At a glance
It may sound impossibly modern, but the term “business as usual” was coined during the industrialisation era of the 1800s. It was first used by retailers who would hang a sign on their door to indicate that regular trading had resumed after a disruption.
Two centuries later, in the corporate world, BAU seems to have taken a turn towards the passive aggressive, akin to “nothing to see here”.
Business adviser Jade Green says the term “BAU” could inadvertently promote mediocrity “by suggesting everything is okay just the way it is”.
“It downplays chaos and neglects team members’ psychological safety,” Green says.
“It is important to use the term carefully and be super mindful of its implications.”
The lesson here is that so-called BAU activities contribute to a firm’s ability to be efficient and effective. They should not be devalued, and the language applied to these tasks is an important part of this.
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What's in a name?
BAU activities cover an organisation’s routine, day-to-day operations. These are tasks that are crucial to the organisation’s daily workings, even if they may be repetitive or boring.
BAU tasks are often cost centres, rather than revenue centres – think staff rostering, monthly reporting, receiving deliverables and stock management.
Other examples include conducting regular meetings with team members or clients, processing payroll and other administrative tasks, responding to customer inquiries or complaints, bookkeeping and accounts payable processes, preparing budgets and financial statements, and so on.
Equating these essential activities with drudgery diminishes their importance. After all, such activities serve a vital purpose – maintaining stability and containing costs. They also contribute in other ways.
Workplace expert Michelle Gibbings says, “These routine operations are an essential foundation for new initiatives and projects”.
This is because having a strong foundation of the basics frees up time and mental energy, enabling people to work on new ideas and be more creative and innovative.
Strike the right balance
Emily Johnson, principal psychologist and co‑founder of workplace mental health firm Get Mentally Fit, says, “Staff may be bogged down in operational tasks, which is working in the business, and have no time for strategic tasks, which is working on the business”.
Too much emphasis on BAU tasks could also stifle experimentation and risk-taking, resulting in missed opportunities for growth and improvement.
Gibbings adds, “In a rapidly changing business environment, leaning too heavily on BAU activities could be positioned as advocating for the status quo, leading to a lack of willingness to take risks or try new things. It suggests resistance to change and a reluctance to innovate or address burning issues”.
Mind what you say
For leaders, being mindful about how they use language is an essential requirement. Team members respond better when leaders use communication techniques such as positive reinforcement and reflective listening.
Conversely, using vague, dismissive or abrupt language is a suboptimal way to manage team members.
When it comes to business as usual, there are plenty of terms and phrases that do not carry the same value judgement, such as “essential business processes” or “core operational tasks”.
Beyond BAU, it is good practice to check in with team members when planning a new business activity or project, being aware that expressions like “this should not take you long” may diminish a task’s significance and complexity.
A better approach would be to outline the task and the steps needed to complete it, suggest a deadline for completion, then work with the team to assess how realistic it is and how it will affect BAU.
It is important to give staff an opportunity to make suggestions if they believe there is a better way to do the task, or to ask for more time if required.
This approach helps everyone on the team, and the wider business, to develop a shared understanding of what needs to be done, why and when.
The result should be higher morale, a more engaged workforce and better performance over time for both new projects and BAU.