When it comes to how we work, COVID will change everything (or nothing).

Like me, you’ve probably reading a lot of articles about how this pandemic will fundamentally change the way we work. That’s a big call.

It’s also becoming the consensus call. “This changes everything”, say we all. “Never in our lifetime have we seen such dramatic upheaval. Work will never look the same again.”

That forecast is fascinating. That said, where everyone starts saying the same thing, it’s worth asking whether the exact opposite is true. What if you are reading this in 2022 from your bricks-and-mortar office desk on day 1 of your 5-day week that looks a lot like any given Monday of 2019? In other words, what if nothing much changes at all?

To explore this properly, we should first fully detach ourselves from the consensus. We should assume that it is at least possible nothing will change. For that, I suggest this thought experiment:

It’s Monday, 16 May 2022 and you are reading a printed copy of the Harvard Business Review. One article catches your eye:

Business as usual: Why COVID was not even close to innovation’s silver bullet

What would the rest of this article say?

Perhaps it could look something like this:

The office is better

As we look back at 2020’s post-pandemic innovation hype, it’s clear that we overlooked a few clear barriers to change. The problem with the mass innovation hypothesis was that it was imagined by consultants from home offices trying (rightly) to make the best of a bad situation. What it didn’t count on was the traditional office’s victory lap once we relaxed restrictions.

Few people thought we would see the day when employees celebrated something as mundane as their physical return to work. Landlords built giant balloon arches as guards of honour. Employers emptied unused entertainment budgets on team mini-golf, group lunches, and multi-tiered birthday cakes. Workers dumped their Bluetooth headsets and pulled up chairs in manager’s offices.

“Sure, COVID brought me closer to my team”, said Chuck Stillwell, a manager at TR&K Investments, “but we dumped the Zoom catch ups. It felt like a poor substitute for the real thing.” Many bosses agreed. Few were willing to substitute a warm handshake, a drink over dinner, or a quiet coffee with their cyber equivalents. Workers everywhere quickly realised the one pre-crisis value that they truly missed: vulnerability.

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The habit theory

The mass innovation hypothesis also underestimated the stickiness of businesses’ habits. While undoubtedly disruptive, the pandemic was a blip in the history of some American companies that were already more than 200 years old. While nothing quite looked like 2020, before that, they had survived major upheavals. Even today, they still look remarkably similar to when they first opened their doors. In no industry is this more notable than the legal profession who still don wigs and speak 19-century English comprehensible only to themselves (if anyone).

For Baby Boomers, the crisis was an unpleasant interruption to habits developed through 30+ year careers. If COVID 2020 was supposed to convince them that their were better ways to work, it failed. On the contrary, the inconvenience only steadied the resolve of bosses to champion the tried and test. While consultants joked at their bosses’ inability to use a scanner, few mock the multi-billion dollar business they built with their secretary permanently stationed three metres away. Since then, business continuity has been less about how to use Zoom and more about what to do if my printing can’t be delivered urgently to my home office.

Of course, no generation has the monopoly on sticky habits. Millennial too quickly settle into the groove of ergonomic chairs and break room gossip . More, we should doubt how educational 2020 was to our newest employees. Saying “it’s easy to do your job from home”, is cold comfort for millennials who are desperately trying to work out what exactly their job is, let alone how to do it well. Yes, they can use the technology, but they too flocked back to the towers, rightly seeking their bosses reassuring smiles or educational raised eyebrows.

It seems that old habits really do die hard.

The trauma theory

Business is adept at turning misery into opportunity. In 2020, we overlooked that employees were also family and friends of the sick, the dying and the unemployed. They weren’t excited to use new technology, they were excited to get back to the way things were. They weren’t interested in attending a”Post-COVID Innovation Session” when their grandparents didn’t make it “Post-COVID”.

For most, the pandemic was somewhere between traumatic and uncomfortable. Millennials were crammed into apartments designed to be abandoned during the day, jostling for space on the dining table. It’s hard to innovate when you’re commiserating. Retirements were cancelled, businesses depleted, weddings forfeited, funerals sparse, and relationships tested (some buckled, but with co-habitation the only realistic option).

It was against that gloom that we tried in 2021 to convince our employees that they desperately needed more, fundamental changes to their routine . That quickly failed. Instead, we rightly shelved our plans and gave them comfort that things will get back to normal and this too shall pass. The question isn’t why COVID wasn’t innovation’s silver bullet, but why we ever thought it would be.

What does this mean?

“Will this come true?”, is not an interesting question. Wait two years and we’ll find out. The better question is: “How would you change if you knew that the no change hypothesis was likely to come true?”

Two ways:

First, we can identify, celebrate and fight to preserve what we loved about life pre-COVID. We can relish the fact that our colleagues mean something to us, despite our sensibilities imploring us to keep professional distance. We can recognise that this is not introvert nirvana and that everyone craves social contact and touch. We can get specific: say more than “I miss having coffee” and say “I miss telling someone that I screwed up and feeling comfortable that they won’t judge me.”

Second, if we still want mass innovation, we’ll have to fight harder than saying it’s inevitable. It’s not. Workers want the status quo for legitimate, defensible reasons. Convince them that they’re wrong, but first be very sure that you’re right. Your alternatives must deliver what they (we) were craving and not as a pale imitation of the real thing. So next time you read an article promising fundamental change or mass innovation, ask to see the plan. Anything less is a pleasant dream.

Hi! I’m a dispute resolution lawyer at Clayton Utz and the former CEO of Out for Australia, an Australian LGBTIQ+ student mentoring non-profit. Feel free to add me on LinkedIn with a message about who you are.

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