The COVID-19 Pandemic has forced every other company to move knowledge work from their ‘Businesses’ data Centres’ to their employees’ homes. We all are wondering how long it will take for the virus to subside and for work – and the economy – to return to normal. ‘Business as usual’ is probably history now. This is the time to bring about meaningful change in people and organizations.
A few vital questions that people and organisations around the world should be asking :
- What will they not continue to do and how to respond when a crisis becomes the new ‘Normal’?
- What might not and should not return to normal?
- What new ways of operating in these uncertain times might be more practical than the earlier normal times?
1. Leadership skills – Conservative vs. Futuristic
Thinking about business on these new lines, and managing more and more people in a virtual operating environment, is going to be a unique challenge for all leaders. To drive our companies into the digital future faster, leaders will need to learn to acquire newer people skills and get better at some old ones, too.
The most important of all is creating a workplace culture that is exciting and supportive in an increasingly virtual world. If we’re not working in the same space, how do we keep those vital personal bonds, those human connections, vital and strong? No one has all the answers at the moment. We are all working apart now, trying to maintain the same ties – business and emotional – that we had when we worked together.
To succeed, the leaders and employees falling in supervisory roles must learn to exercise empathy, to appreciate the difficulties our colleagues and employees are experiencing, and patience, to avoid reacting hastily to electronic signals could be misinterpreting. And we must seek to bridge the physical distance between us by offering unstinting encouragement for all who are doing their best in these most difficult times.
2. Well-being of the workforce
The current fast spread of the pandamic illustrates how not knowing in granular detail about health issues in any part of the workforce can lead to disaster everywhere. This understanding is especially critical for companies with hundreds or thousands of people in far flung locations, where any one can become an incubator spreading disease.
Long after the pandemic ends, many people will not want to work in large offices. And many companies will be reluctant to assume the risk of bringing many people together in one place. Addressing the emotional health of their people is something that business leaders must focus on, and that includes their very real fear of losing their jobs.
Leaders need to understand that a fearful workforce will require their understanding and support. Employee attitudes, affected by their emotions, directly impact how they deal with customers. Research by Gallup confirms this. Companies with the highest levels of employee engagement have stronger customer engagement, higher productivity, better retention, and 21% greater profitability than companies with the lowest levels of engagement. In turn, customers who have a strong emotional connection to a supplier are 23% more valuable (in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue and relationship growth) to that company than its average customer. Employee interactions color how customers view a company. As the great Walt Disney put it, “You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the world but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”
3. Work from home – a default option
The trend toward working at home has gone from a trickle to a flood. In the United States in 2018, 3.6% of the workforce – 5 million people — worked from home at least half time, according to Global Workplace Analytics, drawing on U.S. Census Bureau data. Since 2005, the number of such regular at-home workers increased 173%.
Numerous companies, many of them small but some sizable, now have largely remote workforces. All of the company’s 1,172 employees work out of their homes in 75 countries. No one goes to an office.
When the pandemic ends, and the economy returns to something like normal, many people will go back to jobs at factories, distribution centers, stores, offices, government buildings, and other workplaces. But a significant percentage is likely to work from their homes. Clearly, a great deal of knowledge work – plotting business or marketing strategy, writing business proposals or technical manuals, analysing research data, monitoring computer systems, and much more – can be done remotely. And, if it can, it will be.
4. Digitisation – Future’s only business model?
We saw over the last decade how products and services in a number of industries moved from atoms to bits: media (newspapers, movies, books, magazines), financial services (payments, mortgage applications, car loans), and movies and maps (Netflix, Youtube and Google etc.) among them.
For reasons of safety and convenience, the pandemic is accelerating the adoption of products and services that can be fully delivered digitally, and it is also raising questions about whether their physical versions will survive. Time will tell anyways.
Will the $41 billion global movie theatre industry be able to attract the movie enthusiasts when theatres re-open? In March this year, in the United States, the percentage of adults who preferred streaming a first-run movie at home rather than at a movie theatre surpassed the percentage of those who preferred the theatre, 50% to 37%. Just four months earlier, 53% preferred the theater.
The pandemic will quicken the shift to fully digital business models in banking, insurance, medicine (tele-medicine or e-Health models. this is already in practice even in Pakistan), and retail, among others. And these businesses will need to develop the after-sale support work to keep physical products running, with digital technology to monitor their condition, employing software and AI to make corrections and adjustments.
If companies whose products and services can be digitised are not about how they can do that, if they’re not thinking about their future in terms of cross-industry collaboration in “digital ecosystems,” their prospects post-coronavirus are unlikely to be good.
5. Behavioural Shifts
Fear and uncertainty are already triggering irrational acts, including herd behaviours such as hoarding and stockpiling consumables. Hoarding is likely to dissipate. But what lasting effects will COVID-19 have on consumer psychology?
Will the profound isolation created by social distancing create a wave of consumers who prioritize in-person connection over social media? Will large numbers of casualties and a heightened awareness of mortality draw consumers to experiences rather than material possessions? Will the pervasive sense of risk and uncertainty create a spike in demand for products and experiences that provide comfort?
Business leaders should track these changes to truly understand the needs of customers in the new normal. Behavioral economics could be invaluable here. Companies in many sectors have already been bringing behavioral expertise into boardrooms and executive offices; in the post-COVID-19 world, such capabilities should be even more valuable.
A Winding Path Ahead
As Winston Churchill once said, “Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.” The difficulties that lie ahead for all of us are likely to be extremely trying, in our businesses and our homes. But our workforce, our clients, and our families are eager to help each other and we will get through the storm. God willing, for it, too, will pass, and life, work and joy will return.
Like all crises, the pandemic will bring out the best and the worst in us. At a time when companies are being called on to assume a broader societal role, business leaders can lead by tackling misinformation, combating scapegoating and addressing the urgent challenges ahead. At the same time, they should keep an eye on the many changes underway in the global economy, technology adoption, societal norms and consumer behaviour — which will together shape the new normal beyond the crisis.
Our societies and businesses will all eventually find a path out of these dark times. Our companies and everyone who works for them will learn to operate in initially uncomfortable but ultimately more productive digital ways.
Muhammad Sajwani is the Principal Consultant and Managing Director of Evolve HR which aims at transforming, enriching and evolving Human Capital of Pakistan. Evolve HR thrives in challenging assumptions that hinder organisational aspirations, by creating innovative solutions that yield maximum impact, scalability & benefit to a wider base of stakeholders. As a Business Coach and Organisational Consultant, Sajwani knows how to combine business insights with people insights to transform organisations and put them on the path to growth.