This “new normal” looks pretty familiar to me
I never thought I would miss commuting. And I totally haven’t. But I also have.
My sister is an art curator and she spoke to me years ago about liminal spaces, spaces on the edges of things, where transitions and transformations and consolidations happen. It took some doing to wrap my head around that at first and, of course, once I got it, I found the most pedestrian application for it. That’s her cross to bear, the joys of being related to me never end.
For the record and avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting commuting is where great creative work takes place. But it is a threshold. It is a ritual of separation from the private to the public, from work to relaxation or fun or exercise. It is a physical act of departure that walking from the dining room table to the sofa doesn’t quite achieve. So I miss commuting the way I miss the office. In that I don’t. But I miss what it does for me. My mental health. My need to connect and interact. My creativity. My energy levels.
When this period of our lives started, almost a year ago, we all talked about short-term coping mechanisms in the hope that it would all end soon. Then we started talking about long-term shifts, celebrating or dreading the work from home life.
But what about the now? The now that isn’t short-term any more?
The now of people who can’t afford broadband or can’t afford to heat their homes as sleet lashes at the windows. Whose children don’t have their own bedrooms or laptop and learning involves taking turns at the kitchen table? What about the now for the conversations we need to have, that are hard?
Honestly, if you tell me you see no challenge in having those conversations over Zoom I believe you, of course. But I am also thinking you have no idea what kind of conversation I am talking about.
Sure, if you have to let someone go, run a disciplinary, resign, break some bad news or drive a hard negotiation… if you have to… then you will do it. Needs must and whatnot.
But if you don’t have to do something, you just know you ought to, really… And the thing you need to talk about is hard and awkward and you are back-to-back on calls… this hard, necessary but not mandatory conversation is the one that will slip. Because as you try to schedule the call and add a title for the meeting and try to decide how long it will take to get to the bottom of whatever this is, you lose everything that makes the conversation you need to have personal. And it needs to be personal to work.
In our most dry and grey and institutional industry, nothing matters as much as the personal.
It always mattered.
Caring about your client’s career is how you understand what the world looks like from where they sit. Caring about your team’s aspirations is how you allocate work in a way that isn’t just about the tasks. Caring about your boss’ personality is how you make your own life easier, as well as theirs.
But also, now more than ever things need to be personal.
Are people home schooling? When did they last see their parents? Are they living alone or in cramped conditions? Are they ok?
But that is not a discussion you can have with a complete stranger you have seen as a pixelated tile on your screen a few times a month, for the past few months.
In real life, you would know enough about this person to have graduated past operational matters only. You would know how tall they are. You would know some small things about their habits. The one that always comes into work super early, the one who has lunch at 11am, the coffee snob and the brotherhood of those who hate cucumber, the gym goer, the shopper, the news junkie. Things that make us people that don’t need to get deeply personal, things that make us real without needing to cross a line of presumption into friendship.
But what the last year has done to us as professionals is it has killed the liminal spaces between us. We now are in the fully formal or the fully personal with no space for options in the middle and no real option for a gradual transition.
Part of me is ok with that. I was never very good at small talk and I love humans in all their messy complexity so to me being real can only be a good thing. But not everyone is ok with that, comfortable with that, open to that and then the option we are left with is very structured and formal and static and often stilted. For some things that’s ok. For others it really isn’t. And the choice of professional distance or hyper personal closeness is not a good one.
For some folks having video calls in their home is intrusive, not intimate.
For some folks, seeing colleagues and clients and suppliers in their lockdown gear, on a sofa or kitchen table rather than a desk or a meeting room is disrespectful, not humanising.
For some folks, this is hard. For some folks this is annoying. The point is we are not experiencing this equally, uniformly or consistently. And the tools we are being presented with constantly don’t do anything much.
Sure virtual meeting rooms have gotten better. Conference calling has gotten more stable.
And you know. People are coping.
Folks successfully change jobs, sign on new clients, get promotions, release software and do the things that need doing.
Life hasn’t stopped. But we have lost our liminal spaces. As people. So some of us have started taking walks and otherwise creating breaks to the day in whatever way we can, creating separation, where possible.
In time if not space.
Many can’t. Because they are shielding, because they don’t have the space, because they are home schooling three children, holding down a job and passing a hoover around the living room rug isn’t quite the mind-shielding separation I was thinking of, but, hey, standing on a crowded central line train isn’t ideal either.
And that is the point.
Our starting point wasn’t great.
In fact, it was strained and difficult and inadequate. And now it’s a little worse.
So if the exam question is… as people, we were putting ourselves under strain that was at times unbearable and now there is extra strain and it’s coming on top. And it’s not going to stop.
But what if we used this time to say: not more, try different instead.
Not being together is tough. It forces us to be too formal or too personal with nothing in between. Being struck at home is tough. It robs us of casual conversations, serendipitous creativity and our well-wrought self-preservation routines.
But the starting point was strained. And all we have done is keep the strain and lose the relief.
Our ways of working as an industry of high presenteeism, high mistrust, high touch-points just got worse because, let’s face it, banking had been training for this all its life. In my banking days I have been on conference calls with folks in the same building. I got emails with my boss on cc from people sitting three desks away.
I was in meetings that should have been emails, got emails that should have been chats and saw PowerPoints that should have been whiteboard sessions, prototypes or phone calls.
The bad habits of formalising exchanges, creating paper trails and bringing in witnesses were there long before lockdown and this separation now plays into exactly those habits.
This is not the new normal. This is the old normal.
What we lost are our coping mechanisms. And it hurts.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s time we change what is normal.
This is not about tools.
It’s about how we define work, how we measure dependencies and resolve crises, how we negotiate roadblocks and how we value trust.
Don’t talk to me about tools. Don’t talk to me about the new normal. This is old normal, without the small comforts.
So how about we choose a new normal? One that fixes the fundamental ways of working we brought to the party, not just the tools we use?
How about we start by thinking about trust and all the layers and behaviours we as an industry have piled onto ourselves and rather than finding better tools to manage mistrust from a distance, go to the heart of how we work as an industry and address that.
It’s not going to be easy, but living like this is not either.
It’s not going to be a pleasant process, but at least it will take us somewhere good. And new. And it won’t do anything to change the challenges of the lockdown but it will do a lot to change some of the challenges we have lived with so long we forgot there was another way to live.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!