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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2020-09-09 11:57

Cathryn Barnard



In 2016, I was studying for my diploma in executive coaching. In and amongst an extensive reading list, I came across Transitions, by William Bridges.


In 2016, I was studying for my diploma in executive coaching. In and amongst an extensive reading list, I came across Transitions, by William Bridges. It was by far my favourite book – for me, it really dug into the detail of how people adapt to life’s changes.


Originally published in 1980, Bridges proposed an alternative to the traditional construct of modern life. 


Instead of the three commonly accepted life stages – childhood, work life and retirement – Bridges argued that life is, in fact, made up of a continuous sequence of beginnings, middles and endings.


Compellingly, he proposed that it’s hard to start new things, without having consciously marked the ending of whatever went before. Bridges also introduced the concept of the ‘neutral zone’.


I raise this now because, in so many ways, 2020 is a year of endings. 


In six months, our lives have been turned upside down both by COVID-19 and the tumultuous social and economic change that’s accompanied it.


Now the summer holidays are over, we’re returning to work. In the UK, the Government is pressing us to go back to our places of work – fearful, of course, of the wider economic consequences of empty city and town centres.


September usually feels like a month of new beginnings. It marks the end of summer, and the start of a new school year. Everyone’s back at work – refreshed and ready to start new initiatives. 


In this year of ‘crazy’, it’s easy to get caught up in ‘the new’ – to think that, several months in, we’ve ‘got this’, and that we know what we’re doing now. If we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a break, perhaps we feel fresh enough to roll our metaphorical sleeves up and get stuck back in, adapting to a ‘new normal’ in the age of social distance.


But have we marked our endings? 


COVID-19 has brought about so many endings:


  • The end of stability
  • The end of certainty
  • The end of personal safety
  • The end of clarity
  • The end of ‘normality’
  • The end of many freedoms
  • The end of ‘business as usual’


For multiple reasons, we may actually be in the early stages of a complete paradigm shift. 


There’s growing recognition that we can no longer live life stealing from the future, brazenly disregarding the impact of our entitlement on the planet. Something must give. 


While there’s clear resistance from other quarters – who, we’d add are heavily invested in upholding the status quo – scientific evidence is growing. We can no longer afford to live as we have done; the environmental consequences are too cataclysmic to consider.


By acknowledging all these endings, we give ourselves permission to stop attempting to continue as normal. Hand sanitiser stations and face masks might improve overall hygiene, but they’re not going to take us back to how things were before, any time soon. 


We’re in the thick of collective trauma right now. Huge volumes of us are working overtime to cope psychologically with this strange in-between landscape we’ve found ourselves in. We’re pretending we’re not broken, but we’re very far from fixed. 


We need to accept that what we’re experiencing is wrapped up in the complex emotions that accompany grief and loss, and we’re not doing ourselves any favours by pretending we’re fine and that we can carry on as normal.


When we give voice to how we’re feeling, almost immediately we realise we’re not alone. That’s hugely therapeutic in and of itself. Once we start having open conversations about this strange new world, we start the work of closure. 


And then we come to what William Bridges called the ‘neutral zone’, which is also sometimes called ‘liminal space’. We’re no longer ‘here’, but we’re not yet ‘there’.


This sits at the heart of transition and the psychology of change. By taking time to mindfully sit in this space, we can let go of the old, and imagine the new. We can take time to work out what a better future looks like and begin painting a vision for what we’d like to see, and a pathway for how to get there. 


Leading right now is HARD WORK. It’s exhausting. We’re expected to know the way, but there’s no roadmap. Using old maps to navigate uncharted territory is pointless.


Passing time in the neutral zone means working to be present in the now. Acknowledging the past, but not racing to put plans in place for the future. Allowing space for new ideas to emerge. Uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ are places of potential and possibility. It’s where the magic happens.


Learning to lean into this is a better marker of longer-term resilience, as psychologists will attest. 


And so, as we head towards autumn, with no clarity in sight, let’s make sense of our endings. Let’s acknowledge our mental load – you’ll feel liberated, I promise. And when we head into the neutral zone, we can really get started on building a better future. 


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Foresight Focus products.



Bridges, W. (2004), Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press

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