Mal Fletcher
Leadership For The Post-Covid Age

Building Human-Centric Cultures

Aristotle remarked that the unexamined life is not worth living. 

If there is anything even remotely positive to be taken from a terrible global pandemic it might be this: we’ve had an opportunity, collectively and individually, to step back and rethink our values and ethics.

When the dust settles on Covid-19 emergency - when it and its variants no longer pose a greater threat than flu - most of us, I suspect, will emerge as slightly different people. 

Our priorities will have shifted. For each of us - and I suspect particularly those charged with leadership of a team, enterprise or organisation - this will mean a shift in focus toward certain opportunities and challenges.

In the process, it may lead us to build more human-centric cultures. This would represent a major victory for human endeavour in the face of biological menace.

For example, many of us will emerge with a much greater awareness of the value of privacy. A pandemic shows no respect for human dignity.

It strips away our public personae; it leaves us in a place of absolute vulnerability.

In the post-pandemic era, we'll continue to celebrate the benefits of digital technology. It has been so helpful to us in the long months of lockdown.

Yet in the emerging age of vaccine passports, proximity trackers and the increasing use of cashless systems, we'll also become hypersensitive to the challenge technology poses to our privacy. 

For most of the pandemic, many of us have expressed support, or at least tolerance, for government-imposed lockdowns. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, though, many of us will be more watchful. We will seek guarantees that regulators won’t flex their newly found shut-down muscles in ways that threaten privacy and individual choice.

People are already more sensitive to the potential for "technology creep".

This is where tools are introduced to solve one type of problem but later used for additional purposes, without public approval.

A leading police officer once explained to me that London’s infamous CCTV cameras were first introduced to reduce car theft. This they did rather well.

Yet over time, the same cameras were used for other purposes, which hadn’t sanctioned by the public.

During a health emergency, most of us are happy to allow higher than normal levels of access to our data, in the interests of tracking the spread of disease.

In the longer term, though, governments and BigTech may be in for a surprise: we will want more control over who knows what about us.

This will be a particular concern for Generation Z young adults, today’s undergraduates and teenagers. Among them, a new group known as techno-refuseniks will gradually emerge. 

They will gladly exploit the full benefits of digital technology, while simultaneously demanding a reduction in their permanent data footprint. 

This may sound like having-one’s-cake-and-eating-it, but the protection of individual autonomy will be hugely important in the face of burgeoning AI industries.

Going forward, organisations will need to invest more heavily in software and processes that demonstrate trustworthiness with data. 

Global cybercrimes, including identify fraud, phishing and hacking, are now worth $1.5 trillion a year. Collectively they generate revenues equal to the GDP of Russia. 

Bureaucrats and business leaders will need to be more vigilant than ever when it comes to using data only within narrow, approved parameters. They will need to guarantee its storage in encrypted forms, with constantly upgraded backup systems.

Alongside changing sensitivities to privacy, the pandemic has brought huge changes in attitudes to consumerism. 

Many retail businesses have of necessity moved large parts of their public offerings into the digital-only space. Meanwhile, some of our largest high street chain stores have sharply reduced staff levels or closed their doors forever.

In the short term, we may see a sharp rise or “bounce” in consumer spending post-pandemic. 

The economy desperately needs this, of course, and consumers will want to have fun offloading some of the money they’ve saved during lockdowns. In Britain, consumers repaid a record £7.4 billion of credit card debt and loans in April 2020 alone.

In the medium-term, though, we can expect to see people adopting a more frugal attitude to spending than they showed in, say, 2019.

For many people, facing a killer disease that threatens one’s ability to breathe makes one’s ability to buy seem so much less important. 

We’ll still buy goods and services, of course, but consumerism - “I shop therefore I am” - won’t seem so attractive as a philosophy of life. 

For a while, we’ll also see a growing trend toward mend-and-repair, especially when it comes to expensive items. 

At times during the pandemic, upgrading broken items was out of the question. People saw firsthand that buying products with a short shelf-life was simply bad economics. 

People will look for manufacturers that reject the rule of planned obsolescence. 

For businesses, civic groups and community organisations, one of the most important changes to emerge from the pandemic will be in society’s attitudes to mental health.

During the pandemic, I’ve been interviewed many times in the media about its likely impact on a range of issues. 

One of my BBC hosts pointed out that, for the first time in her life, government figures were discussing mental health with the same gravity and airtime that they gave to economics.

