Memo to corporate leaders post-Covid: the disruption to businesses has only just begun | John Naughton

Pandemics, the historian Yuval Noah Harari has observed, have a way of accelerating history. Just ask the founders of Zoom. Only two years ago, we were all thinking that it would take at least another decade before video-conferencing became an integral part of the way we work in organisations. Then along comes Covid in three weeks we’re all happily Zooming (or unhappily in the case of Handforth parish council). And now we’re more or less acclimatised or, at any rate, resigned to the idea that remote meetings might be here to stay.

The problem with having had the fast-forward button suddenly propel us into an unexpected place, though, is that we find ourselves unmoored. We start wondering about what lies ahead as the immediate threat of the virus recedes. What will our post-pandemic future be like? In relation to work, three main possibilities are currently taking up all the airtime: continuing to work from home (WFH); a hybrid mode in which we spend some time in the office but also two or three days WFH; a return to ye olde days commuting to the office to gather round the water cooler pretend to be doing something useful.

In a remarkable essay published a few days ago, first as a long blog post entitled Creating the Future of Work later as an engaging Tweetstorm, Stephen Sinofsky, a former senior Microsoft executive, argues that if these are the only options under consideration then we have gravely underestimated the industrial significance of the pandemic. Of course the nature of work will have been changed by what has happened. But what is more significant, he contends, is that the shock will also reshape the nature of the corporations in which most of us work. The problem is that most of the people who run large organisations corporations haven’t twigged that yet.

Sinofsky knows a thing or two about this stuff. He was president of Microsoft’s Windows division for three years. Before that, he was responsible for the development of Windows, Internet Explorer, Skydrive. He’s now on the board of Andreessen Horowitz, a major Silicon Valley venture capital firm. I know him mainly through his blog, Learning by Shipping, in which he writes only occasionally, but when he does, his posts are invariably insightful.

His basic argument is that the organisational impact of the pandemic will be profoundly disruptive for companies, but not in the way you’d expect. Many of them have been agreeably surprised by the way technology has enabled them not only to keep functioning, but in many cases to thrive. The penny that hasn’t yet dropped is that surviving the lockdowns by using technology indicates that their pre-pandemic ways of doing things need comprehensive re-examination. It isn’t just a matter of cutting down on business flights, say, but also of asking whether the one-hour, face-to-face “meetings” that allegedly required expensive environmentally damaging corporate travel were useful or necessary.

Disruption, Sinovsky writes, “is not linear or predictable and, most importantly, when it is happening no one knows it. The one thing we know is entities being disrupted claim to be doing the new thing everyone is talking about – but they are doing it the old way.”

Worse still, he says, companies have an inbuilt tendency “to view disruption as a single variable – Amazon has a website, so Walmart needs one. But Amazon had warehouses, custom software, its own last-mile shipping, on on. Disruption is never one variable, but a wholesale revisiting of all the variables.”

That’s why the debate over remote work v hybrid v back to the office is only part of the picture. It’s interesting it matters to employees, but it’s not where the focus should be. Many employees have been changed by the trauma of the pandemic, but corporate leaders have not – yet. They haven’t read their Clay Christensen or understood what happens to incumbents when technology creates a new, disruptive way of doing things. Managers who insist that all employees return to the office once vaccination has worked its magic may therefore be in for a surprising discovery – that they their managerial hierarchies are the incumbents who are threatened by the pandemic’s disruption. Or, as Sinofsky puts it: “The idea that everything stays the same except for a few changes around the edges caused every incumbent to lose in the face of step-function change.”

If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that getting something to work, even if it’s as initially unsatisfactory insecure as Zoom was at the beginning, really makes all the difference in a crisis. And when you’ve got something that works, you don’t immediately pretend it never happened once the crisis has passed. That is why a blanket insistence on returning to the daily commute would be crazy – probably futile in the end.

What I’ve been reading

Breaking the code
Coding Is Not “Fun”, It’s Technically Ethically Complex is
a sensible Aeon piece by Walter Vannini that challenges the feel-good nonsense often spouted by education ministers on the subject of “coding”.

Unravelling our existence
Minimum Viable Self is a nice meditation by Drew Austin on his Kneeling Bus blog.

China syndrome
Apple thought it could “manage” China: big mistake. A salutary dose of realism from Jack Nicas in the New York Times.

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