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Omicron has exposed corporate leaders’ lack of vision about remote work

January 7, 2022, 5:01 PM UTC
A man kneels on all fours as he places his head into a hole in the ground .
“Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet the leadership at many of our biggest companies denied the reality of this risk,” writes Gleb Tsipursky. “Now they are reaping the whirlwind.”
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Leaders are sticking their heads into the sand and ignoring reality on Omicron. Unless they take needed steps, the results may be catastrophic for their companies.

Omicron took over from Delta as the dominant COVID variant in the U.S. in late December. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that Omicron’s higher infectivity and ability to escape vaccines will overwhelm many hospitals over the course of January.

Unfortunately, most companies are not pivoting effectively to meet Omicron. From the start of the pandemic, many leaders have insisted on a return to a “normal” office-centric culture. That’s despite the fact that a large majority of employees express a strong desire for a flexible hybrid or fully remote schedule. 

Thus, in response to Omicron, companies like Google, Uber, and Ford have been bringing out the same old “delay the office reopening” play that they used with Delta. Regardless of plenty of warnings from future-proofing and cognitive bias experts, leaders are showing no intention of making a strategic shift toward the hybrid and remote future of work.

Mental blind spots

You’ve probably heard the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Workers never wanted a return to a normal office-centric culture, and Omicron just helps illustrate how pointless and counterproductive it is to try to turn back the clock to January 2020.

What explains this puzzling leadership behavior? Leaders—like the rest of us—are prone to dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking, these mental blind spots lead to poor strategic decisions.

One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads in the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying or ignoring risks. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet the leadership at many of our biggest companies denied the reality of this risk. Now they are reaping the whirlwind.

We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of COVID and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disrupters, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.

When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes leaders who are accustomed to office-centric culture and ways of collaborating to reject any alternatives. 

Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and we downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we minimize the benefits of orienting toward the future and instead focus excessively on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of returning to the office over the competitive advantage of preparing for the long-term hybrid and remote future of work.

The way forward

The way forward is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality, by rethinking our approach to the future of work. Instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized, team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for his or her team. 

After all, team leaders tend to know much more about what their teams need. Moreover, they can respond to local emergent situations, whether COVID cases, climate change–related disruptions, or others. Such delegation of responsibility helps develop leadership skills and makes team leaders the owners of the decision, which motivates people to do their best.

At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. These practices involve facilitating innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming and serendipitous idea generation. To improve collaboration and team bonding for hybrid and remote teams, team leaders need to integrate virtual watercooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.

In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: We need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our tradeoffs.

Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in cognitive bias risk management, CEO of future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and the bestselling author of several books, including Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

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