Surviving in a Flat Stanley World

Written by: John Humphrey, EVP & CRO, Cyber Group Inc.

Surviving in a Flat Stanley World

Most of you will have no idea what I’m talking about; others will smile because you remember those summers carrying Flat Stanley on vacation or having your kids write letters to others around the world and sending Flat Stanley along for a ride.

I can remember those summers of packing Flat Stanley in my briefcase as I travelled around the U.S. on business.  I would snap pictures of Flat by the Stock Exchange in NYC or the Golden Gate Bridge in California.  My kids would write family friends and send Flat along, asking them to take pictures with Flat wherever they travelled.  It was always amusing what pictures we would get back from friends before there were iPhones.

The original book was written by Jeff Brown as a bedtime story for his children.  The gist of the book is that Flat Stanley gets flattened by a bulletin board falling on him and decides after time to make the best of being flat. He finds that he can fit under locked doors, mail himself to his friends and serve as a kite for his brother in the park.

The Flat Stanley Project was started in 1995 by a Canadian schoolteacher to facilitate writing between students and sending Flat Stanley around the world for pictures in famous places.  Flat Stanley has been everywhere!

So, what does this have to do with our life in COVID?

Plenty!

For many of us, COVID was like the bulletin board that flattened Flat Stanley, and like Flat, we have all had to make the best of the situation.  We have learned to survive in a Flat Stanley world as Zoom and Teams have taken over our lives.  Now entering our second year of work from home, I suspect “normal” is on the horizon, but what does that look like?  I went to an “in-person meeting” that we used to call a “face-to-face” meeting.  Now it’s “mask-to-mask.”  I remember thinking, I sure do miss my home office and my Flat Stanley Teams meetings. With 65% of communication being non-verbal, I need to see a face.  Also, my hearing is going, so I can’t read lips in a mask-to-mask world.  I retreated from the mask-to-mask meetings and doubled down my efforts from the home office.

So what is the upside to COVID?

-Productivity

In the knowledge worker world, I can get more done in an 8 hour day than I could in 3 or 4 days. I often have 8 – 10 meetings in a single day versus the 2 – 3 hours it takes to go visit in person.  This has led me to be hugely productive from anywhere.

-Face-to-Face is Key

In the Zoom world, so long as I can see your face, some of that non-verbal is coming through. I prefer face-to-face, but Zoom is better than mask-to-mask.

-Flexibility

In many ways, I have a fuller life.  I’m doing fun things and picking time with friends I know are being safe.  My kids come around the house, and I’m no longer spending 1 – 2 hours driving in traffic. I can leave my home office and be having a glass of wine with my wife in 15 minutes.  I’ve worked from many of my favorite places.

-The Written Word

One area that has gone the way of the buggy whip is the written word. Now more than ever, take the time to write a short note and send it along in snail mail.  It will be a welcome gift to the recipient.  Online, content rules.  Knowledge has to be shared through social media for it to be relevant to your clients. Write more!

Make the best of it

We may have another 6 months of work from home, so make the best of it.  Near the end of the book, Flat Stanley grows tired of being flat and asks his brother to pump him back to his regular self with a bicycle pump.  For us, that pump is vaccines.  We are beginning to see declines in case numbers as herd immunity is spreading.  Is the end in sight? I hope so. We know that there will be life after COVID, but what will it be like from a business perspective?

-Flexibility vs. Control

During COVID, we had to trust our employees to be productive, and they were. How will we balance the flexibility they have earned with the control needs exhibited by many leaders today?

-Re-entry will be Tricky

Just like a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere, the angle of descent needs to be right. Too steep, and we burn up.  Too flat, and we bounce off into space.  Companies will have to go slowly and consider how they can create reasons to come to the office.

-Talent Rules

In a knowledge worker’s world, companies will have to give their very best talent the flexibility they now know they can have. Work from home will become work from anywhere.

New Normal

As we move from a Flat Stanley world to the new normal, organizations and people will need to keep an open mind as they strive to help their customers succeed and engage their employees to do the same.  There will not be a roadmap.  We will all need to recover slowly, deliberately, and with a great deal of grace.  Take people where they are and highlight things that need to be addressed corporately.  Creating loyalty in a post-Flat Stanley world will separate the winners from the losers.