The Story So Far
In the weeks this blog has covered COVID-19, the virus’ impact on our local and global economy, way of working, living and socialising has been profound. There is no doubt that things will be very tough for at least a few months, and bad for at least six months, or more.
While we must stay laser-focused on survival for now, in time, we want to turn our minds to what happens next. What will the New Normal™ look like when we do get to the other side? What lessons can we take forward from this time, about our business, our people, our economy? What turned out to be important, and not so much – and what will matter more, or less when we are out the other side of this?
Here are a few predictions for what I think will be different ‘after the storm’.
Health and Wellbeing Focus
When we have faced mortal danger, our focus on wellbeing and health will be greater. This will manifest itself in various ways: increasing the caring nature of our interactions with colleagues and partners; raising the importance of paying attention to our health; and seeking a more sustainable work-life balance to carry forward the increased presence we’ve enjoyed with our families through the physical distancing measures. The space we’ve had forced upon us has also given rise to more time to think clearly, and focus on the true priorities in our lives.
Physical Distancing is here to stay
Many of us are now used to keeping our distance – in family, work or public settings. We know that close proximity gives rise to more transmission of infectious diseases. COVID-19 isn’t the only disease whose spread can be limited by such actions though – with other flu-like diseases’ incidence at a record low this year, compared with others. If we keep up the good work, other curves of disease can also be flattened. Given the loss of productivity due to illness – especially when it’s taken into a workplace by employees with too much to do for time off – is estimated at $34 billion annually, it’s a worthwhile, lasting change. There’s a long list of impacts that trying to maintain more physical distance would have on us; the currently-considered staggering of movement on public transport and presence in office spaces may help.
The location of work is less important
Those who work remotely from time to time know: the location of our work is so much less important for many of us. If our work has to be performed at a certain location – and for so many industries that is true – then attendance will be a must. But for others, whether we’re in the office or a well-connected home office, won’t matter as much. That is, provided we focus on balancing out some work behaviours, for example allowing flexible work hours, and reducing the need to have meetings (more on this below). For that to work, we’ll also need to improve our trust relationships with our teams, with our employees, and with our management. Getting into good remote work practices is part of the challenge; posting photos from the beach with your kids will undo this good work!
As much as we’ve been frustrated by making our homes into impromptu offices, classrooms, and daycare centres – often all at once – for those who can work from almost anywhere, we get real work done when things are quiet, without people ‘walking up’ to our desks all the time as we see in an office. When faced with an imperative, organisations that don’t have a location requirement have quickly transformed to remote-only workplaces – and done it well. As time passes, we’ve become more accustomed to this new way of working – even preferring it for some tasks. This means we have an opportunity to entrench more flexible work practices. Less time spent travelling, less need for pushing through big crowds to be somewhere at the arbitrary starting time of 9am. All this provides the opportunity to set our own hours, provided the work gets done. The trick is balancing the ability to work at 3am with the need to collaborate; setting some simple ‘core online’ hours can help provide some collaboration time windows. What will all this do to our workplaces? Will we need less overall office space? Will layouts favour more collaboration areas, open break-out space and some dedicated quiet offices? Will we move in favour of regional, small hubs linked back to a (smaller) HQ? All of these have been seen in action over the years, and now might be the time to ramp them up.
New Ways of Working
We’ve been through a rapid, steep learning curve on how to work remotely. That includes how and when to communicate with our peers; when to chat, call, meet, message. We’re also much more dependent on digital platforms such as email, collaboration tools, cloud-based software, storage and systems. Some organisations have seen this as an opportunity to accelerate their migration to these platforms, along with gaining the productivity advantage they bring. Whatever state your organisation is in, if your team is further up the digital working curve now than they were a few months ago, why stop there? Why not keep the momentum going and see where you can get to! After all, the rapid up-skilling into digital work practices now provides fertile ground to go further.
Meetings – who needs them?
We’ve had the ability to meet remotely thrust upon us quickly; if our systems have struggled, we’ve had to muddle through with phone calls and other forms of communication. But the actual need to meet has also come under question. Good meeting practice dictates that you have a clear agenda, and objectives for your meeting. When people first started working from home en-masse, daily or even twice-daily meetings to ‘keep everyone on track’ seemed to be the norm. Now that people are getting work done and the trust is building, less meetings will be required. It’s said that removing one meeting a week from your diary won’t affect the business, but give you back hours of productive time to get other things done. Who hasn’t breathed that sigh of relief when a meeting has fallen through? The need to collaborate well is as strong as ever. If we put more focus on collaboration as a reason to get together – to workshop a solution to a problem rather than just paying lip-service to a rolling agenda – we may find new gaps in our diaries to work uninterrupted on bigger, more strategic tasks.
Learnings for the future
There are plenty of positives that come from new locations, ways, times and tools for working. What can we learn about our people and leadership from our response to the initial onset of the outbreak? What will change us going forward?
Business Continuity Planning
If we thought we were prepared for the worst kind of situation our world could throw at us, the ability of many business continuity plans to cater for such far-reaching, comprehensive impacts of the global sweep of COVID-19 has been spectacularly shown up. Most organisations will now be focused on improving their BCP – to consider hitherto-improbable scenarios, and how they might be handled when unexpected, severe impacts are visited upon our organisations. And we should expect to see plenty of organisations moving to keep a more distributed, multi-modal working model that doesn’t require everyone in the office, that utilises digital platforms for working, and cloud-based collaboration and meeting services. Less systems that need to be scrambled onto an alternative in a disaster or pandemic makes for a smoother, more resilient set of systems to be able to carry on through major disruptions.
Many businesses are in significant turmoil as they face massive revenue drops and needing to process staff layoffs. But for those who have worked out their survival baseline, and been able to execute to that with their teams, the ability for business to respond, adapt and keep going reflects the amazing focus, ingenuity and strength of our leaders and their teams. Those businesses that survive and even flourish as we exit this challenging period will be able to look back at what they achieved together – it will be the tale that carries down through the ages. Of how we faced huge challenge, changed and survived.
Faced with such comprehensive disruption from outside forces, many organisations have adapted and changed up their business model, finding every possible opportunity to deliver differently, to pivot, to invent new services and take advantage of changes to buying behaviour: going online, delivering to your door, providing services through video conferencing, and the list goes on. What has been shown is the comprehensive power of innovation to drive outcomes at every level of business. For those who thought only certain businesses, or only certain people within them, could innovate, the current outcomes should show that innovation can be a powerful inner force when tapped. The incredible change that our educators have brought about under huge time pressure and with little help from outside, is a great example of the power of innovation.
The focus on rebuilding
From this point out, we’re looking for those telltale signs of recovery. How well we adapt to the new post-COVID-19 world, and how quickly we see and grasp new growth opportunities as they arise, will govern the speed of the recovery. By embracing our new ways of balancing work, changed ways of working, and the sheer performance of everyone through these difficult times, the challenges ahead can be turned into opportunity as our economy flourishes once again in the coming years. Those fledgeling companies who could have been wiped out by the crisis, are instead are showing that creating new markets is drawing investor interest as they build.
Who knows what future markets and opportunities will abound? The only thing I know is that ‘the other side’ of COVID-19 will provide at least as much excitement and opportunity as the times leading up to it.
Anthony Woodward is the CEO and Founder of Accelera.