• Dr. Hilary Curry, Author |
5 min read

​The world is made up of ecosystems. In the wild, species must adapt to changes in their environment to survive and thrive. But “civilized” spaces, like offices, are ecosystems, too—and these ones are changing fast, whether because of economic tides, skills shortages, changing demographics and shifting worker expectations, or because of increasing emphasis on environmental and social factors.

As an avid scuba diver, I see many similarities between the ecosystems above water and those below. Indeed, navigating what can seem like an alien new world of work is not unlike the diving experience. A diver needs to understand the underwater environment they’re entering, where such seemingly simple things as breathing and moving are more challenging. Divers also need the right gear to help them adapt to that environment, and they must plan for times the sea offers unexpected surprises. The first few attempts might be ungainly, where the effort to adapt seems to overwhelm, but, with each dive, more progress is made, and the diver becomes more acclimated and able to feel like part of the ecosystem.

While each business is different and no two solutions will be the same, here are some key principles to keep in mind when diving into the new workplace ecosystem.

Do your homework
Long before a diver enters the water, where the pressure is greater and there is no air, they must learn to adapt their body and movements to the sea. There are dozens of diving environments, from tropical and polar, to coral reefs and kelp forests, each requiring a different approach.

There is extensive scientific and psychological research not only into how we work, but also the influence that environmental factors have on our productivity and effectiveness. Doing your homework means to look at your organization through the eyes of your employees. How are they engaged? What growth or development opportunities contribute to their career path? What does work-life balance or flexibility look like for them? How would they like to participate in the communications cycles? How do they want to be recognized for great work? And so on.

As you assess your ecosystem from their lens, you will be able to see some of the adaptations you will need to implement to ensure that your employees are set up for success.

Gather the right gear
A diver needs key pieces of equipment to navigate and assist with breathing, mobility and buoyancy. These include a tank of compressed air, a regulator to breathe, a mask to see, a wetsuit or drysuit for thermal protection, and fins to glide through the water.

In the workplace, leaders need tools, too. These will vary according to the specific needs and goals of the organization but might include analytic and data-gathering software, feedback tools, risk assessments, etc. Whatever approaches you take, they should be driven by the needs of workers. While clear cost-optimization considerations must be made, opportunity spotting should be driven by rich insight and data on the needs, wants, gains and pains of your employees.

Recognize there’s strength in numbers
Life can be hard for a fish, which is why many species don’t go it alone and instead group together in schools that can be comprised of millions of individuals. Large schools can be much bigger than a whale and essentially become superorganisms with collective behaviour that can protect them from threats and ensure their survival.

Your labour pool will ideally act in a similar way. When employees can buy into a vision and a direction, they’ll work in harmony rather than at cross-purposes or in competing organizational silos. Your job as a leader is to build a coalition of the willing—to communicate that vision, get the buy-in and give employees the means to work toward common goals. This might include prioritizing skills over roles or functions, filling talent gaps and bringing together multidisciplinary teams to solve problems for shared benefit.

Additionally, there is a set of core skills that will set your organization up for an unknown future. These skills include data literacy, strategic thinking, customer centricity, emotional intelligence, communication, and the ability to navigate change. These core skills will ensure that people are able to pivot when a rogue wave presents itself and ensure they are able to make holistic data-driven decisions when the seas are rough.

Know that the small things matter, and that diversity is key
The underwater world is rich in biodiversity. A large variety of species copes better with threats and changes than a limited number in large populations. And each species—from the plankton that support marine life to the coral reefs that provide crucial habitats and protect coastlines, each has an important purpose and different needs.

In the workplace, different individuals and teams also have varying needs and working preferences (both physical and digital). Always remember that a multitude of micro-experiences and touchpoints, particularly when bundled together, impact overall employee experience. For organizational health, leaders should make building diversity a priority. This will strengthen the organization in its entirety, making it more adaptable to change and less beholden to outmoded traditions.

Take things one at a time
One of the thrills of diving is entering a wondrous world that’s unlike anything found on land. But as you explore and adapt to this new environment, the adjustments you make can’t all happen at once and need to be prioritized. For instance, if you get water in your mask just as a fin has started to slip off your foot, the first thing you need to prioritize is to clear the mask so you can see, and then deal with the fin.

In the workplace, identify goals and target areas for improvement and prioritize their solutions according to feasibility, viability, and desirability is key to success. Looking at the system and understanding what is critical to deal with first will help alleviate pressures so things can be more easily dealt with. If you don’t know what is critical, just ask! Employees are happy to help when the challenge is framed in the right way with the right amount of support and action.

Think ahead
Returning to the surface after a dive requires a slow and steady approach. Surface too quickly and the nitrogen in your blood, now unbalanced from breathing at increased pressure underwater, can form bubbles and cause “the bends” (a.k.a., decompression sickness). But, with experience, you learn more about appropriate risk management.

Change adaptation in the workplace should also take a measured and future-forward approach. The strategies you implement today should be analysed and reviewed to ensure the process is as smooth as possible–and that they serve as building blocks for tomorrow.

Adapting to the everchanging workplace ecosystem takes work—good research, the right tools, appropriate and measured responses to the needs of those involved, and an eye to constant learning and improving to be future-ready. But the reward is a rich and productive environment teeming with vibrancy and resilience.

  • Dr. Hilary Curry

    Dr. Hilary Curry

    Author, People and Change Leader, Greater Vancouver Area

    Blog articles

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