Using Uniquely Human Skills to navigate to a post-pandemic future

One of the challenges we face in communicating the application of the uniquely human skills taught in our programs comes from a lack of exposure organisations have to action in practice.

Aside from my role in imagining and leading The Future Works Skills Academy I have an expertise in enterprise architecture. And by that, I specifically refer to long term projects that involve understanding the DNA of organisations and working with stakeholders to re-imagine a new design in response to clear indicators that they are facing disruption. Occasionally I have the good fortune of working with a client to address emerging opportunities (rather less anxiety-provoking than trying to survive a catastrophic event). For one client in the last months I have focussed on understanding opportunities for organisational transformation emerging from the global pandemic. And in approaching this challenge I applied the learnings from our programs and on reflection thought I would document our case study so far as an example of how these might work in practice.

Our client is a fast-growing financial services firm. Their 500+ employees largely consist of millennials, they 100% work in an office, the company has large CBD-located overheads, over 73% of their teams travel more than 2 hours on public transport every day, and their clients are Sydney-based.

How are you Feeling?

My role initially was to understand how the teams were feeling. I wasn’t operating out of any intent other than to observe the general mood of the team. In early March it could only be described as one of fear and uncertainty. It was all that they could do to muster the energy to put one foot in front of the other. The prevailing theme was a struggle to reinvent their role in a distributed environment.

March came and went. And something interesting happened. People settled into their jobs, managed to gain confidence that they could support their clients; and found ways to make the home/work balance operate more functionally. And they started to signal a relief at not having to travel to and from work on public transport. Yes, they missed their colleagues but they were also finding a new freedom from the distractions of the workplace. And on questioning even started to indicate that perhaps there was life beyond the suburbs of Sydney. Perhaps crowded cities were not the only place to be in a post-pandemic world.

Opportunity Mindset

Out of these conversations emerged potential opportunities. How might we design a Post-pandemic business model that leverages the opportunities offered by disruption? What if the team were distributed nationally rather than exclusively serving the Sydney market? What if teams blended working from home and the office on a more formal basis? What were the regional growth areas and Australia and were these markets under-serviced in terms of financial services?

 Team Sessions – Organise and Visualise

We ran a series of virtual brainstorming sessions where we used the key Humantific Visual Sensemaking skills of Organise and Visualise to better understand the opportunities open to us. True to the approach we documented every single contribution then organised these into categories (costs, risks, process, location, people).

It was clear from the output that there were staff who would consider moving to regional Australia (rural or coastal). We conducted a survey and 18% of staff would seriously consider a move and 80% of staff supported a blended workplace model. We determined to create two specific projects using Design Thinking to ideate and prototype solutions for work in Sydney and national growth.

Novel Thinking

We had two initial sessions using SCAMPER – a Novel Thinking approach where potential solutions are elicited from questioning how we might Substitute, Combine, Adjust, Modify (magnify, minify), Put to other uses, Eliminate and/or Reverse, Rearrange the current working reality into something new.

In parallel, specialist team members looked at the numbers. They modelled different ratios, scenarios and schedules for operations. Without doubt there were significant savings to be had by reducing CBD overheads but other costs to consider including flexible office arrangements for distributed teams and additional staff required for business development in new locations.

At the end of April here is where we landed:

1.   There were several potential prototypes for Sydney-based work to trial the preferred being 3 days at home and 2 at the office (rostered). Outreach to clients (site visits) had never been a part of organisational practice but to be put to clients as an option.

2.  It was decided that regional markets would be researched and a prototype designed for pioneer team members. One preference that emerged was the establishment of cells within each location where team members worked in an office together 2 days a week. People still wanted to work together. Something else that emerged from team sessions was the notion of pursuing market specialisation in growth verticals within regions (for example agriculture, aquaculture, viticulture, mining)

The Upshot

While many organisations have struggled with stabilising my client has used this situation as an opportunity to reset a blueprint they inherited from 150 years of process-centred workplace design. The prototypes emerging have placed humans at the centre of work; made what is important to employees a part of the conversation and made them co-creators of their world. And it has not been done in a way that eschews accepted commercial practice – the numbers still need to add up; the solutions still need to align with externalities to market opportunities. The principals of the business were agile AND flexible. They acted and they acted fast. They are willing to fail because with failure comes learning and with learning growth. They trusted their teams and they created an environment of trust where team contributions were valued. A significant change I observed was their ability to let go of a command and control leadership approach and to create room for their teams to participate in building the path forward. They have a long way to go but somehow I think they are going to be alright.

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