As the immediate threat of Covid-19 recedes, organisations of all kinds will be much more sensitive to the mental health needs of their employees and clients. 

Studies already suggest that, for many, the pandemic has exacerbated problems with anxiety and depression. These have risen on the back of fear, loneliness and a sense of lost control. 

At the height of the pandemic, the American Psychiatric Association found that nearly half of Americans (48 percent) were anxious about the possibility of becoming infected.

Around 40 percent were worried about becoming seriously ill or dying from it.

All too often, of course, extreme anxiety and depression can lead to suicide. We can’t yet measure the full impact of the Covid emergency on suicide rates.

However, we do know that social connectedness plays a huge role in its prevention. 

The more connected people are in physical networks, experts say, the less likely they are to die by their own hand. 

Covid-19 has also highlighted psychological challenges related to fluidity. This is one of the unseen plagues of our time - the sense that everything is changing, that there are fewer fixed reference points to provide perspective and reassurance. 

The pandemic has also birthed an “economy without crowds”. It has shrunk parts of the economy that depend on social proximity, such as air travel, education, live entertainment, restaurants, hotels and cinemas. 

This has led to higher levels of mental distress because crowds can be fun. We are, after all, social creatures.

In the wake of the pandemic, the education sector will focus much more sharply on mental health skills. Even primary school children will be taught basic anxiety-management skills and problem-solving techniques.

At work, many furloughed staff who’ve been paid to stay at home will need help to re-engage with the pressures of real-time offices. 

Some may also need the training to help them deal with any post-pandemic recession. Governments are already budgeting for such upskilling schemes.

In the business world, smart leaders and managers will pay close attention to issues relating to mental health. Many already are.

In the face of enforced home-working, some managers encourage team members to spend more catch-up time with colleagues. 

Employees are urged to grab a “virtual coffee” if they’re meeting online; to talk more openly with others about how they’re copying and to switch off work-based notifications at the end of each working day.

In the longer term, we’ll see some large companies - and networks of smaller ones - offering basic mental health “clinics” for their workers.

These will be professionally run units, within the organisation, that provide support with basic mental health skills, of the kind found in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. 

While technology is often rightly accused of reducing social connectedness, it will help professionals to alleviate mental health problems. Already, psychologists are discovering the mind-care potential of virtual reality tools and holograms. 

The latter will be especially useful. A 3D holographic image can be built “from the ground up” to simulate the look and behaviour of a stressor event - a problem person or scenario. 

This provides a tool through which professionals and their clients can explore reactions to events in a controlled environment while practising healthy response skills. 

Of course, we can’t finish our exploration of post-pandemic changes without mentioning the future of office work and commuting.

Before the pandemic, 20 percent of European workers spent 90 minutes or more of their time commuting to and from work. That will change for the post-Covid generation. 

People have now tasted the significant freedoms that working away from the office can bring. 

In a recent Europe-wide study, 34 percent of people said they’d even accept a lower paid job if it meant they could work from home. 

Any significant drop in commuting brings great benefits for the environment. It also brings benefits for some employers - in terms of worker satisfaction and productivity. 

However, it is less than ideal for collaborative innovation. If old ideas are going to connect to form new ideas, people must connect - and often they do that better in physical space than they do online.

So, offices will still be important for many people, but they will change. 

They’ll need to offer a more whole-of-life experience, with access to decent food and pleasant coffee areas. 

Offices will need to provide areas for exercise and downtime during working hours, plus staggered working hours to allow more flexibility with travel. People will also want access to the natural environment, even if that just means an atrium or windows looking out on trees.

In the post-pandemic era, people won’t want to spend an hour or two commuting just so they can work in tiny cubicles, to someone else’s timetable.

They will, however, recognise more than ever the value of community. 

People will recognise that if home-working takes up their entire week, it’s likely to block the mental health benefits of socialisation. 

Wise companies and organisations will offer their employees the opportunity to work remotely while insisting that some time is spent in the collegiate office environment. 

They will also ensure that their offices are physically and culturally configured for interaction and the free flow of ideas, with physical safety.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Covid-19 will run out of life-threatening variants. Vaccines will have been rolled out on a massive scale. 

On that day, the worlds of work, education, business and more might well be more humane than they were before the pandemic.

That’s our job right now: to re-evaluate what we think is important and re-align our lives and leadership accordingly.

That’s the path to a life worth living.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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