COVID19 is killing professionalism and that may be a good thing.
I have this dog. A two year old cavoodle called Archie. He is a warm and friendly little guy but, in many ways, he runs my life. I know, I am a leadership coach, I shouldn’t let a small dog run my life. When I am on a video conference, most of the time he lies in a chair in my home office and sleeps; except if a motorbike or truck goes down our street. If that happens, he will suddenly launch into a loud piercing bark. So, while I try hard to be fully present with the other person, I’m also a little nervous that at any moment my professionalism may be shattered by the bark of a small dog.
I was on a virtual coaching call the other day. Let’s call the other person Jane. Jane is a senior manager in a large shared service organisation. I had even put on one of my work shirts to look the part of the professional coach. We started into the call in our usual warm yet professional way. I asked Jane what she wanted to work on. But she seemed distracted in some way. Jane was on the video conference from somewhere in her home as I was.
Sure enough on the call this day, as I was wondering why Jane seemed so distracted, the postman came by on his motorbike and Archie lost it. I burst into an apology for just how unprofessional it is to have a dog bark in a coaching session. Just as I blurted this out, Jane seemed even more distracted and then two children danced across the screen behind her, waving, giggling and dancing. Jane looked embarrassed and launched into her own apology. But then we stopped. And then we laughed a kind of relieved laugh. The mood of the call suddenly moved from awkward to free-flowing and open.
We pushed on with the coaching session with children waving and a dog sniffing around. This shift in mood wasn’t just a nice to have. The flow of openness and authenticity meant we got to the core issues faster and with more richness and nuance. Jane seemed more flexible and adaptable in her thinking and more open to new possibilities. And my questions and comments flowed more freely and spontaneously.
Okay, one example might have just been a quirk of fate but over the week in just about every video conference I was on, something similar happened. No Archie didn’t bark in every session but there were more open, direct and heartfelt conversations. I was part of a virtual workshop for a whole day. People from all over Australia against backdrops of a wide range of places called home. In this workshop, about a third of the people had a pet with them. The dogs barked and the cats wandered around in the background. People were in T-shirts and generally casual clothes. One person spent some time on their exercise bike for part of the session. Same thing. A mood of openness, flow and honesty.
And this is happening all over the place. Watch any news report now and there will be a Professor Hinginbottom from the University of Everything in his running gear in the kitchen with a teenager raiding the fridge in the background. We see into each other’s homes and to some extent into each other’s real lives. Some might judge all this as ‘unprofessional’ and assume that all this means that ‘productivity’ will take a dive. But, in my experience so far, this doesn’t seem to be what’s actually happening. This sudden change has made it harder for our usual pretences to cut in, so we are just muddling along not realising that we are loosening our hidden assumptions about how the world has to be. There seems to be a shift in mood going as we work, not just as individuals but as a society. COVID19 may well be killing professionalism and our videoing into each other’s spare rooms, garages and backyards may be fostering a different mood, a mood that appears to be less ‘professional’ but may be better for productivity.
Mood sets the parameters of possibilities for action. For example, if I am working in a mood of what we could call pretension professionalism (giving priority to presenting a ‘good’ impression to the boss), then I am less likely to openly share raw thoughts and feelings. I am more likely to filter what I really think and feel. The more I filter from my mood of pretentious professionalism the more inhibited and slower my conversation will be to get the real issues. My conversation will also be less likely to generate innovative solutions and energised action.
This global upheaval is shaking our comfortable assumptions about many aspects of our lives individually and collectively. The experience of video calling into each other’s homes in a mood of openness and human authenticity is crumbling our assessments about what ‘professionalism’ and ‘productivity’ mean.
The on the street interpretation of the term ‘professionalism’ implies a formal, guarded and inauthentic style. More like the idea of pretentious professionalism. This understanding generates an artificial mood of formality for the sake of looking good. The true definition of the term ‘professionalism’ is a dedication to care and service while maintaining high ethical standards. All of these aspects of true professionalism come to life in the context of genuine, open conversations that we are having via video conference and working from home.
In a similar way, the everyday interpretation of the term ‘productivity’ seems to be ‘working relentlessly harder and focusing on work as the most important activity above everything else.’ This popular understanding of ‘productivity’ generates what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk refers to as a mood of “hysterical industriousness”. The true definition of productivity is to achieve the highest level of output for the lowest level of inputs. Our experience of working from home via video conferencing means we get to important issues and actions with less time and energy. And we get to walk the dog and play with the kids after the call.
Many people have commented on how the current disruption to the world, as horrendous as it is for people’s health and livelihoods, has also cracked open our assumptions about how things ‘have to be.’ One opportunity is to call into question the perspectives our organisational language and culture tend to generate and to smash up some of the interpretations and moods that are getting in the way of the things that we are trying to achieve. If COVID19 kills our pretentious professionalism it may open the way for more human conversations while increasing true professionalism and productivity in the workplace.