because no one’s bothered to work out how to set up a profile photo). Blaming poor connectivity for slow or non-response.

Social disintegration in the virtual workplace is a failure of leadership. Leaders failing to address connectivity challenges caused by years of IT underinvestment. Leaders failing to establish behavioural norms. Left unchecked, staff will find the alternatives to formal employment that will indeed be the new norm.