Remote Work and the Unintended Consequences of Crisis Response

Oliver Maynard-Langedijk COVID-19, News 2 Comments

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Remote work has suddenly become standard practice for organizations everywhere, with many workers now mandated to work from home in response to the COVID-19 threat.


As we explore alternative forms of connecting and working to maintain organizational collaboration and continuity, we can expect sweeping systems change and a dramatic uptick in the need for personal and professional development. We can also expect demand for new approaches to support that development. 

So how can you stay agile and effective through it all? Let’s start by exploring systems theory and its implications for the challenges ahead.

Systems Theory and Unintended Consequences

Systems Theory, or Systems Thinking, is the complex study of systems and the interconnectedness of their parts. Simply put, a system is a group of parts that make up a whole. There are inputs and outputs to a system, where one “part” is reliant on another to survive, thrive, maintain or die.

These “parts” can take the form of animate or inanimate objects and interact with each other depending on the type of relationship they might have. Systems can be small and compact, and they can be large and unwieldy. But regardless of size or shape, they are always complex.

A beaver dam is a great metaphor for this concept. The system affected by a beaver dam is a river system. The “parts” of this system are numerous and connected in many different ways, but can include the water itself, the plants and animals that live in and around the river, and the land around the river. 

Once a beaver creates a dam, the intention is to stop or slow the flow of water. Water is not linear; it never stops moving. When a path gets blocked, another way opens. So before you know it, a new body of water begins to form, which is exactly what the beaver intended: a place to build a lodge and live happily ever after in its newly formed beaver pond. We often overlook the consequences that such a dramatic change can have on the rest of the system. Sometimes these consequences are intended (like serving the beaver’s needs) and sometimes they are unintended. These “unintended consequences” can have substantial ripple effects on the rest of the system – flooding otherwise dry areas, creating new habitats for fish and other wildlife, and (potentially) wreaking havoc on the other, more functional parts of the river system.

It’s important to remember that unintended consequences aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, research has shown that beaver dams have helped restore instream complexity by creating cooler breeding conditions for certain species of fish. But it’s also important to consider and understand the consequences of every action in a system before it is implemented. It’s not that beavers need to be more mindful of where they build a dam (you can’t fault nature on its process), but humans can be mindful of the impacts of their actions.

The COVID-19 outbreak has seen a staggering number of folks hit the panic button. Toilet paper is still virtually impossible to find, hygiene protocols are required for any public space that’s open, and social distancing is the new buzzword of the year. Fear and chaos are gripping society and reactive living is our new normal. So now that we’ve had our fill of chaos, it’s time to hit pause and think about the unintended consequences of system-wide action in times of crisis response. 

Here are 3 ways to be more effective as we respond to systems change from COVID-19:

Remote Work and the Skills Deficit

Unless you’re in an essential services sector, it’s likely that you’re now working remotely to stop the spread of in-office infection. You’ve probably seen headlines on your newsfeed stating that “the Great Work-From-Home Experiment is upon us” or “Here’s how to stay productive while remote working.” It’s truthfully somewhat compelling to see this type of system change happen on such a large scale, where remote working is rewriting the very structure of the classic office setting. However, companies need to consider the unintended consequences that an enforced work-from-home (WFH) policy can have on workplace skill development and knowledge transfer. 

Since we can no longer count on traditional models like classroom learning, the workforce needs a common space online where they can learn and interact with one another to meet individual and group goals.

Take, for example, the skill development deficit that workers are inevitably going to face due to remote working. Since we can no longer count on traditional models like classroom learning and group conferencing, the workforce needs a common space online where they can learn and interact with one another to meet individual and group goals. At Pollinate, we believe that an online platform is an exceptionally effective way to implement and track upskilling, knowledge transfer and learning sustainment initiatives. 

The move to remote work is one example of unintended consequences when a system is disrupted; here are a couple more:

Preparedness Versus Hoarding

Top tip: washing your hands is the #1 way to stop the spread of COVID-19. It’s incredibly important to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after visiting a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; scrubbing with warm water and soap to ensure the virus dies. 

One challenge that’s top of mind is panic buying hygiene-products. Whether it’s toilet paper, paper towel, hand sanitizer, or soap, all of these products are manufactured at scale and contribute to the overall system of consumption we as a human race seem to rely on. In your frenzy of grabbing that last toilet paper package (either because you’re preparing for the apocalypse or simply need a roll), you might not be thinking about the unintended consequences that mass-buying this product has on the environment. Plain and simple: toilet paper is not made with recycled paper. It’s up to the consumer to start thinking more holistically about how we consume this highly sought after resource. 

You may also have seen images circulating of an elderly person standing in front of empty shelves at the grocery store. This scenario is very real and is likely happening in the city you live in. Hoarding food has unintended consequences for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. When basic necessities are hard to come by for the general public, it’s even more challenging for the disabled and elderly community to get what they need. At times like this it’s important to use what you need and consider the whole of society in every purchase you make.

Also related to sustainability is the amount of water we use while washing our hands and in other activities. We can all do our part to decrease the amount of water we use in our new sequestered lifestyle. Something as simple as turning off the tap while scrubbing your hands with soap has an impact. 

Self-Isolation and the Need for Connection: Find a Virtual Mentor Relationship

The concept of isolation versus relationships is one of the big buckets of Systems Theory. It suggests that the individual parts of a system do not function properly in isolation, but rather operate effectively in conjunction with other parts of the system. Now that many of us are required to self-isolate and distance ourselves from social gatherings (which will ultimately contribute to the suppression of COVID-19), it’s a good time to reflect on what it means to be isolated. 

Being isolated, in most cases, means it’s harder to see people in real time. A consequence of this means that you’re more likely to lack an influential mentor in your life who can help guide you through personal and professional goals. If you’re a business owner, it’s especially important to keep this in mind for your employees who are working from home, since collaboration is key to learning sustainment and professional growth. In a time of social distancing, consider virtual mentorship.

Leverage the connections you have and keep engaged with your online network. The first step is to figure out who you want as a mentor and the type of support you need to accomplish your goal and grow personally and professionally. Next, think about the people in your network (both at work and beyond) who inspire you and whom you can learn from. See what you can learn from their online activity. Reach out to connect with them through virtual meetings if possible. Follow those you don’t personally know on social media and learn from the content they are posting. 

Employers with bigger teams that are now online can support them with mentoring programs to build capacity, efficiently transfer knowledge and support a positive workplace culture.

Final Note: Why does it all feel so overwhelming and scary?

One of the biggest culprits fuelling the fear machine is the prevalence of social media. Fear and anxiety feed off of shared panic, and social media is your one-stop-shop for an unhealthy serving of panic pizza. 

Instead of continuously scrolling the incessant chatter of your social feeds, why not limit yourself on those platforms and/or only follow the things that really matter to you. You’ll find that with a little mindfulness and social (media) distancing, the panic will subside.

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