March 19, 2020

Captain Blackadder: This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you got a moment, it’s a twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying ‘This Is a Large Crisis’. A large crisis requires a large plan!

And yes, Captain Blackadder, we are in crisis. COVID-19 is one of those Black Swan generation defining events that is rocking our world. Leaders of all forms are bunkered down in emergency meetings; travel bans enforced; social space lock down; and and… However, with the brutal consequences of the virus having not materially impacted most of us – yet, there is the scent of the ‘phoney war’ wafting around, where the smell of avoidance is rife. Gallows humour pervades. Perhaps, some levels of avoidance are even helpful and enable us to “keep calm and carry on”. As carry on we must.

I had a call yesterday with a mate on his mobile. Hardly newsworthy you might ask, but you would be wrong. My friend never answers his mobile at work as this act seriously breaks the rules. Indeed, the boundaries of his role are strictly defined around the physical confines of his office. Work must operate within a physical firewall located within the office; oversight and approvals require the human presence of others such as compliance managers; there are no laptops, tasks must be undertaken on static desktops; working from home is prohibited. Behind these conventions lie regulatory restrictions and a host of policies, procedures, conventions and role design that are there to control and limit behaviour (that is likely to be damaging). Right now, the office is almost empty as staff have been told to go home. But home to do what? This business is scrambling to issue laptops and the sector is lobbying regulators to enable widespread remote working. But just like a virus unleashed, how do you contain behaviours released from their physical and psychological boundaries? How can the risks be kept in check? The game for some businesses is changing dramatically and the rules and subsequent consequences are not at all clear.

At Blacklight we work with anxiety as a fundamental psychological force within organisations: too much anxiety and we can regress to the instincts of fight/ fight; too little anxiety and apathy causes stagnation and atrophy. This means anxiety has a Goldilocks quality: not too much; not too little. Boundaries within organisation have a powerful effect on anxiety. Metaphorically, walls, borders and gates can engender safety, protection, control and order. They provide defence from things which threaten us; they let in what is good and keep out what is bad. However, boundaries can be anxiety provoking too. They can like a barbed wire fence constrict, threaten, and punish. They can strangle what is needed and leak in what may hurt. And what if you remove a boundary and leave a void? Perhaps, that is the worst form of anxiety of all: chaos. Finally, we must consider what occurs within a boundary and what happens outside of a boundary. For example, cognitive bias such as group think can occur unhealthily within boundaries that are not porous enough to let in challenge and diversity. Entities outside of the boundary may be at risk of attribution error and unhealthy isolationism. Therefore, boundaries have a massive capacity to define us and are hugely influential to how complex systemic organisations function. 

Through this crisis we have come to a new understanding of the word’s containment, quarantine and isolation. National borders are closed; our personal space a protective zone; home is our castle and hospital. These are all physical and psychological boundaries that are being transformed by this damned virus. And with high anxiety, we desperately want our boundaries for ourselves and our families to be strong, impermeable and protective. The irony is that no boundary seems to be secure and a sneeze in public makes a mockery of our best efforts to avoid. At work our boundaries must also adapt to this new threat. My fear is that we reach some sort of “Faustian Bargain” for many businesses who must adapt to homeworking. Digital surveillance or tagging in ones’ home may become a dystopian reality. However, I remain hopeful that we can work together to co-create and redesign new boundaries in business around a virtual workplace that fosters collaboration, openness and inclusion. After all, it remains our best hope that through the contagion of our ideas, we will beat this virus.

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