In the 1871 sequel to Lewis Carroll’s renowned first novel, Alice crosses back into the Wonderland, this time on the other side of a mirror. Owing to the reversed reality she faces there, the phrase ‘through the looking glass’ has come to denote unpredictability and an alternate universe where nothing works as we would expect it to.
There are many parallels to our COVID-19 world: in the Wonderland, walking away from something brought you towards it. In our world, we keep those we love at a distance as a sign of caring. For Alice, running helped her remain stationary. For businesses, even the most vigorous running may this year result in merely staying stationary (and many would in fact be grateful for that). And the government decision-making on coronavirus containment, e.g. the rules of the current UK ‘support bubbles’, has at times been reminiscent of the incomprehensible mind puzzles of the Red and White Queens of the Wonderland.
If we have indeed stepped through the looking glass into a new story, what’s the plot going to be like from here on? No one seems interested in dwelling on what has been. As businesses, we are encouraged to author the story of what happens next. But the challenge in real-life storytelling is that, in order to be useful, our stories need to be true. And, by definition, true stories will always be about what has been.
This means that before sketching the next chapter, each of us might benefit from a little reflection. You may think that humans automatically learn from experience, but that’s not true. We only learn if we reflect on our experiences. Ergo, instead of peering through the looking glass, I decided to have a little peek into it. I am not in a position to see what the mirror might reflect back to you, but here are a few things it reflects back to me.
I believe that pride in who we are defines our present and our future. Consequently, I set it as my goal to be able to look back with pride on how we at Sandberg responded to the COVID-19 challenge. Three months down the line, I am viewing the European lockdown months as a period when we continued to trade professionally and treat our colleagues, clients and suppliers with exactly the same dignity as before. I am pleased with that.
There were also days when I got too emotionally attached to the performance of the company. I felt I was only a good leader when everything was going well. Those days taught me that my mood as a leader casts a longer shadow than I think. I must learn not to disconnect from the team when I feel low and not to change things erratically for them when I feel impelled to action.
In March 2020, I told my colleagues that I know I ask them every day to trust my ability to steer the company. Furthermore, I ask them to trust that I’m doing it with integrity and benevolence. In order to nurture that trust, I started a corona vlog for the (by then 100% remote-working) Sandberg staff where I talked to them weekly about what was happening in the world, how the company was doing and what I was basing my decisions on. Here are a few clips from those videos.
Then there’s next
With the easing of lockdown measures, we are entering a period of unpredictable and possibly muted economic recovery that gives rise to new threats and opportunities. But I have every bit of faith in Sandberg’s future. That is why you see us going ahead with our in-house recruitment plans and why we’ve had five interns join us for the summer. The next group of new colleagues starts in July.
Then we face the question of how to bring people out of isolation and back into our offices. We’ve started by asking whether we even want to bring people back to the office and what the purpose of the office is for a company that can clearly operate without one. We have always maintained we need offices for training and supporting new staff. But having to maintain a metre-plus human distance on the premises would negate many of the reasons why we prefer onsite support to virtual support.
Cabin fever is of course a terrible thing and for many of us having even one colleague in the same room is better for our mental health than working totally alone from home. Some colleagues are restricted in what kind of a home office setup they can have, and going to the office – even if it was them alone in there – would be a better option than working from their bedroom or kitchen table.
There’s no normal
The image at the beginning of this article referring to life in lockdown as being in prison may seem in poor taste. The only allusion I want to make is to the feeling of not being in control and to having limited decision-making power concerning the future.
The notion of ‘normality’ is built on the assumption of steadiness. Without steadiness, there is no normal and the only thing we can rely on is our agility to adapt. With that in mind, we’d be wise to invest in planning for what we should do differently if there was a second wave of COVID-19 with further lockdowns in the next 12 months. We should only learn the hard lessons once.
Earlier this summer, I was discussing furloughing staff with a colleague. He noted that although I seemed to be concerned about the circumstances of individuals, I would obviously invariably put the company’s interests first. That is true, I would. It is my duty, as a director (for corporate governance) and as the head of the management team (for operations). Whilst my job has taught me to treat the company as a legal entity that has a life separate from the lives of its stakeholders, I’ve also learnt that in serving the former I serve the latter. The stakeholders – clients, employees, collaboration partners, shareholders and the community – are always at liberty to engage with Sandberg or to walk away from it, but if they engage, it’s in their best interests that I keep the company healthy, purposeful and attractively transparent.
The world we see through the looking glass is characterised by fast-changing shifts in cultural norms, societal values and behaviours. There’s an increasing demand for responsible business practices, and many companies, including us, are working on a renewed brand purpose. This should benefit employees as well as clients. At the risk of sounding insensitive at a time when so many jobs are being lost, I surmise that work could now become the place where we feel more like ourselves than anywhere else. In an unpredictable world, having a job that aligns with our values can have a key role in helping us live out who we are.