What Covid-19 tells us about service

Serving is about helping another person progress from one state to a better state. In the past few weeks we’ve seen a remarkable resurgence of people doing just that – serving. The variety has been striking.

  • The most visible are the health workers and carers – those providing care in a professional capacity, within formalised services. Here the progress is from sick-to-well. Or helping people shield from the virus, and so stay well from one day to the next
  • Then there’s a large group in ‘key worker’ roles – providing services to keep life going. Here the progress is hugely varied – helping a vulnerable person go from hungry to fed, helping a take delivery of exercise equipment, helping a small business owner correspond via post.
  • Then there’s a growing volume of volunteers – offering time and energy to help those that serve – 1 million volunteers are providing critical support in hospitals – or volunteering to directly serve someone else in their neighbourhood or network – picking up groceries, looking in to check they’re okay. The quantity of this latter group is unknown, but likely very large. Service here is helping in any way to progress the needs of others.

Everyone is asking: how can I help?

Helping, caring, giving, charity – these are all parts of the human instinct to serve others. Whether done in a professional capacity, within a formal service like the National Health Service, or done informally through a pop-up neighbourhood WhatsApp group. The core instinct is the same – people are helping people who are suffering in some way, by helping them progress to a better state.

From NHS to NSH overnight

In effect, what we did was go overnight from a National Health Service (NHS) to a Nation in Service of Health (NSH). We can all feel how different this feels. The former is a huge institution plagued by difficulties and challenges. The latter is driven by a deep and instinctive urge to care for others in need.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had a Nation in Service of Health every day? Why don’t we? Why is it the boring old, reliable NHS most of the time, and then only in a crisis an amazing NSH? What does it take to permanently shift from the NHS to an NSH?

A tweet by an NHS worker – source unknown

We need to first recognise that a gulf has opened up between the deeply human act of service, and the reality of trying to serve in a service organisation. There are many reasons why, but the main ones are:

  • We have forgotten how integral service is to being healthy human – services have become toxic as a result
  • Most of what we think we know about service and how it works, is wrong – we fundamentally mismanage service organisations
  • We think service is just about customers and users – the true value of service is that it happens between everyone

Covid-19 is generating a lot of trauma right now. The health of thousands of people is at risk. The behaviour of millions is undergoing its own trauma due to the stress of financial vulnerability and isolation.

Yet paradoxically, the crisis is providing a useful glimpse into what healthier service looks like.

But no-one describes what we’re seeing as service. Why?

People today don’t like the word service, which is a great shame, as it represents a profound and noble act. It’s also a perverse situation. As our economy has grown to rely on services, so our regard for serving has diminished.

No-one cares about serving

My work is all about rehabilitating service for the modern era. It’s only in recent history that service has fallen out of favour. Here’s how others in history have described service:

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“So long as we love we serve; so long as we are loved by others, I would almost say that we are indispensable.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson

“Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

“Love is service. The fruit of service is peace” ― Mother Teresa

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” ― Tagore

“Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” ― Marian Wright Edelman

“I remember Buddha’s teaching: the importance of kindness and compassion, wishing something good for others, or at least to reduce their suffering. Then I remember that everything is interrelated, the teaching of interdependence. So then I set my intention for the day: that this day should be meaningful. Meaningful means, if possible, serve and help others. If not possible, then at least not to harm others. That’s a meaningful day.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

“Serve others and cultivate yourself simultaneously. Understand that true growth comes from meeting and solving problems of life in a way that is harmonizing to yourself and to others. If you can follow these simple old ways, you will be continually renewed.” ― Lao Tzu

“The beautiful truth about service is that we are afforded countless opportunities to be its vehicle. Every interaction with another is an opportunity to serve. From simply letting someone into your lane in traffic, to holding a door, to a kind smile. This is all service. I am humbled by this simple truth. We are given the opportunity to express the most meaningful use of our lives every time we interact with another sentient being.” ― Chris Matakas

“We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service to others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world – but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent – how are you going to serve society? If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or of service communities of any kind do not love and help each other, whom can we love and help?” Thich Nhat Hanh

The common theme here is the power of serving others, which spans cultures and time. We see it, right now, in a time of crisis. But most of the time, those that serve aren’t treated as heroes. They’re low paid and work long hours, for little thanks. In most countries, being in service is seen as subservient and lowly. This is a corrosive and damaging belief. We can change it.

