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Return to Ithaca

By James Gairdner

In May last year as we started to contemplate a return from our first lock-down in the UK and as part of his “Reflections on Coronavirus”, Barrett (2020) wrote of the “whitening or "albedo", a phase of consolidation, "the womb in the tomb". In his ruminations on the preoccupations of his reflective practice group. Using this alchemical metaphor to describe liminal space, he suggested that this middle phase is evocative of that “moment of dawn, when we know what we are not, but we are not yet sure what we are becoming…a time of ghosts, where we come to terms with what we are losing, and wait patiently for what is next”. It seems to me that in many ways we are still waiting…

I was reminded of this recently whilst working with a high growth scale up who has thrived during the pandemic, and who like many is wrestling with the now familiar challenges of the return to the office. We had been engaged to support them in this transition, but it soon became apparent was that this was less of an issue in agreeing with their version of hybrid working, and more of an existential question brought to life by the return to a more familiar place “who are we as an organisation?”.

It was as if like Odysseus, they have returned to Ithaca, and discovered they weren’t the people or organisation who left early last year. It was as if the symbols present in the office and their ways of working and relating there had no longer provided comfort, but served to accentuate this identity transition. This left them all at sea, being not what they were but as yet unclear what they are becoming, and with no point of reference.

The temptation for both them and us may have been to focus on more comfortable topics such as the mechanics of hybrid working practices or the detail of possible social events. Whilst such things do require work, they are evocative perhaps of a desire to rush forward from this uncomfortable and in between place or perhaps a wish for a time now past.

As the quote from Barrett (2020) suggests, it may be more useful as we emerge to take the opportunity to reflect on transition itself and perhaps ask “what is it possible for us to be?”. This may allow the expanding organisation to establish new frames of reference from which to contemplate new ways of relating, new associations, and create new organisational memories.


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