By Jacob Markus, Associate Consultant
We focus so much on the things that change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, that we often overlook what has stayed constant.
The sweeping “changes” that organizations have made as a result of COVID-19 were not invented last month: Work From Home (WFH), flexible hours, and sharing our “whole self” at work along with family pressures and constraints have been trendy for years. Countless books, studies, and Harvard Business Review articles have advocated for the increased productivity and engagement that comes from these practices.
These are concepts that have been studied and implemented at companies with great success for years. So why did it take a global pandemic for some organizations to make the transition into such needed changes that were always valuable?
During one of my recent hours-long forays into Wikipedia, I came across a timeline of “periods in United States history”. It included the familiar ones studied in school, Colonial Period (1607–1765), Gilded Age (1877–1895), Reagan Era (1981–1989), etc., until I reached the bottom: Coronavirus Crisis (2020- ). Although so much of the world has changed as a result of COVID-19, I was surprised to see this event already changing history as well… or was it?
The article revealed a perspective common with most headlines these days that COVID-19 has “forever changed our offices and the way we work”. Spoiler: it’s about culture and authenticity.
Innovation is often the product of constraint. We often think of fiscal constraint as a driving force for start-ups that need to out-perform large companies with limited budgets. However, this strategy is not unique to small companies alone. When I worked in R&D at Apple, the department’s VP often emphasized the need to run the project like a “start-up”. This meant strictly setting a budget that seemed a bit cramped, yet time and time again, acted as a crucible that fostered innovation in ways that would have been inconceivable before. This has also led to an increasing trend of larger companies having arms of smaller organizations devoted to innovation that operate in this environment (like Cisco Meraki).
For many companies like Apple, the current crisis has formally introduced the constraints that they tried to work within for years. How many of these companies will wait for the next crisis to adopt the “best practices” for their employees and business?
A closer examination reveals a second commonality among the culture of companies that have successfully transitioned to this new environment — they all have a greater emphasis on outputs/results as opposed to activities/process. For companies with these sets of values, signaling is limited and a focus on results and output were central. Business attire was never important, brief emails were always preferred over another meeting, and innovative ideas surfaced from anywhere on the org chart. Their results-oriented focus leads to fewer interruptions during the day and less inconsequential travel, but this doesn’t mean they forego collaboration. They find creative ways to maintain relationships and focus on quality conversations when they are engaged.
The removal of the “impression” of working hard allows employees at these firms to focus on results. Instead of signaling their work ethic by sitting at a desk all day, employees may be out of sight, building meaningful internal and external relationships. Without restrictions of making these impressions, they are more adaptable to their environments and can explore novel applications of technologies that may be more efficient.
In a way, these results-oriented companies practice a form of professional asceticism. Similar to ascetics who resist impulses for impure gratification, these companies also practice frugality and withdraw from the temptations of signaling “good optics” to management.I checked Wikipedia again after writing this article to discover that the timeline had been edited to remove the “Coronavirus Crisis” from its contents. Maybe this is just the Wikipedia community having one of its trivial internal arguments or maybe it reveals the deeper realization that we are all drawing as this situation continues — it has only magnified the universal truths always present in the organizational culture of so many companies.
The focus on collaboration, bringing our “whole selves” to work, and encouraging trust through vulnerability is no longer optional for high-performing organizations. But these traits were always assets and cultural differentiation.
In what ways has your work stayed constant, or surfaced existing attributes that may have been hidden previously?
Jacob Markus is a current MBA student at the UCLA Anderson School of Management interested in Program Management and Corporate Strategy. His previous roles at Apple and Facebook involved shaping critical projects through data analytics and forecast planning.
The Competitive Advantages that COVID-19 Has Revealed was originally published in Strategica Partners on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.