The Smoking Room: The Risks for Businesses in the Post-COVID ‘New Normal’

Do you remember the time of the smoking room at work? Long after the days where smoking at your desk was acceptable, organisations were nevertheless obliged to offer somewhere for their smoker employees to go for their unappealingly named ‘fag breaks’.

What was interesting about those times from a business strategy and behavioural perspective was how power worked in those dynamics. Those of us who lived through the times of the smoking room may well remember the sense that if a nexus of powerful, influential people were part of the smoking room gang, then that was the place to be if you wanted your voice heard or to have any part in the decision-making process. The outcomes of discussions that had taken place in the smoking room would often materially impact on our business functions, our teams, budgets or any other part of our operational reality.

This is beautifully demonstrated in one Friends episode, when Rachel, finding herself on the outside of the smoking-room clique, actively takes up the habit, simply to be part of the power and decision-making dynamic.

Thankfully, for most businesses that kind of stark insider/outsider factionalism is a thing of the past due to changes in the laws around smoking in public and a dramatic reduction in the pervasiveness of the habit. And yet, it would be a naive organisation that claimed that no power dynamics existed within their eco-system. Wherever there are people, there are gangs and sub-gangs and with the move towards a post-COVID-19 way of working, I’m wondering if we will also see a resurgence of this kind of behaviour.

Right now, all of our clients are considering what life might look like in a post-COVID world. Many are taking the opportunity to survey their employee populations – asking how would they like to work from now on? In the office? From home? Or a blend of both?

What is clear is that it is unlikely that we will ever see a whole-sale return to the 9-5, Monday- Friday office-based culture that we once knew so well. That time has passed, and one leading supermarket chain has indicated that according to their figures, business habits have been catapulted forward by around five years: they expected the home working revolution to happen – just not quite yet. COVID has forced us to go online and proved that we can do it.

There are huge opportunities for businesses and organisations to benefit from the changes that lay ahead, such as increased agility, better engagement from employees, better global connectivity and market reach. But in an organisational eco-system where some people are literally and physically in the office and some are out of it, there may be risks too that we will see a return to the ‘smoking room’, decision-making dynamic, where those who are present have a greater influence, simply by dint of their physical presence.

What is clear is that it is unlikely that we will ever see a whole-sale return to the 9-5, Monday- Friday office-based culture that we once knew so well.

Part-time and flexible workers have experienced the sharp end of this for many years now. One client told me that the stress of not knowing how things would shift and change in his absence forced him to ditch his compressed hours working arrangement (which he had embarked on in pursuit of a better work-life balance) and return to his 5-day+ working week.

If we don’t recognise this risk, it may go unseen and as a result, we risk losing good people (or at least their engagement – which pretty much amounts to the same thing) and worse, we start to make crucial decisions without the levels of challenge and rigour that we previously had.  With the tribal, clique-led decision-making culture in play, power sits within an echo-chamber and leads to the kind of closed-loop thinking that Matthew Sayed brilliantly explores in his book ‘Black Box Thinking’.

Organisationally speaking, we risk systemic affiliation bias – where we unduly weight someone’s opinion, input or value simply because we consider that they are ‘one of us’: one of the smoking-room gang – or in 2020, post-COVID ‘new normal’, one of the in-the-office-gang. Turning our attention to this now and putting in place policies, procedures and processes to keep the power equilibrium is going to be a crucial part of any ‘new normal’ preparation.

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