How the current crisis is an opportunity for a more human workplace

Today, I was lucky to participate in a virtual Unconference as part of our SAP internal New Work Movement. Over 60 colleagues from across the globe came together on MS Teams and Mural for 2 hours, we collected topics and questions (whatever we felt was relevant or important), and split into 7 breakouts to dig deeper.

When asked what we would like to discuss – a question came to me spontaneously, which I suggested we discuss:

Is the current COVID-19 crisis an opportunity for a more human workplace*?

(*as envisioned by Frederic Laloux, the Corporate Rebels, and countless others)

The question resonated with many people, and a group of 13 of us got together to share our observations and hypotheses.

We quickly realized we agree that: yes – this can be an opportunity for a more human workplace. We are deeply concerned about the health of those affected or at risk, the ongoing spread of the virus, the economic impact and the effects of social isolation. Yet at the same time, when reflecting on our experience of working together remotely at SAP, we are observing signs of positive changes in how we collaborate.

Here are the patterns we are observing:

  1. We are more authentic and vulnerable. We sit in our untidy home office, with the ubiquitous IKEA Billy cupboard in the background of our webcam. What for some people would have been a complete ‘no-no’ only weeks ago, is suddenly more OK these days. Maybe you did not shave today, or put on make-up? Well, is this really so essential for our professionalism, our leadership, or our respect for each other? No, we are humans, we have lives, wives, kids, dogs and Billy cupboards. It is simply becoming harder to hide all of this behind a mask, or a role. The result: we start trusting each other more, not less.
  2. We are being more understanding and empathetic with each other in small, but important ways. Your kids interrupt your meeting, because they run up and want to show you a drawing they made? Everyone smiles, jokes, and maybe even enjoys the short distraction.
  3. We’ve become more personal and informal, and often start our meetings with a real connection. How are you right now? How are you holding up? We connect not only on the business, but also on a human level more than in the average call before.
  4. We are finally using our virtual tools to their full potential. Three weeks ago, only few colleagues seemed to be aware of the webcam on their laptop, or of the possibility to have meaningful virtual workshops. And now, suddenly, almost every call is a video call (at least until the first bandwidth problems occur). And not just the webcam, but we are using and combining multiple tools from Mural to Teams to Zoom, and features from webcam, to breakouts, to polls, to GIF battles.
  5. We are learning even more to lead with trust, rather than control. I personally find it hard to accept, but there are still many leaders who think they need to literally see their teams at work, in the office, at their desks, the whole day, in order to manage them and be in control. Well, finally, even these leaders have no choice but to learn how to trust.
  6. We are more open for distributed leadership and shared ownership. We recognize we are all in the same boat, nobody has all the answers, or knows exactly how to continue. Ideas, input and contributions are suddenly coming from everywhere, we operate at eye-level, and hierarchies don’t matter as much. Sure, important decisions need to be made by those who hold formal power (like: “should we stay at home?” or “do we need to take measures to safeguard our economic situation”?). But beyond the high-level crisis management, leaders appear more willing to create a safe space, open up the dialogue and truly involve their teams.
  7. We are looking, although carefully, beyond profit and into purpose. Many companies, including SAP (e.g. here and here), are looking for ways to contribute in the crisis, for example by switching production to what is most needed right now. While the motivation will vary, it does suggest that at least some decision-makers do care about a purposeful contribution of their organization, and are willing to look beyond immediate profit.

I find it encouraging to hear many of us see such shifts in behavior and mindset. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder: while all this is particularly important in the current crisis mode – wouldn’t it be just as relevant and impactful, even after the crisis has hopefully subsided? Will this all disappear again, once we go back to ‘business as usual’? Or will something stick?

Will this all disappear again, once we go back to ‘business as usual’? Or will something stick?

I am curious to see, and at least a little hopeful.