17th June 2020 | 12 min read

Emerging from lockdown

Ideas for our near future

As most of us continue to work from home and refactor our businesses for an uncertain but potentially exciting future, Datel's Emma Pownall hosted a live Webinar, “Ignite Live: Emerging from Lockdown”, with futurist Matt O’Neill. Matt helps businesses to envision their near futures – no mean feat in the current upheaval. In the space of an hour, he wove together some of the key themes, technologies and (perhaps most importantly) cultural changes affecting our business lives.

Here is a taste of Matt’s main points.  To watch the webinar and for further advice on how leadership will change for the C-Suite, head to Ignite Live: Emerging from Lockdown.


Towards a new normal

The changes we will see in the next 24 months

  • Business strategy will prize agility: “It's no longer survival of the fittest. We are now in an era of survival of the most agile: who can make changes quicker and intelligently. COVID-19 has forced us to think on our toes. That’s not a bad thing: released from the shackles of day-to-day thinking, many businesses are unlocking innovation.”
  • Winter is coming: “I think a downturn is inevitable. Many will weather the storm, but we will see plenty of mergers and acquisitions and consolidation across industries.”
  • Look out for AI as the next evolution of Business Process Automation: “With a downturn also comes regeneration. Pay close attention to increased “narrow AI” – the helpers we see in our smart speakers and mobile phones. These technologies will start to allow those aspects of jobs that are systematic and repeatable to be done by machines. And businesses will therefore become more resilient.”
  • Inshoring, nearshoring and supply networks instead of chains: “Shorter and more flexible supply chains are more resilient. Apple showed us during the Tōhoku earthquake that diversifying supply chains to networks keeps business moving. There is also a geopolitical imperative at the moment to reduce our exposure to the Far East, particularly China.”
  • Meet the lean team: “With tighter budgets and AI making its mark, we simply won’t need as many employees in the same roles. In the medium term, humans must elevate themselves up the business value chain rather than trying to beat the machines at doing repeatable tasks.”
  • There is value in digital partnerships: “On the product side, there is mileage in offering new services without having to create them ourselves – by partnering with third parties and linking services together for innovative new marketable products. On the back-office side, service-sharing will also cut costs. The public sector has been doing this for some time. Richmond and Westminster Council, for example, currently share a communications function.”


Physical Workplaces

The office, shop and production line won’t be the same…

  • Weird retail: “We have not yet come to terms with how strange some of our interactions are going to be. In retail for example, we will experience some or all of: reduced opening hours, temperature checking cameras (or even staff), over-the-air warnings instead of just muzak, fewer unhygienic discount bins, reduced lift occupancy in retail centres and increased sanitization. Some people will refuse to shop without these measures.”
  • ...And dealing with the weird: “All that strangeness presents its own challenges. We're perhaps in a state of increased emotional volatility, and retail staff will be given de-escalation training in order to calm down tense situations. Companies too will invest heavily in wellbeing and mental health awareness for the same reasons.”
  • The incredible shrinking and expanding desk: “In offices, a standard distancing rule will apply to desks. I've noticed over the past 15 years that desks have been getting smaller, but I suspect that in future desks are going to grow again. Hot-desking, meanwhile, is going to disappear for a good while yet.”
  • The good news – there’s plenty of employer innovation in the workplace: “Semiconductor fabrication uses sophisticated air flow systems in order to keep the air extremely clean in factories. Funds are beginning to investigate reworking these technologies for safe workplaces.”
  • The bad news – in the meantime, there are also immediate challenges: “There has, so far, been no class/group action against employers requiring their teams to return to work. Similarly, the validity of tracing apps, which some employers may seek to use, have also not been legally tested. This is the Wild West of the new workplace, and we are in legal and moral uncharted territory.”


