There is a popular aphorism advanced by apparent kindred spirits Friedrich Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For all of the disruption, pain, chaos, and hardship caused by the pandemic, is it possible there could be some constructive consequences for the world of work as we lurch toward some new normal?
This seemingly provocative and even preposterous question is not about the Pollyanna character in popular culture and her “glad game” in which she would find something to be glad about in every situation. Not at all. The pandemic has taken a terrible toll on many businesses and their workplaces. On people, their jobs, and their careers. There is little about the pandemic to be “glad” about.
Yet, for all of the adversity of the last 14 months our institutions and our communities — at least in the U.S. — by and large have survived. Our social and economic systems did not experience wholesale collapse and some businesses have not only survived but have found ways to thrive in these tough times.
This is not to suggest that anyone should be considering a victory lap. There are parts of the world where the virus is raging and the human cost is staggering and we just don’t know yet about when they will turn the corner on this pandemic. But there is at least cautious optimism because of the vaccines.
As we reimagine and even speculate on the morphing world of work, there’s something else that’s worth considering — a concept in science called “hormesis.” It’s used to describe adaptive responses to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the person or system improves its functionality and/or tolerance to more severe challenges. That is, too much of something can be bad or even fatal but a moderate amount can help make us stronger or better. Sound familiar? “What doesn’t kill you…”
Intermittent fasting is an example of hormesis, as there is evidence that it can be beneficial. Working out to build muscle strength is another. The micro-tears to muscles when we have a rigorous workout heal and in turn help to build muscle mass. Sports medicine doctor Michael Karns from the Cleveland Medical Center puts it this way: “You have to break muscle down to build it back up stronger.”
Hormesis, then, posits that a moderate amount of stress on an organism or a system — including human systems — can contribute to a higher level of performance.
But how relevant is it really for framing the pandemic, because in some parts of the U.S. and in other countries the pandemic has created a huge rather than a moderate amount of stress? Perhaps that makes the idea of hormesis interesting to consider conceptually but too far-fetched to have utility as we consider the possible scenarios about post-pandemic work and workplaces…
Yes, I think it’s a stretch but nonetheless, I ask the reader to acknowledge that the principle has some merit when used in the context of thinking about the unintended consequences of the pandemic. Let’s at least presume that it’s germane to the conversation.
Since “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and hormesis have real-life applications, in what ways, then, might there be elements or aspects of the work world that can be thought of as “stronger” or better in the emerging and somewhat uncertain post-pandemic period?
Here are some realities and probabilities, several of which were provided by friends and former colleagues to whom I queried about this topic:
- More options and openness for working from home (WFH). While WFH has been growing in popularity the last few years aided by the supporting technology that has made it more viable, the pandemic greatly accelerated the trend. “Hybrid” practices (a mix of home-based and office-based) are on the table in many organizations where it would have been inconceivable just 18 months ago. Less travel, less non-productive commuting, a potential of better work-life balance. I think most reasonable people would consider those to be good things.
- More flexibility for hiring distant talent and avoiding costly and potentially disruptive re-locations. Related to the WFH advantages above, if co-location is no longer required for many roles, candidates could apply for jobs across the country and not have to worry about uprooting their family if they were hired. Similarly, since relocations are costly and labor-intensive for all, organizations can hire across the country for roles that can be staffed virtually. It increases the possibilities for national or even international job markets for both employee and employer. Everyone wins except the moving van companies.
- A wider and more regular use of empathy. The pandemic has created so many stories and situations it has increased the value of listening and speaking with empathy. Taking the time to listen to someone who is seeming to be anxious or discouraged; resisting the temptation to say, “I know exactly how you feel” (because you don’t) and instead trying to articulate what you think the other person is feeling. It’s a factor in emotional intelligence which, because of the many shared experiences we’ve had during the pandemic, has increased in value as currency.
- Gratitude for workplace things we used to take for granted — even in-person meetings. Meetings have long been the scourge of widespread antipathy and ridicule. Back-to-back meetings; boring meetings; unproductive meetings; poorly run meetings. Although video-conference apps like Zoom, Teams or Google Meet have enabled many organizations to keep operating even if in a virtual way, it’s been high-tech at the expense of high-touch. Many will welcome back a higher degree of “being present” with colleagues.
- More personal responsibility for ensuring we are — and are staying — mentally healthy. One former colleague described how he is more mindful now in his now mostly virtual role of ensuring he is operating in a positive zone since there is no longer someone in the next office or cubicle who might check in with him when something seems a little off, such as putting in too many hours or demonstrating visible stress because of a workplace situation. It’s an enhanced appreciation of taking care of self.
- Improved self-insight by leaders of their own strengths and weaknesses as leaders. The pandemic has thrust many leaders into unfamiliar territory. Leading from afar; maintaining trust when your team is suddenly virtual; learning more about how to keep people focused and motivated in “VUCA” times. Many leaders have spent the last 13 months feeling like they’ve been in a 24/7 leadership simulation with surprises and associated uncertainty around every corner. Good leaders have used this turmoil to look in the mirror and make self-improvements as necessary. See this post about leadership reflections.
- Improved leader capabilities in the areas of delegation and empowerment. As a by-product of increased WFH, many leaders could no longer physically oversee their team members who were working more autonomously somewhere else without direct supervision. The helicopter managers who had high needs for control had to discover different ways to ensure work got done. They had to trust that team members were taking care of customers and the business and not shopping online all day.
- An increased appreciation on the part of management for the importance of employee engagement and well-being. For many organizations and their leaders, engagement has been elevated from “nice to have” to “must-have.” The business case for it has been strengthened and it’s related to some of the other pandemically produced workplace developments noted above (WFH; VUCA; the need for trust and delegation; the enhanced mobility of talented employees). Employers can no longer take their workforce members for granted, especially in the active job market we are starting to see.
In sum, the pandemic has disrupted the world in many negative ways, some of which we haven’t even comprehended yet. Some of those disruptions, though, have an element of upside to them. For example, most people I know have expressed newfound gratitude for simple things that were taken for granted before, such as social get-togethers with friends and family.
And the world of work is a subset of that larger world and as explored here, there are some business and work-related pluses and positive developments — new beginnings, even — that have emerged from this crisis. In many cases, Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson got it right.
About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at email@example.com.