The More Things Change …

There’s a lot of chatter about the post-Covid return to a ‘new normal’ office existence and exactly what is changing. Important questions are being raised, such as whether we are tired of wearing our old track pants and whether the pencil skirt will die. Some of us are concerned about whether our favorite curry stand in the food court is still there, or query how soon can we raid the stationery cupboard. I read various articles about the end of managers, the end of fixed desks, the end of the 9 to 5 working day, and so it goes.

But the French have an interesting expression, and I’m glad you’re not hearing my pronunciation: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose and it means that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Shouldn’t we therefore consider the flip side discussion and name a few things that are unlikely to change? I’m borrowing from the world of social, evolutionary and behavioural psychology to make some predictions.

From infancy, human beings have two major concerns, and they are: Who loves me and who is in charge? Our need for a bit of attention and appreciation, therefore, has not changed. This is always bad news for those who argue that they shouldn’t have to say thank you or good morning.  We will never love being ignored, unless we are actually raiding the stationery cupboard.

We will always be skilled at identifying the people in the purple circle, or those who are favored and have real influence. The desire to conform to the group, as well as follow it, will still be a very powerful shaper of behaviour.

This is because it was important to stay with the tribe and those who could deal with the beasts if you wanted to survive out on the prairie. Today it’s more likely to be composed of cubicles rather than grass, but I predict that whatever the powerful people do, the rest of the mob will copy. Whatever gets paid handsomely and promoted, will mysteriously form the culture. Human behaviour will continue to be shaped by modelling and reinforcement. No crystal balls required.

We rarely have to worry these days about being picked off by a wild beast outside our office, but to stand apart from a powerful individual or a highly influential group and say ‘I disagree’ or ‘This is wrong’, or ‘We’re going the wrong way’, is very hard to do in a lot of workplaces, and that’s why so few sane people do it. We may not need our share of the barbecued antelope anymore, but we do need to pay the bills. We should be grateful for whistle blowers, even though they really do go against nature. They may not even be 100% right, but I predict they will continue to be sidelined by the group. We are much better at hearing what we want to hear than what we need to hear. That will barely change. Moral courage will continue to be a rare commodity.

And while we’re talking about staying near the tribe and the fire, I further predict that many people will stay in jobs they do not like because they are more fearful over the risks in change than they are weighed down by perpetual frustration. Most of us need to pay the bills and cannot afford to pursue our passions endlessly and love what we do. Pragmatism rules. I really don’t see thousands of people chucking in regular pay before taking some care that their new employer generates enough cash to meet the payroll. And a lot of people will shrug and conclude that a new tribe probably won’t barbecue the antelope any differently. Thoreau said it best; the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

I could also guess that the dishwasher will never be stacked to everyone’s satisfaction, staff will start asking about the Christmas ‘Do’ in August,  expat employees will still wonder what on earth the fuss is about the Melbourne Cup and we’ll still wonder where to look when someone wears Lycra cycle shorts into the office, but let me stop there and ask you: what do you think?

What will change and what will be just the same? Answers on a cave wall please.

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