The extraordinary smallness of you

August 23, 2020

Talk of a Covid silver-lining risks being completely insensitive to the hardships, and grieving, that many individuals, families and communities have suffered and continue to suffer. I do not want to write something therefore that sounds like a half-hearted call to whistle “Always look on the bri-i-ight side of life…”

It is because of the hardship and grief, not in spite of it, we should reflect on whether we should rush to re-create what we had before if it did not serve us so well. Reflection, however, is one of those words that now carries a degree of privilege. Many people will simply think – “It’s all very well saying we should reflect, but some of us are too busy just trying to get through each day”. I think this is a fair enough challenge. Reflection is a privilege, but then even more reason to do it, if lucky enough to have that luxury. I would like to share a reflection with you.

To begin with, I’m not sure we need to reflect on things like the pros and cons of working from home, or about different video technology platforms or even what value looks like, because in a way we have already moved way beyond what we thought was settled thinking. It seems clear right now that business travel will never go back to the way it was before. It is clear we will do more work and be more productive away from traditional offices environments; and it is also clear that our leaders will have no choice but to trust that their colleagues will do what has to be done. This is how it is now, and we will not go back.

Of course, businesses will want to grow, and colleagues will want to thrive and be successful. Their job titles and the number of direct reports they have will still count for something, but something is different. We are less puffed up. We have become human-sized again. Reduced to normal.

We are no longer defined by the floor we work on, the places we lunch, whether we turn left or right on planes or if we are too busy for small talk. We are all, fundamentally, just ourselves, exposed and vulnerable. We are more reliant on noticing others and being noticed by others to get things done.

At first, I wondered if people who were very confident and self-reliant would do better; but this is like having a fridge full of food. Great for a while, but sooner or later we need to replenish. The workplace is the same, we need to be replenished too.  What I have seen is that the need to be replenished is much less about career advancement, a bonus or a job title; and much more about others noticing that we have a hinterland that we care deeply about. Our children, our parents, our friends, our pets and the opportunity to meet in person.

We have pulled away from the corporate imagery, and relied less on the projected hologram of our office persona. We have shrunk our egos and lessened the noise around us; we have become more real.

And now I think something extraordinary has happened. We can see everyone. We can hear everyone. We notice what is said and we can notice if what we say is being heard.

No longer, a place that is just for a few, an arena show where the players are projected on to giant screens. We are all now playing an acoustic set. A place where we care about the harmonies and where a missed note is heard, and not drowned out by the relentless amplification of those who hold the mic.

As summer folds itself away and thoughts turn to unpacking what will be next, I hope we will remember the precious smallness of our humanity and value it more than the artificial grandness of what we seemed to care about before.

When we are back in meeting rooms again, we will be changed.

We will not be able to pretend that we do not know our stories. We will listen more to the quiet voices. We will share more because we know how isolating it is not to be left in the dark. We will not judge people by the time they arrive or leave, but for the difference they make. We will appreciate being noticed, and we will notice others more, because to notice is to care.

None of this is the enemy of efficiency or competency. None of this costs the bottom line dear. And none of it is a Pollyanna pipe-dream. We have all seen, heard and felt what it is like to be vulnerable, and we have all seen and heard others be vulnerable with us.

We are richer as a result. We are all less hidden, more equal, heard more, noticed more and, as a result, we can all be valued more.

Take care. Paul x

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