A. Service is critical to being human

We have always served one another, for all of human history. Service is part of who we are. Right now we’re seeing this across the globe, as people seek to serve one another in a time of crisis.

“One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.”

Gordon B. Hinckley

In the west our conception of service is based on a latin definition that is rooted in servitude. However, look globally and one quickly discovers a much wider view. Take Seva, an Indian word which describes selfless service, which more closely relates to the reality of our human drive to serve. What we are seeing now globally is a surge in selfless service, as people put themselves at risk in hospitals and care homes. Or who donate money from already tight budgets to help others in need.

1. Service as instinct

“The moment we’re born, we get eye contact, a smile, a hug, some food. Our parents look after us for the first years of our lives. They serve our every need. When they themselves grow old and frail, we serve them.”

Danny Mayer – Setting The Table, The Transforming Power of Hospitality

We’ve served and been served for millenia. We tend to call it love, caring, caregiving etc, when actually it’s an act of service. In some eastern countries we see that filial piety, serving one’s elders, still remains a core part of life. Service started here, as a deep instinct to help others close to us to progress in life.

2. Service as transaction

Over time, the act of service went outward, to encompass more than just kin. We began to serve the wider tribe. Service to and from others, was a way of both bartering specialist skills, but also for reinforcing social connections through a sort of gift economy.

3. Service as commerce

Only quite recently, relatively speaking, the act of serving has evolved quickly into an institutionalised system of service. Barter has become formalised into commerce. But the instinct has remained.

We have evolved to serve. People who give time and energy to others, without any expected return, tend to be healthier than those who don’t. Selfless service is good for us. Selfishness is bad for us.

Part of the good feeling in the air right now is that rekindled spirit of selfless service.

B. Most of what we think we know about service is wrong

When I mention service to people, they usually think of customer service. Nowadays if you say you serve, most people will assume you are a domestic servant, a call centre worker, a waitress or similar. The act of serving is regarded as subservient and, consequently is poorly-paid. This just demonstrates how far we’ve commercialised the instinct to serve. The performance has been divorced from the instinct.

Let’s take nursing. Nurses don’t get paid much, yet right now they’re at the frontline of everyone’s thoughts. An army of skilled, selfless servers doing for our loved ones, that which we would do ourselves.

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson

So let’s be clear – service is not subservient – it’s noble.

But alas, we live in a western system, whose capitalist ethic only compounds the latin root of the word service. Service isn’t respected. If we take pay as a measure of value, most of the people who do the serving aren’t genuinely respected. If they were, we’d pay them well, rather than desperately trying to replace them with machines.

The act of serving is narrowly understood by business as a transaction. Yet as Christie Watson states, this misses the 90% of value humans get from serving – which is human connection and personal nourishment of helping someone progress. In Christie’s case, from illness back to health.

Also, most managers and leaders have been schooled in running product factories, when what the world is full of are services. An example: I don’t want a mortgage, I want to become a better homeowner. Yet in most banks you’ll have a Head of Distribution, as if a mortgage is something that gets loaded onto a truck to be taken to people. Then look at public health. So much of what thwarts the NHS is down to a misunderstanding of what a health service should do. It should be about the selfless service we’re seeing now, yet instead classical managerialism (aka the factory logic of management) has led us to a place where very often the patient becomes the product, to be processed through a health factory at the lowest cost.

Once again, let’s be clear – services aren’t products.

We don’t understand service, and so the services we run often fall into paradoxical situations where those that live to serve often find they’re unable to. I once worked with an Adult Social Care team who described themselves as The Mushroom Team, “because they keep us in the basement and feed us shit.”

Denying people their instinct to serve is one of the underlying reasons 85% are disengaged and unhappy with their jobs, especially when they work in so-called ‘service’ organisations. As indicated by the tweet from that NHS worker.

