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Things will never be the same again, or will they?

Blog

Six years ago, an old friend of mine in Paris started a consulting business. Things Will Never Be The Same Again from Tal Adams, you can find him on Linkedin. Tal remains one of the best strategic minds I have had the pleasure of working with. At the time, the name of his company struck me as a curious choice, a cry for a return to a world long gone, of flip phones, and Betamax, and days when his beloved Spurs won trophies.  Now however his genius is clear. As I sit at home in Hong Kong wondering what tomorrow will bring, I do find myself reflecting if things will ever be the same again. More importantly I want to know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. One thing I know for sure, is that it should represent an opportunity for man (or) womankind to do better than we did before.

I picked some topics that are close to my heart, close to that of my employer Swiss Re, and will contemplate on if we have the courage to make the changes, we see today permanent, or if we will just drift back into the way things were before.

Aviation is one of the great industries of today. The need to move more people longer distances for cheaper fares had already moved the industry to a tipping point, dependent on volatile oil prices for profitability. As a frequent flyer I have contributed my fair share of CO2 emissions to an industry that does not have the best pollution track record, but I am proud to work for a company committed to changing that behavior by setting managers CO2 targets. However, now we have an opportunity to reset the aviation sector. To maybe permanently ground older, inefficient planes, and direct government aid so that newer CO2 efficient planes are manufactured using better technology to reduce the impact travel has on the planet. Shifting the balance of travel across high tech air, rail and road to a more sustainable model can have significant long-term benefits for all.

Commercial property has similar challenges. Early in this COVID-19 crisis I read examples of large banks within the City of London moving their operations out to rural office space as part of a contingency plan. The reason was concerns around transportation links, and the contagion risk of too many people near each other. My question here is can the contingency plan become the new reality. Can banks (and others) take advantage of this new reality and remain outside crowded and congested metro center. Can employment and subsequent wealth be spread to alternative towns and cities lightening the load on the world’s major cities transport infrastructure. Boris Johnson recently won an election offering a fairer distribution of wealth across the UK, working from new locations and dismantling the legacy of companies feeling they must be in a central business district could help deliver a more balanced working footprint.

Probably the biggest change in the working profile has been WFH. I feel very lucky that Swiss Re has had an Own The Way You Work strategy for a number of years. And whilst nobody can ever be prepared for the extended time we have seen WFH play out in Hong Kong and China so far, it certainly helps to have some experience in this area. Working from home has changed many things, but maybe most of all has been the impact on personal relationships. As a manager, it has been important for me to understand that every member of my team regardless of seniority, gender or location has had to find their own rhythm, and quite often that rhythm needed to flex and change as days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. I genuinely believe this has also had a positive impact on gender equality and this should flow through to the workplace. More fathers are becoming homemakers and teachers, and more mothers are finding work life balance alongside these newly reinvented men in their lives. The long-term opportunities for D&I strategies and policy making in the office are significant and should not be lost.

Finally, I will talk about leadership. Regardless of where you work, how you work, or your employer, things have changed. My friend Tal is right, things will never be the same again. In recent years I have tried to adopt an “agile” approach to working. It is now clear to me that this will no longer be enough. Leaders now need to think more about what they are not, rather than what they are. Defining what you are can limit you, defining what you are not can set you free as a leader and show your teams that you are not afraid of tomorrow, and right now we need to face tomorrow without fear.

Rob Burr
CEO Swiss Re Life Capital APAC