How to recover and flourish after a pandemic: a look into the future with Ben Hammersley

The idea of futurists has always been an elusive one. But in rough times, it’s these people we look to. As an agency with a forward-looking mindset, we decided to put our money where our mouth is: we invited Ben Hammersley to host a webinar. A name that might ring a bell, Ben Hammersley is a futurist (or synthesist) who has inspired and worked together with household names, such as Google, MasterCard and Pfizer, as well as several governments and militaries. You might also recognise him from his insightful Ted Talks or his Netflix series on cyber crimes. The common denominator in all of these endeavours? His vision on the future. Let’s walk you through the highlights.

We, as a society, are constantly planning our every move - whether that pertains to ourselves, our company, our family, our community or our country. It’s an essential part of our culture, and a skill that will be more than important in the upcoming years. We find it incredibly difficult to fathom what the future will look like, because of certain mental models we have. Let’s dive in!

Mental model #1: The future happens in the future

First of all, Ben Hammersley stresses the thought that things from the future don’t exist in the world of today. Quite obvious, you might think, but not really. Often, when imagining future things, we think of things that exist today, only more sleek and shiny, maybe with a cool new feature or two. That’s exactly where we are wrong. Because things that happen in the future are not yet in existence. They develop from the world of today, and maybe the Next Big Thing is already starting to sprout somewhere. We just can’t really fathom what it is yet, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Mental model #2: Change is inevitable

The next thing to realize is that change is inevitable. Ben believes that change is a natural process, something that’s far easier to achieve than tradition. It takes less energy to transform yourself than to stay the same.

So, moving on: If there’s any word that we could assign to the - let’s be honest - hell year of 2020, it’s probably change, right? According to Ben, the year has known two waves of transformation. The first wave was the one you’re likely thinking of: the flip from offline to digital. At the start of the lockdown, companies collectively panicked and scrambled to operate remotely in just a few days. That exact transformation, in a world unaffected by a worldwide pandemic, would have taken a decade. At the very least.

The second transformation happened a few months after the first one. At the end of the summer, when Covid numbers seemed to be reducing, the temporary lockdown measurements actually seemed to work better than companies would have imagined. In came, as Ben likes to call it, ‘The Great Reassessment’. Now that companies actually seemed to function pretty well in spite of the distance, this raised the question: what’s left of the office we’ve always known?



The Rehiring Question

Furthermore, Ben brings up ‘The Rehiring Question’: if your office building were a person, would you be rehiring them? It’s not like it has been of use to the company the past months. And what is the purpose of an office in the first place? Ben thinks there are very few valid reasons to hold on to the idea of a central office. He argues that open plan offices are constantly proven to have a bad effect on productivity, discipline and overall workplace morale. The only benefit people really have from the office is the aspect of social collaboration. This, in turn, raises the question: should our offices be lined with grey, ugly desks, or should it be an inviting place to meet, socialise and collaborate?


Companies could significantly cut down on costs by letting go of the idea of a physical office. Instead, they could just book a meeting place once a week to allow their employees to catch up and work together in a comfortable environment. On the other days of the work week, people should be allowed to choose where they work from. In that way, you’re not rehiring your old office - you’re redesigning it by hiring another, Ben says.


The human factor

Ben’s thought process behind this statement is his belief that companies are no longer a physical place and legal structure, the way they used to be. Instead, companies are collections of humans who come together to fulfil a collective mission. Companies have come to think of their employees as machines that carry out mundane tasks and exist to serve them, overlooking the fact that people aren’t actually made of wires and buttons. That’s one of the ideas that the pandemic completely ransacked: once everyone was plastered in front of a computer, the corporate rust washed away. Employees suddenly were full-time humans, with rich family lives and passions.


Agency over optimisation

Ben argues that this is the problem with modern-day capitalism: over the past 20 years, everything in the workplace as well as in private life has slowly centered around optimisation. Basically, it was all about taking a particular number (profit, productivity…) and making sure that number goes up. By doing that, companies were literally thinking of people as machines. . The catch is that humans don’t exist to do everything better and better. We exist as wider, more complex whole entities. And machines are great at doing one thing, but they are unable to flourish in a chaotic future like humans do. Therefore, Ben prefers the psychological term of ‘agency’ over ‘optimisation’. By having the ability to act for yourself within your own framework, you will psychologically flourish. And he believes that companies will benefit from that: flourishing people can adapt very easily and, as we are heading into a more and more uncertain future, the most successful companies will be those made up of flourishing human beings.



So, how do we do that?

By promoting ‘cognitive diversity’. You can achieve this by employing widely different people: not only different genders, skin colors and sexualities, but also people with differing interests and worlds. You want your workforce to have a perspective as wide as possible. As companies are entirely a product of the thinking and talents of their employees, helping your employees flourish will make your organisation flourish. Furthermore, you could also give your employees the correct digital tools, such as enough screens, to think more widely or more imaginatively.


But there are sharp edges too. The hegemony of misinformation is waging war on our world. Along with cyber crime, data loss and information insecurity, misinformation is a direct danger to the functioning of our society. The protection from, as Ben likes to call it, cognitive risk should be a central concern in any company, as this endangers the free thinking skills of its employees. But unfortunately, it’s not only just misinformation that threatens our cognition: cognitive risk can be anything that prevents us from thinking clearly. This can range from distracting Slack messages to noise complaints. A great way to combat this is cultivating a valuable communication strategy within your company. In short: you have to be aware of everything that might prevent proper cognition from happening, because it’s in that cognition that real value is created.

However, the biggest threat of this new work style isn’t cognitive risk. It’s tradition, or the intention to hold on to things that have served their purpose for years, but might no longer. Ben dissects this natural need for things to stay the same with a powerful technique that he describes as Constant Legacy Free Reinvention. One day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, you have to pay attention to your choices, habits and why you maintain them. You have to ask yourself what problem you’re solving by carrying out this action, and if you could solve this problem today for the first time using modern tools, how would you do it? It’ll be clear: an awful lot of the time, there really is no problem to solve or you’re solving the problem in a way that doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s then up to you to take note of these obsolete habits, and to put a stop to them. Very soon, you’ll find out that everything you do, you’re bringing forward into the present day, into the world where those techniques are enabling you to flourish.

The lesson of the pandemic

A company is basically a collection of human beings. When you help your employees flourish as human beings, by giving them agency, your company will be better off: the solutions that you find, the products that you build, the creativity that you foster… According to Ben, that’s the lesson of the pandemic, and the only way forward in this incredibly uncertain world.  

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