Service is noble. Those who serve, in whatever function, are working to progress others.

Article from The Guardian newspaper

This nobility of service is what we’re seeing globally right now. This is the form of selfless service that is closer to what our evolved selves instinctively need than the usual, narrow view of service.

C. Service happens inside organisations, not just with customers

“True leaders understand that leadership is not about them but about those they serve. It is not about exalting themselves but about lifting others up.”

Sheri L Dew

Covid 19 has forced a dramatic change inside organisations. As the NHS workers tweet earlier in this article demonstrates, the speed at which C19 spread, has demanded an urgent response. Traditional decision making flows, where senior leaders devise strategy at the centre and then command and control resources to serve that strategy out at the periphery, have proved woefully slow.

The Japanese have a wonderful term: the gemba. It means ‘the actual place’ and is used in Japanese management to refer to the place where value is created in an organisation – where the organisation and customer meet. The thinking went that the further you got from the gemba, the higher the risk that unnecessary waste and cost would be added. This is the core principal that enabled Toyota to make better cars for less, and win in the US automotive market in the 80s.

Five weeks ago the gemba in the NHS was understood to be at the top/centre of an organisation. The value created there by experts in things like policy and management, would (in theory) ripple out to the edges.

Instead, we’ve seen that model flip overnight. To expedite change in an urgent crisis, all the froth of management has been removed. The frontline/edge has taken command. And in organisations that are succeeding right now, the leaders have mostly gotten out of the way.

It’s likely the same in your service organisation. The leaders are now in service of the servers.

That’s because selfless service is fundamentally outside-in. It is led by what the customer needs, not just by what the organisation wants. Organisations who have lost siter of this have had a harsh reminder these past weeks.

“Managers serve the team.”

Eric Schmidt, CEO Alphabet

Why do we have this drive to serve? It helps to take a quick look at how we evolved.

D. What we serve matters

Based Biden : Destiny

The way that some have responded to this crisis provides a clear demonstration that service, in-and-of-itself, is not enough. People can serve good things and bad things.

Trump defends response to coronavirus, says he's not firing Fauci ...
Fauci and Trump – the selfless and the self serving?

When I watch Dr Fauci standing alongside President Trump, I can’t help but think we’re witnessing someone who is selflessly serving, tussle with someone who is self-serving. One has a track record of helping others, the other has a track record of helping himself.

There is both a light and dark side of service. One could say that Trump is trying to serve his base, yet in many ways he has constructed his base to serve his interests. They now believe him to the point of a basic denial of facts. Americans have been drinking bleach.

It is not enough that we rediscover service. We also need to reconsider who or what we are serving. People can be turned to serve so many agendas. So we all need to make sure we’re putting ourselves to good service. Here’s some ways to think about it.

1. Serving for social reasons

This is perhaps the purest form of service. Our social drive to serve is part of the altrusim we have evolved. People putting themselves in service of others. We will selflessly give up our own welfare for the benefit of those around us.

Alas, this instinct can also be abused. In an increasingly fractured world, filter bubbles and physical walls are being put up, and we’re encouraged to serve our group against another. C19 becomes The Chinese Virus very quickly.

Sometimes one does need to defend group values. Great acts of valour have been done in its name. But rarely can one justify an attack on someone else’s group values.

Nevertheless, many around the world are now blindly in service of dogma and demagogues. If in doubt – avoid serving dogma. Ask: are we being asked to serve one group at the expense of another here? Why?

2. Serving for spiritual or cultural reasons

It’s probably not much of a surprise that many of the quotes that opened this article are from spiritual leaders. There has always been a strong connection between religion and service. People putting themselves in service of a higher order. When people talk about joining the clergy, they often use the phrase going into service. Churches give services every week. Service pervades the church.

“If I could give you information of my life it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led by God in strange and unaccustomed paths to do in His service what He has done in her. And if I could tell you all, you would see how God has done all, and I nothing. I have worked hard, very hard, that is all; and I have never refused God anything.”

