The War of the Office Worlds

“…slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

 

“But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited?” — H.G. Wells, 1898

 

The year-plus of the pandemic has given many people a chance to rethink their priorities.

Time at home, devoid of the daily commute and harried business travel, has offered us a chance to reassess where and how we spend our precious time.

And with the waning of the worst of the pandemic, leaders are faced with the formidable task of determining where and how employees will do their work.

The valuable lessons we’ve learned over the last 15 months are being tossed aside in the Great Return to Normalcy—masks off, large gatherings as if nothing ever happened—all while significant percentages of the population remain unvaccinated.

And we’re already seeing a push to return to the office full-time.


 “Yet so vain is man, and so blinded by his vanity, that no writer…expressed any idea that intelligent life might have developed there far, or indeed at all, beyond its earthly level.” — H.G. Wells, 1898


Of course we want to move past our dystopian experience of the last year. But there are lessons we ought to bring with us, rather than to instinctively try to return to “normal.”

So I reached for H.G. Wells’ classic dystopian novel The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, and found some fascinating parallels in which we might find wisdom.

 

While it can be classified as science fiction, the story was close enough to reality to dupe a wide audience when dramatized for radio by Orson Welles in 1939. The plot is straightforward:

Martians land on Earth and begin capturing and killing humans, destroying entire cities in the process. Humanity is defenseless against them, its artillery repelled and technological ingenuity bested by the Martians’ superior technology.

People flee, find refuge in remote locations, and amid hopelessness, suddenly find that the Martians are mysteriously dying. The cause? The simple common cold virus.

A virus stopped the nightmarish invasion.

 

The War of the 2021 World

“…slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”

Today, the increasingly frenzied pace of work—of commutes, meetings (endless meetings!), and an always-on culture—ground to a halt as much of the world sheltered in place.

We were slowed not by productivity apps, scheduling systems, or corporate-mandated mindfulness workshops, but by a virus.

Interestingly, the sudden halting of life as we knew it is much closer to what the Martians faced: they were felled by tiny organisms they didn’t account for.

For all of our technological advances, we were slowed by nature.

During that time, it gave people an opportunity to spend more time with loved ones. To reflect more. To focus on things that mattered to them. A return to nature, of sorts.

It was a great gift.


“At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all.” — H.G. Wells, 1898


One would think that such a gift would be received and cherished, particularly by leaders whose employees stuck with them (and vice versa) through such a life-changing event.

It was an opportunity to test the old myth that workers couldn’t be productive from home, a long-held view by old-school managers who equated visibility with productivity. The myth was destroyed, with productivity remaining stable or even increasing during the pandemic.

And yet, we now see employers calling employees back to the office, eager to return to “normal.” But not all employees are having it.

 

The challenge with a one-size-fits-all approach to work is that it doesn’t acknowledge the new reality we just emerged from: that some people fare better in remote locations. They can still connect with fellow teammates. Their stress level is lower without a commute.

Have we not learned our lesson?

Even with the harshness of a pandemic, we still see instances of companies ignoring what happened and simply pressing for life as they knew it.

 

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera

If you recall the story from Exodus in the Old Testament of the Bible, Moses was trying to free the Israelites from the clutches of the Pharaoh. God sent ten plagues to haunt the Egyptians, and it wasn’t until the final one—the death of the firstborn of every household—that Pharaoh freed the Israelites.

But he didn’t learn his lesson; he didn’t relent. Undeterred, Pharaoh and the Egyptian army chased the Israelites to the edge of the Red Sea. With God’s help, Moses parted the water and the refugees made it across.

But the Egyptians, hellbent on reclaiming the reality they knew, followed them onto the seabed. The waters flowed back into the sea, and Pharaoh and his recovery team were drowned.

The lesson is to adapt to what we learn from our surroundings and experiences.

For as leaders, we don’t want to end up like the Martians or Pharaoh’s army.


Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.

Don’t miss the follow-up piece, “Intentionality Laid Bare, opened up for public access for a limited time. This subscribers-only edition continues to the exploration of our post-pandemic readiness for the office.

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