COVID caused disruption that was fundamentally different from that caused by most major challenges that usually hit organisations, be they financial, technical or process, or reputational. It impacted multiple key areas at once; employees, the market, customers, and investors and with unprecedented speed and depth. In addition, it impacted globally not locally like many usual organisational challenges.
Job losses – As societies closed down many people were made redundant or put on furlough due to the massive drop in demand. This reduction in employment ranged from around 10% + in Australia, 20% + the USA, UK and European counties to a staggering 46% in Mexico. The number of women leaving work due to a Covid impact of some type was 1.8 times that of men, women making up 39% of global employment but 54% of job losses.
For those fortunate enough to still have a job their working hours, and thus pay, were reduced on average by around 15%, and there was the constant possibility of losing the job through redundancy or the organisation going bust.
The key questions were to what degree can :
- Our pre-Covid task delivery model can be easily adapted to meet the relevant health requirements, eg social distancing and little or no face-to-face contact with customers.
- We respond to potential the market changes driven by Covid hitting us in due course, eg the significant reduction in demand caused by lockdowns and lack of customer confidence.
In terms of 1. every organisation will have had different assessments, eg an engineering factory where machines were already distanced for safety reasons has less of a problem than a hospitality venue. But even within organisations significant differences between groups became clear, the construction company with workers well distanced on building sites outdoors versus their office staff close to each other inside in open-plan offices.
In terms of 2. in many cases lockdowns forced complete closure, primarily those services could not be delivered at all within the health guideline. But others, such as online retail or healthcare, had increased demand for services.
The key driver of change within organisations was the removal or reduction of the face-to-face interaction between employees, and in some cases with customers, which makes organisational delivery go smoothly. Organisations had an immediate challenge, how to adapt existing operating thinking and working to “business but not as usual” as quickly as possible. The speed and effectiveness of this adaption determined the degree of disruption organisations suffered.
Remote working was hailed as the solution. But the reality is a majority of employees cannot do their jobs remotely, they have to be present, from bus drivers to hospital clinicians. Remote working capability is determined by your tasks not your job title so it exists in only a few sectors, primarily with higher skilled and educated employees. Pre-Covid for various reasons, from organisational culture, systems or just lack of trust in employees by leaders remote working had never reached the level technology has long made possible.
Where no physical presence is required then logically remote working could be effective. However, even if this is the case it poses some significant issues to take it from being theoretically possible to being practical at scale.
So what are the key lessons to deliver success in the future?
Keep things slick – no return to bureaucracy, talking shop meetings, and over complex decision making. Work on the principle that every additional step in a process which isn’t critical to success is a potential waste of time, effort, resources and increases risk. But don’t use that as a justification to cut out people who do need to be involved – over-concentration of decision power carries risks.
Trust the tech and use it – the rapid expansion of tech across organisations to enable decision making, delivery and interaction demonstrated how much and in how many ways tech could benefit performance. We need to proactively apply the principle let tech do what tech does best and let humans do what humans do best. Then we have the best of both.
Engaging, effective, ethical, and entrepreneurial leadership – The pressures of Covid made people aware of the difference between good leaders and average ones in their organisations. The good leaders engaged people, showed they cared, demonstrated great professional and task skills, behaved ethically and were entrepreneurial in adapting to Covid and seeing opportunities it created. Now the benchmark has been set all leaders need to get to this level in the post-COVID future.
Focus on purpose – COVID initially forced a singular purpose on most organisations, adapt or fail. Then subsequently adapt to get through to the end. In so doing people, for the first time in their careers experienced the power of everyone focused on a single aligned purpose. For them and those around them, it gave their work greater meaning. Purpose must still be made as clear in the future as it was to get through COVID.
Give freedom and build trust – where decision making was cascaded to the lowest practical level organisations were able to move with the additional speed and adaptability this brought. Despite the fears of some leaders that this empowerment of employees might lead to disaster, it didn’t. It enabled them to perform better and feel more trusted which made them more committed and motivated. After Covid empowerment must be expanded further not reduced.
Inspire & enable innovation, agility, creativity – too often cultures, particularly blame cultures, block innovation, agility, and creativity. People won’t innovate or be creative if their boss doesn’t listen or if it goes wrong they get blamed. Innovation, agility, and creativity were vital to COVID survival, but they are just as vital to future success so we must keep enabling them.
Optimise remote working – up to 25% of the workforce could work remotely 3 -5 days a week. The clear evidence is that some employees enjoy remote working as it enables a better work-to-family balance. Where it was implemented well employee performance went up. There is no reason, technical, leadership, or performance why this should not be the way all employees can work where possible.
Finally, Be human & deepen relationships – above all Covid taught us that success for our organisations is more likely if we accept that those around us are humans like ourselves who have needs, hopes, fears, and aspirations. By creating a “we not me” culture success will follow. Such an environment unleashes the full potential we all have.
“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” Isn’t a statement of modern employee engagement. It’s an observation from Aristotle 500 BCE. The Ancient Greeks had and got through, a pandemic as well. Maybe it shows that despite all the “progress” since then getting the best from us as humans to make our organisations a success hasn’t really changed much at all.