The Covid-19 pandemic has subjected our organisations to unprecedented levels of change. No matter what sector your organisation is in; either the way your employees operate, the societal culture your organisation is part of, or your stakeholders and customers, behaviours have changed to such an extent that senior leaders in your organisation need to go back to the drawing board to rewrite the mission and strategies that the organisation has at its heart. And worse still, we are not out of the woods yet. There are still more unknown unknowns to come. But, if we wait, our organisations will fall to the wayside through inactivity as our competitors adapt faster to the changes around us.
But where do we start? In this short article I will outline what we at Tap’d see as the three main questions that senior leaders and the HR function should be grappling with to ensure the highest possibility of survival and success in the coming months and years. The three catalyst questions are:
1) What is the future organisational shape of our organisation?
2) What is the operating model of our organisation?
3) How do we rebuild a healthy culture?
In my experience, these questions need to be initially tackled in their numerical order, however some iterations will have to take place as you focus in on your final strategic map. Let’s look at these in order.
1) The future organisational shape of our organisation
Charles Darwin (among others) identified that species of animals adapted to their external environment and, as the external world gradually changed, the individual species would adapt incrementally to adjust to this slightly different world. This is how organisational change traditionally works. Our organisation is sitting in the external world and each year we look at how the world is changing and strategise what needs to change: which areas to expand upon, which to contract, opportunities to trial a new product/service.
The pandemic has thrust so much turbulence upon the world that entire markets have been radically changed, reliance on global supply chains have been put in doubt, the movement of people has been curtailed. What is temporary? What may be semi-permanent?
To start to understand what your organisation may need to look like to succeed in the post-pandemic world, firstly you need to decide if your current organisation is still fit for purpose in the future. Can you adapt like Darwin’s species or have you got to radically change what you do? This varies by sector. Retail and hospitality have been hit hard but may bounce back as social gatherings are allowed again. City centre services have lost their commuter customer revenue. Will hybrid working disrupt this flow of business more permanently? Manufacturing has seen shortfalls of semiconductors from global-dominating suppliers. Construction is struggling to get raw building materials. Every sector is affected in some way.
A first step therefore is to review your customer / stakeholder behaviour. What is likely to be different in the future and how will your business need to adapt to still thrive? What has happened to your supplier networks? Do they still exist? The loss of a supply chain can equally make an organisation have to make substantial changes to its future shape. Has the pandemic shown you that you need to divest part of your organisation to adapt to the future? Likewise, is now a good opportunity to acquire other organisations to stabilise your business?
Essentially, before you start to look inward to strategise, you need to look outward to “make sense of” the external world and adapt your organisational shape in the changed external world.
2) The operating model of our organisation
Once the organisation understands its revised purpose and its customer need, it can then start looking at its operating model – “how it will organise itself internally to achieve the new strategic goals”. This is about understanding the future of work and the implications of this. Let’s not forget that we are still in the flux of the pandemic and not all answers will be anywhere near certain.
Firstly, there is a visible tension between the “new style of working” and “traditional” working. For some sectors like manufacturing and transport, the way of working may not have changed that much. For more office-based functions, we are now seeing parts of society wanting to work more flexibly, a more dispersed or the so-called hybrid way of working. A return to the traditional working of everyone in the office is being called for by some but not by others. Which horse do you bet on winning this battle? Bet on the right one and you will attract more candidates to work for you. Get it wrong and you may struggle to find the skills you need in the marketplace.
But it’s not an easy decision. The factors affecting personal motivators, like saving commuting time versus a lack of personal contact with the team, are still being understood by many workers. A lack of productivity working remotely is being felt by some people in some jobs, but others say they are more productive working in a hybrid way. If you are a UK-based company and are going for a dispersed and remote team, how will this affect your recruitment? Will you recruit people 50 miles away from the office? 100? 200? From a different country? Different time zone? How will this affect overall organisational productivity and the culture of your teams?
Leaders, the most critical resource you have, need to adapt quickly to learn and amplify new skills and behaviours. Dispersed and virtual teams require leaders who are more emotionally aware and vigilant than those with a physically located team. Emotional intelligence, compassionate leadership, role modelling and a supportive leadership style are core behaviours that need to be developed by all your managers and leaders. Organisations need to recognise that these behaviours have to be developed overtly with their managers and leaders and not to expect organic self-development through trial and error, as is often the case.
For all employees working in some form of hybrid, dispersed or virtual team will need access to development opportunities in effective communication, collaboration and how to healthily work in a remote way.
One last aspect for senior leaders and HR professionals to be keenly aware of the potential of inequality to grow within the organisation between sub-groups of workers – and this can happen in almost any sector. Those who are office-based and have the opportunity for more flexible working will have access to a better work-life balance than those who have to work onsite due to the nature of their jobs. This can manifest itself as financial savings benefits from commuting less to a more positive mindset from the perception of being in control of our work lives more. Conversely, those who have to attend the physical workplace may therefore feel like second-class employees by their organisation. Be wary of this effect on such teams as security, facilities, reception and maintenance staff who more likely have to be onsite compared to other teams. Also, in a manufacturing organisation, the majority may still need to be onsite but the back-office staff may be seen to be privileged if they are allowed to work in a hybrid way.
All these factors should be taken into account as you decide how to structure the internal operating model of the organisation.
3) Rebuilding a healthy culture
Now the external environment has been scanned and the internal operating model has been decided on, senior leaders now should turn their attention to the repairing and enhancement of their organisation’s social structure, and therefore, culture. Any change in operating model will result in a differing culture post-pandemic. In addition, our people have experienced new forms of contact with the leadership during the last year and some of these are now expected to continue from their managers and leaders.
The rise of open conversations about vulnerability and mental health struggles have been encouraged in most organisations as we endured lockdowns. These conversations are now expected to continue by most team members. This means that the work around resilience and coping needs to move from a reactive activity into the promotion of positive psychology techniques and tools to reinforce good mental health working practices. This includes a move from mental health activities concentrating on reactive activity like the provision of mental health first aiders to more primary projects like job redesign to ensure that the anxieties and pressures that push people into poor mental health are designed out of the work in the first place. Again, involving those key resources called “managers and leaders” into the development of positive cultures is key to make this a long-term success and creating a stable and positive culture.
Finally, if your organisation has decided to work with a dispersed or hybrid team model, how do you now define talent and identify those who have the capability to progress the fastest? Remote working, by definition, means that we do not get to see the behaviours of our people as often. Be wary of relying solely on output as an identifier of potential. Also, high productivity does not equal desired organisational behaviour. Top talent often have variable performance compared to others as they often take on more new experiences in challenging areas that produce mistakes and errors as they learn through experience on the job.
The ability to be able to hold a mirror up to your own organisation, understand what you are seeing and the ability to take those bold moves to evolve your organisation involves focus, listening to many voices and an element of risk. Expertise in creating space for this thinking and the ability to take senior stakeholders on a perceptual journey should be sought out, either internally or externally to your organisation. Remember, the risk of not transforming is going to become greater as external change continues at a pace and your competitors redefine their own organisations.