 Home and hybrid

Being productive in our new home and mixed workplaces

  • Trust is a core currency for enabling serious productivity: “We have got used to making judgements about the people we work with; colleagues as much as suppliers or partners; based on our face-to-face experiences. Without that, we now need a new definition of trust – based on less personal sentiment. Think honesty, clarity, honouring commitments etc.”
  • But trust is hard to achieve remotely: “Mistrust is amplified with remote working tools. In a face-to-face setting, we receive many more cues: body language, pace of speech, tone etc.; so we can resolve issues much more quickly. It’s unbelievably easy to lose faith in remote settings. Beware these effects – managers must be considerate of the challenges to remote workers.”
  • Taking remote working to its logical conclusion: “Gig economy platforms - hiring remote people to do very specific tasks – have been around since 2010. With remote working now the norm, businesses will increasingly look to contingent labour. It’s cheap and creates labour-market resilience. We will work with talent around the world as collaboration technologies get more sophisticated.”
  • Learn the tools of the trade: “Many of us are familiar with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and so forth. But there is a much wider range of tools available in order to get stuff done remotely. I think it's important that leadership offers decent training; because otherwise we will use only a small fraction of the functionality available. A little training will yield a lot of value.”
  • The word of the era is “cadence”: “The rhythm of our work lives has changed. Working from home has a different cadence, and demands different time-keeping. Many meetings, it turns out, are not essential. Productivity can be maintained with quick Slack or text messages. And managers can maintain a lightweight control with quick daily/weekly check-in calls.”
  • Put your goggles on: “Companies like Finnish firm are bringing Virtual Reality to the workplace – particularly to help dispersed teams work together in shared environments, in very intuitive, audio-visual ways. The VR supplier landscape is even beginning to fragment as different providers look to solve different workplace problems. So while Glue is revitalizing shared meetings, Sinespace’s breakroom is a water-cooler simulator for social and wellbeing purposes. Either way, VR is going to grow exponentially, and within 15 years I think we’ll be enjoying the equivalent of the Star Trek holodeck.”
  • The mega home PC is coming: “Our home working setups will get more sophisticated. That means employers providing equipment will need amended budget allocations and new insurances, for example. I think we're even going to start to see house builders incorporating ‘work from home areas’ into new builds.”


Death of a salesman…

Cynical engagement is gone for good

  • Build relationships, not sales: “The core message here is that you really need to be human. These are difficult times. We're all feeling a little tender. The times of the self-serving salesman are gone. ‘You don’t give someone swimming lessons when they are drowning’: help your prospects out of the water first, and capitalise on the relationship later. Modern inside sales means becoming a trusted advisor.”
  • Uncertainty is opportunity: “At the moment, finance people are just focused on keeping the businesses going; but we need to come back swinging. Marketing generates the leads. So prepare to increase marketing budgets – it’s our way out of this challenging situation. It’s OK to be uncertain – these are uncertain times. High EQ is a key differentiator to thrive in the future. China has led the way with rapid change, because in corporate marketing they operate to much shorter planning cycles. That capacity to scale up and scale down is really important during this time.”
  • Integrity in marketing will definitely pay off: “Melanie Travis is the founder of Australian swimwear company Andie Swim. She would previously spend $100,000 on a photo shoot, but under COVID conditions went back out to her customer base. By being authentic, with real staff shooting in their own homes, the Andie brand has achieved three times its normal engagement.”


…and the birth of a new leader

Post-COVID leadership is ultra-communicative and focused on soft skills

  • Smart leaders will prioritise L&D – for themselves and their people: “To summarise John Seely Brown’s ‘A New Culture of Learning’, the half-life of a learned skill is five years. Half of what you learned five years ago is irrelevant. That pace of change in life continues to accelerate, and as we live longer, work more flexibly and experience technological advancement, continuous learning for all is to be valued.”
  • Knowledge is free, soft skills matter: “Knowledge comes from Google, free and instantaneously. But softer skills will be a sign of true leadership. Soft skills cannot yet be replicated by AI or robots. Conflict resolution, empathy and thoughtfulness will be crucial as we move to more remote teams – as will time management, just to find the time to communicate properly with teams. And if stress was the big malaise of the 20th Century, loneliness will be the challenge of the 21st. Great leaders will recognize this and create social strengths in their teams.”
  • Working from home is only the start of the liquid workforce: “Full-time, office-based employment in departmental silos is from a bygone era. Not only are we working from home more, in future we will hire contingent labour from a global talent pool to fulfil specific projects. We will use technologies to optimize the project experience and efficiency. Therefore, leaders will have to engage with new team members constantly: the ‘project’ will increasingly be the new unit of delivery.”
  • Micro business autonomy and competition: “New circumstances give leaders new opportunities to model their businesses. Many workplace theorists talk about the freedom of self-organising teams who coalesce around a task. Without a hierarchy, these teams often create very agile responses to a business need. In China however, some businesses are taking this to the next level with multiple teams given a budget to work on the same task, in competition. It’s meritocratic but brutal: internal money gravitates towards successful teams, whereas failing teams eventually perish.”
  • Leverage the value of neurodiversity: “Neurodiversity is escalating up the corporate agenda, mainly because some people on the autistic spectrum are exceptional at interacting with machines and working in a code environment. Leaders must learn to engage effectively with the neuro-diverse, particularly to communicate without the ambiguity and nuance of neurotypical conversation.”


If you enjoyed this article and would like to watch the full webinar with Matt and Emma, you can watch it on demand here.