Florence Nightingale

Culture also created ethical frameworks for service. For instance, I mentioned earlier the concept of filial piety that sustains the service of parents by their children. There is lots that is good about this. But equally, Confucianism has basically set up a shame infrastructure to reinforce this habit, which is less than healthy.

Many people choose to serve within religious systems, or barely seen cultural systems. Many great things have been done as a result. But it bears repeating that many bad things have also been done. Selfless service is a choice. When someone is consciously or unconsciously forced into selfless service, what results can veer close to slavery.

Again, the key is to avoid serving dogmatically.

3. Serving for civic reasons

The final category of service, is civic service. People putting themselves in service of a greater good. We are seeing a lot of this right now, as people applaud public services at the frontline – from postal workers to binmen – for putting their own wellbeing aside for the benefit of society.

In 2015 The Queen revived the concept of public service being “the most honourable of callings“. We can be rightly proud that this has been the case for many years. Many still enter the civil service to be in service of their country and the greater good of society.

But as we’re now seeing, recent austerity has shrunk the state down significantly. Waves of privatisation have replaced the service motive with a commercial motive. And political interventions and influence have gradually undermined it – as seen with during Brexit, where civil servants felt forced to align with fallacies, or resign.

The civil service in the UK remains honourable, but it’s not quite able to serve in quite the same way as it once did.

Here we’re seeing a clash between two forms of service. On the one hand you have people being put in service of culture, and on the other hand people putting themselves in service of civic needs. In the former we have economic ideology and partisan dogma. In the latter you have civic interest, as set out in the Civil Service Code:

‘integrity’ is putting the obligations of public service above your own personal interests;

‘honesty’ is being truthful and open;

‘objectivity’ is basing your advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence; and

‘impartiality’ is acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving equally well Governments of different political persuasions.

British Civil Service Code

The last one has been the troublesome one. What does a civil servant do if they find themselves in service of a government that acts of untruths? Some have stayed in position, seeking to balance the abuse with integrity, others have left to protect their integrity.

Being of service is always a balancing act between competing forces. One can’t always do the right thing. One needs only to do what one can. Though if in doubt, from my research I’d suggest being wary of serving the following: dogma, targets, orders.

Covid 19 has taught us what it really means to serve

Covid-19 isn’t the first agent to cause a resurgence in serving. Hurricane Katrina had a similar effect. The question is, how do we help people learn from what we’re witnessing, and then work to retain the benefits long-term? To build not only a Nation in Service of Health, but a Nation in Service. We’ll be better off for it. I’ll explore how we do that in a future article.

For now, I’m blessed to be healthy and safe. The death and trauma in our hospitals feels strangely distant, as do the noble acts of service being done. But I know it’s happening and I am deeply grateful to those who serve.

Nevertheless, I feel blessed to see small acts of service every day:

  • The team member at morning check-in who offers to take on the load of someone who’s having a bad day. People want to serve people.
  • The squads mobilising up to respond to C19, offering to help other squads get things done. Teams want to serve teams.
  • The leader who unblocks a barrier to the team getting a critical new service to customers. Leaders want to serve the frontline.

I’d love to hear your stories of service.

A note about me

I’ve been designing services for over 20 years. In the last 10 years I realised we didn’t really understand what we were designing. We certainly weren’t delivering enough of what we designed into reality. We thought it was all about customer journeys, touchpoints, and moments of truth, when in fact I’ve realised it’s about designing the service back into services.

So I’ve spent the last 9 years researching service. My main thesis is that we’ve lost the connection between serving, service and services, and that this has resulted in people not being able to serve one another in a way that they instinctively need to. This has both corroded our shared wellbeing and profoundly limited the potential of our service organisations.

I believe wholeheartedly that we can do better. So I’ve set up the Society of Service as a vehicle for this. It’s a personal hobby. Maybe I’ll do some meetups or events. Find out more and register your interest by visiting www.joelbaileyuk.com

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is society-of-service.png

1 thought on “What Covid-19 tells us about service”

  1. Pingback: What Covid-19 tells us about service – Strategic Reading

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *