In early March we basically packed up our desks and offices, brought home what we needed to do our jobs and work virtually. It has been two months now and life looks very different – not just personally, but professionally.
And as organizations think about how to resume “business as usual” its imperative leaders realize that business as we know it has forever transformed. We can’t go back, and we shouldn’t want to go back. That means we need to keep charging forward. But, how exactly do we do that?
It seems overwhelming to think about the various facets associated with reopening – the cleaning supplies, the reconfiguration of office spaces, the necessary changes in products and services to accommodate a hesitant customer and client base. Not to mention the cost of the undertaking. To survive and come back stronger than before, organizations need to focus on the future and the path forward post Covid-19. Organizations that have become virtual need to create a reopening strategy. Yes, we said strategy. A multi-faceted, thoughtful, and intentional plan. Not a “Fly by the seat of your pants and pray no one gets sick” plan.
There are seven areas organizations need to consider as they reopen. Each comes with their own nuances. The idea is that by ensuring these seven areas are part of your plan to define the next normal, you will be creating a comprehensive and inclusive plan, getting your employees and your organization back on track quickly.
#1 – Business Strategy
First and foremost, it all starts with business strategy. Most businesses are assessing their business strategies to either adjust to changes in market demand, making assumptions about consumer preferences and behavior or both. For some, these are mild or slight changes, like offering curbside pickup for restaurants. For others this means significant pivots or even reinventing themselves, like brick and mortar universities and colleges who will need to offer more virtual learning options. Think about how behaviors will shift in your industry and gauge the temperature of the marketplace. What do your customers value? Post Covid-19, we are going to see the creation of new industries and perhaps the decline of others. Getting clear about what changes your organization needs to make is a critical first step and will set the stage for the next areas of consideration.
#2 – Organizational Strategy
Once the overarching business strategy has been discussed, it is time to think about your specific organizational strategy for achieving your new and redefined business plan. Depending on how your company needed to adjust to deal with the shutdown, you may have had to make very difficult decisions about laying people off, reducing pay or benefits, and either starting new areas within your business or stopping others. Now, as you approach either reopening, or navigating a phased method of returning to office buildings, there are significant changes.
When thinking about organizational strategy, first consider whether you will be a virtual organization, bring everyone back to the office or create a hybrid plan. We are seeing some companies take clear points of view around when/if they return people to work and more permanent changes in the mix in regards to remote work. We’ve even heard many organizations are asking their employees what they prefer and including this input as part of the decision-making process. Other companies, such as in the technology industry, have publicly stated that they will not return to the office before January 2021 and others have said people can work from anywhere going forward. Whatever you decide, be sure you get clear policies drafted to set new expectations for the organization around how they will work.
Another area of organization strategy is determining the skills and resources necessary to deliver on your newly updated strategy is very important. Rehiring employees you may have laid off may be one option, assuming they possess the skills you need. But this option can be costly as it increases the cost to benefits as well when you have fully burdened costs of employees. Another option we are seeing is more companies leveraging variable talent to hedge this bet while they navigate the quarters to come. Either allowing for higher skilled specific talent to deliver on time sensitive strategies or flexibility in cost should more pivots be necessary (and they inevitably will be).
As you think about your next normal, consider whether additional training and development is needed to help you achieve your business strategy and to help employees adjust to their new way of working (whether remote or modified in-person). Make this training part of the organizational strategy so leaders and employees feel supported.
#3 – Health & Safety
Once you have made the decision to return to working in the office, your focus must shift to making this happen successfully. It is not as simple as unlocking the doors and allowing employees in. Health and safety is perhaps the number one concern of most HR leaders as well as employees, and rightfully so. Reopening is predicated on your ability to create a safe work environment, one in which your employees and clients do not have to worry about exposure to Covid-19. While at a high level this may sound simple – we will just move our desks around and ensure there is enough space between desks – reality is much more difficult. Do you have enough space to reconfigure appropriately? How will teams conduct team meetings or morning stand-ups? What do 1:1s look like? With all of these required changes, how does that impact your feelings about returning to the office in general?
The concern with health & safety is even deeper than desks. Think about common areas such as onsite cafes, breakrooms, and restrooms. Ensuring these are kept clean and sanitary is going to be important. How about door handles, conference rooms, copy machines, water dispensers and coffee machines? We are not trying to scare you with all the areas that are of concern. Our point is this is not a simple undertaking and there are exponential costs associated with ensuring you’ve met the safety requirements to reopen. Then there is the question of whether you should partner with an external expert or attempt to create a minimal contact space on your own. There is not a right answer as long as the solution results in employees feeling safe. Because when employees know you have their health and safety as a priority, they can focus on work and achieving business results.
Wellness also falls into this category. An organization’s financial health is dependent upon the wellness of their employees. Help keep employees healthy. Think of it as a preventative measure. If employees are healthy, they are focused, engaged, productive and happy. Post Covid-19 consider adding Employee Health, Safety and Wellness to your executive team meeting agenda as well as to your Board of Directors agenda. Also, keep in mind that OSHA and other government agencies are and will continue to revisit the guidelines for reporting cases of Covid-19 at work. Be sure your plan includes how to account for this additional reporting.
#4 – Organizational Culture & Values
Personal health and safety as well as the health and safety of our friends, families and colleagues has been at the forefront of our minds for many months now. Covid-19 has brought empathy to the workplace and made it front and center. Whether you decide to continue working remotely or have employees return to the office, it’s important to remember that we don’t know who was personally affected by Covid-19. Based on the numbers, chances are we all know someone how had (or has) it. Coming back to your organizational core values is going to be key, especially if you want the buy-in of your employees on your business strategy.
While culture and values have always played an important role in the identity of your organization, they take on a new level of importance in a post Covid-19 work environment. Walking around your office pre Covid-19 employees may have seen your core values displayed on the wall or witnessed them in action in meetings and various interactions. Culture is formed by these interactions. Culture is what happens when actions, behaviors and values intersect. In other words, it’s the ecosystem of any organization. Post Covid-19, your culture is going to look and feel different, especially if your organization decides to continue working remotely. As part of the reopening strategy, consider what makes your culture unique. Are there facets of your culture that you don’t want to lose if working in a remote environment? When it comes to culture, do not make decisions in a silo. Involve employees as various levels.
Consider your culture and values even when making difficult decisions. Some organizations will be evaluating and deciding that reductions in operating costs become necessary in the fall. How you do it is just as important as what you do.
If you are still deciding whether your organization will remain remote or whether you will create a hybrid plan, be sure to ask employees how the past two months have been for them. While recent surveys from KPMG and others show that 54% of employees said their productivity had improved since the transition to virtual and 64% said the quality of their work improved, more than 90% of both Generation Z and millennial employees reported difficulty working from home AND more than 80% of both groups said they felt less connected. If you don’t feel connected, it’s hard to bring your best to work every day. This can also lead to performance issues.
#5 – Performance Management
For some leaders, managing performance is difficult when everyone is under the same roof. But, how have you been managing performance while working remotely? If organizations are to remain virtual in any capacity, then managing performance is going to be key. As we mentioned previously, productivity and quality of work have increased, which is great. And your high performers will most likely remain high performers. But, what about everyone else? How do you manage performance virtually?
First, you come up with a cadence to check-in. One on ones can still happen. Team meetings can still happen. Stay connected and address performance issues as they arise. The caveat being leaders need to be more empathetic post Covid-19 and ask questions. Perhaps an employee’s performance is lagging because they were personally affected by Covid-19, perhaps someone in their family or a close friend contracted it. Or perhaps the pressure of home-schooling children or isolationism was weighing heavy. Whatever the reasons, as organizations physically begin to reopen, make leadership training with a focus on performance management a priority. Provide leaders with the tools they need to manage employees in a remote environment. This is one area to invest in technology. There are many apps and tools available making tracking performance and conducting check-ins easy. These tools add a touchpoint which is critical right now. However, please do not invest in software that tracks your employees’ every move and how they spend their day. That goes against creating a strong culture rooted in core values.
One (positive) unintended consequence that we have seen is a decrease in employee relations issues. This may be because more people are working from home or they are just a bit more reflective and introspective during this time. Whatever the case, it may not last forever. As part of your reopening strategy consider how you can be proactive and get in front of potential situations versus reactive, which is what can happen. Maintain the goal of having a high performing organization.
#6 – Leadership Coaching
One way to be proactive and handle performance issues effectively and efficiently is through leadership coaching. Leaders can’t hide anymore. This crisis, and what comes after, is about leadership and the need for leaders to balance their own emotions and feelings, their job, and their role as leader.
How confident are you that your leaders have the necessary skills to effectively manage once you reopen? Truth be told, even seasoned leaders have not been through something like this before, unless they were around during the 1918 pandemic, which we doubt. As part of your reopening strategy be sure your leaders feel supported. Sometimes, this can’t happen in just a classroom type setting and leaders need more one on one guidance and coaching. Think about how your leaders have handled the Covid-19 crisis to determine the type of coach they may need. For example, if you have leaders who have stepped up the past two months and have made it clear that they are committed to being a good leader, consider how a leadership coach may help them with their next promotion and the next step in their career. If you have leaders who may have struggled during this time, consider how a leadership coach may help them grow, develop the necessary skills they need so they can be in the best state of mind to lead others. Also, if you have employees who have stepped up during this time and have become leaders (not by title, but by actions), then consider how a leadership coach may also assist them with their potential promotion to a leadership role.
Coaching isn’t a punishment and isn’t used only when someone has failed. Coaching is a great tool that organizations can leverage to ensure leaders have the skills and tools necessary to deliver on the business strategy. Post Covid-19 these skills may be even more necessary as leaders must have empathy and compassion as well.
#7 – Leadership Development, especially in Crisis Management
Finally, a change in business strategy and a shift in the external environment requires a leadership team that is prepared to handle not only the expected, but the unexpected as well. During a crisis, leaders needs to be like ducks – calm on the surface and paddling like crazy under the water. This doesn’t mean they are chaotic and frantically running around. It means that what employees see is a calm demeanor, even if you don’t have all the answers. Leaders are also balancing a fine line of being transparent and sharing information while not creating unnecessary stress or concern as decisions are being made.
Prior to the global pandemic, leadership effectiveness was one of the biggest areas of concern for CEOs, and organizations were struggling with developing managers. Leadership effectiveness is even more important now, but it will need to look different. At the executive level, define what it means to be a leader in your organization and create leadership principles. While you should do this for all levels, the executive team should come first, because this team sets the tone for the entire company.
Leadership by walking around may not exist in its true form anymore, especially if remain virtual or create a hybrid plan. Think about what skills leaders need to build or refine to replace old ways of connecting to their team and sharing information. One area is crisis management. You want leaders who are calm and focused in a crisis. Ask yourself – who would you want in your lifeboat?
This is a great time to ensure calibration and alignment between your new business strategy, the skills and people needed to execute on that strategy, the leadership principles needed in this next normal and your organizational core values. While there is a lot going on and you may feel like this is just one more thing, finding culturally aligned, situationally appropriate ways to support the development of your leaders is a must have right now. They are the ones who will help bring the strategic vision to life for your company and align resources to deliver.
Putting Your Plan into Action
While it may seem like a lot to consider as you navigate creating the path forward, it’s important to remember that a lot has changed in a few months. A critical aspect of defining the next normal is change management. A strong change management strategy ensures that you are communicating the updated vision to your organization and enrolling all employees in helping to achieve it. Organizations are asking employees to stop projects that might have been high priority in February and shift their focus and time to something new. To ensure the changes you are making are clearly understood at all levels of the organizations and that all employees are enrolled in the new vision, be transparent in your communication and explain your reasoning (your why) for making decisions. You need the full power of the team and it’s imperative all are rowing in the same direction.
This Great Reset, as it’s been referred to, will usher in new products and services, new industries, and new ways of thinking about complex business situations. In January, many organizations were only toying with the idea of having employees work remotely. By March, these same organizations were forced to embrace it. We don’t know if Covid-19 is seasonal or when the next severe wave will hit again. What we do know is that organizations need to be prepared and think about a comprehensive strategy, like the one outlined above, that sets themselves up for success, both now and in the future.