Plussing in a pandemic

Professor Kate Kearins

05 Aug 2020

Professor Kate Kearins

A singular yet shared experience

In the past few months, much of the world has made a great global pivot. Almost everything we've taken for granted as safe and familiar has shifted.

Virtually overnight, we've moved from meeting in rooms to meeting on Zoom, from office-based workto WFH, from learning at school to schooling online, from employee-by-day-parent/partner-by-night to employee-parent-partner-teacher-cook-cleaner-gym instructor in one messy mash-up.

Though global in number, our experiences and responses to Covid-19 will forever be singular - we have each faced the pandemic challenges in our own, individual ways.

Similarly, our experiences heading into the "next normal" will be unique, reflecting the varied and diverse circumstances in which we each find ourselves.

Having said that, as we move into this new world, it's worth taking stock of some of the collective experiences of these recent times and glean key behaviours, approaches and actions that could serve us well - better, even - in the post-pandemic world.

“Plussing” in practice

Pre-pandemic, for example, I had come across the concept of "plussing" - the Walt-Disney-inspired technique that essentially replaces "No, but..." responses in the workplace with "Yes, and."

It's a practice designed to build, rather than push back, on ideas; an opportunity to take the best bits of an isolated proposition and turn them into a valuable whole. For me, at and beyond my AUT workplace, Covid-19 has put "plussing" into action. I believe that's because the practice is underpinned by empathy, which manifests in many ways: trust, forgiveness, open-mindedness, support.

All around me, I've witnessed colleagues and students operating from a place of trust, embarking together on an uncharted journey of online teaching and learning, of technical and technological upskilling, and of the kind of personal and professional development we now know is integral to meeting the challenges posed by crisis. The term "leaning in" has been used to describe these kinds of activities, which help support an organisation as a whole - regardless of where you work.

Equally, we've been pretty forgiving of each other (and hopefully ourselves) as we've video-conferenced and "webinared" from our respective lounges and bedrooms, make-upfree, (in)appropriately dressed up or down, partners and kids chiming in, pets chasing, blemishes and all.

I can't help but wonder what this "take me as I am" ethos will do to the pre-COVID dynamic of workplace hierarchies and insecurities. Does seeing your manager or lecturer as a bit more human forever change your professional relationship? If so, I'm picking it's for the better.

So, too, could be the new sense of open-mindedness, the willingness to try new approaches, to fail fast and adapt quickly.

Embracing the unknowns

Let's face it: no one yet knows exactly what the future of work holds - how we'll get to and from the office, what our offices will look like, and even, in the short term, how we'll interact and engage when we return.

It's both scary and comforting to know we're all in this new normal together. That so many of us during this time have accepted each other's frailties, constraints and personal circumstances speaks volumes about our ability to work constructively together, to collaborate and create in ways not so thoroughly tested before COVID-19.

These approaches could, in turn, see the advent of new and improved workplaces, built on cultures of high-trust, genuine flexibility, acceptance of complementary skillsets, and innovative collaborations.

As new research by my colleague, Professor Jarrod Haar, makes clear, happy workplaces are productive workplaces.

Call it what you will - plussing, leaning in, being empathetic - we have the opportunity to do more of what really matters, and do better together in the next normal.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor/Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at AUT.

This article was first published in NZ Management magazine