Online Symposium/Practicum November 28th 2020 – Conflict and Organising in the Time of Covid-19.

The Complexity and Management Centre offers a one day Symposium/Practicum on Saturday November 28th to explore the experience of conflict during a time of radical uncertainty. The day is intended as an opportunity to bring practical dilemmas to a community of engaged inquirers, to reflect together and think out loud. In reflecting on conflict at work, we will also take seriously the experience of being together in an online forum.

Why do we think it is important to focus on conflict, and how do we understand it?

A variety of contradictory patterns are emerging in organisational life in the wake of responses to the pandemic. Changes in working practices which may have been considered ideal improvements at some point in the future have happened almost overnight. Everyone has had to be very creative to develop workarounds and innovative ways of being together. The usual negotiations, objections, reflections, adjustments have gone by the board and organisations have shifted rapidly from one way of working to another. This has taken cooperation from managers and staff in exceptional times: a unified response to a shared crisis. Most schools and universities have moved teaching online in record time, staff have dramatically reconfigured services in the health sector, and managers’ ambivalence about remote working have melted away, at least for the foreseeable future. Necessity has been the mother of invention and if my own organisation is anything to go by, many people feel justifiably proud of what they have achieved. Scrutiny of micro-detail, which is one of the hallmarks of managerialism, has not been possible and managers have had no choice but to let staff get on with it.

At the same time removing the opportunity for reflection and deliberation also takes away the possibility of practising every day politics, by which I mean both the public and hidden engagement with difference and the possibility of generating plural points of view. Video conferencing is a flat medium where it is very difficult to discern what’s going on and to develop a felt sense of the other. The accidental and incidental sense-making which takes place after any meeting to decide things has to become more deliberate if it is to happen at all. Since video conferencing can be enervating, meetings can get truncated with the encouragement to become ‘focused’ and ‘business-like’. In doing so it is easy to pare away the human messiness of complex communication. Nuance, doubt, clarification of what is being proposed may all disappear. As a consequence, it has become much harder to organise in resistance, formally or informally, or to lobby to influence the outcome.

Additionally, times of crisis expose and amplify existing inequalities and power figurations. Those who may already be marginalised or discriminated against, black and ethnic minority communities, people with disabilities, women, poor communities, staff on lower pay grades or in insecure employment suffer first, and suffer most. We all experience the same crisis, but in no sense do we experience it equally. In organisations, changes in working conditions, recognition and reward can be imposed swiftly and comprehensively. Zoom is helpful in imposing a hierarchy of control and meaning.

The struggle over the future, who we can be and how we organise, what we take to be the good for ‘us’, began from the very beginning of the crisis and still continues. Do we go back to ‘normal’? Is going back to the office the same as going back to work? How do we feel about what we have lost and gained, and what is worth preserving of our working lives pre- and post-Covid?

The experience of the pandemic is threaded through with strong feelings for all of us, which may unite us in a sense of solidarity in the face of crisis but may also divide us. For example, a recent survey conducted with a sample of 10,000 people in the UK shows that feelings of animosity towards other groups, those who refuse to wear masks or who didn’t keep to lockdown, are stronger that those evoked by other recent cleavages in the UK, such as Leavers vs Remainers. Working life has permeated private space, and vice versa. The very radical sense of uncertainty, experienced by all of us on a daily basis, is taking a psychic toll on the whole population and creates the possibility of conflict both generative and destructive in social life more generally and in organisational settings in particular.

To explore some of these tensions propose organising the day as follows:

10.00- 11.00    Complexity and Management Centre colleagues start with an open discussion of some key themes, followed by small groups.

11.00-11.30    Break

11.30-13.00    Large group meeting continuing the exploration of the above.

13.00-14.00    Lunch

14.00-15.30    Practice-based seminars offered by Symposium participants I.

15.30-16.00    Break

16.00-17.30    Practice-based seminars offered by Symposium participants II

17.30-18.00    Final plenary.

Those offering seminars are invited to do so twice, so that participants can attend two during the afternoon.

There will be a modest charge to attend the Symposium/Practicum and I am currently working to set up a payment page.

Between now and the Symposium/Practicum we will publish a series of posts to encourage thinking and engagement, whether or not you are able to join us on the day.

Expressions of interest to run a seminar to c.mowles@herts.ac.uk .

1 thought on “Online Symposium/Practicum November 28th 2020 – Conflict and Organising in the Time of Covid-19.

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