As we look to the return to work after the summer break, it’s becoming clear we have little idea what awaits us and that there is little prospect of “returning to normal”, or how things were before the pandemic.
Firstly, the experts warn us that we can expect continued outbreaks over the autumn and winter as temperatures fall and more of us find ourselves once again in enclosed spaces. We now know a little more about the virus, but too many people have yet to understand the precautions we need to take to prevent its transmission and nor do they understand the concept of exponential growth, which means that infections continue to spread as soon as containment measures are relaxed.
The virus is going to be with us for a long time to come, obliging us to redesign our world and our activities to take it into account. For the corporate world, this implies many changes: responding to the pandemic is like any other adoption process, requiring adaptation to a changing environment. There will be proactive companies that try to deal with these changes on their own initiative and that will set themselves apart from merely reactive companies that will limit themselves to simply complying with the law.
How should companies prepare for the immediate future? Basically, by accepting that the current situation is no longer exceptional, no longer simply a response to a one-off emergency, but part of the way we are going to be living for a long time. This involves a series of steps, some of which are very similar to preparing for digital transformation process.
- Process mapping: companies must carry out a detailed mapping of their production and administrative processes. Information flows, people in charge, dependencies, approval processes, etc. must be captured in a flow chart, reviewed, and approved by all those involved.
- Process redesign: Practically all those processes that involve face-to-face interactions or use paper, must be redesigned to avoid dependence on methodologies or technologies that cannot be digitized. In addition, this redesign should not focus on trying to preserve the essence of the previous processes, but should be approached aggressively to find optimization for a digital environment.
- Focus on people: this is, in itself, a new role for people departments — wrongly called HR, as if people were just another resource — and means understanding the personality traits of everybody working in the organization, diagnosing their degree of comfort and adaptation to methodologies based on remote work, and assessing whether they have the equipment they need to be able to work from home or wherever. This will require the company to meet certain expenses, to agree on work schedules and timetables, and to adapt as far as possible to meet people’s needs.
- Training needs: today’s tools are increasingly simple, and companies need not necessarily spend too much time training people how to use them. But basic use is one thing, and shortcuts, advice or tactics used by people once they have acquired a good level of fluency are another. Developing and nurturing best practice communities is key. If we can get people in the organization to see these tools as an extension of themselves, we can greatly reduce the levels of frustration that result from working in a new environment.
- Redesign communication: a company designed for distributed work cannot depend on email or generic, non-professional tools like WhatsApp. Communication processes based on professional tools will need to be designed for a corporate environment, and above all, will need to be versatile, able to easily integrate other tools. Slack will be the obvious choice, but there are other options. Let’s not get bogged down in using this or that tool, but instead take into account use protocols: a single team member who doesn’t use Slack properly can drive the whole organization crazy.
- Security strategy: companies will need to rethink their security processes in accordance with the new routines and tools, but without making security a major challenge or turning it into a hassle. This would be the right time to adopt tools such as password managers or VPNs that enable a secure environment, as well as to train people in good security practices.
- Long-term strategy: it is essential to make it clear to the entire organization that, contrary to what happened at the beginning of the pandemic, this is no longer a temporary emergency, but rather a redesign of the way we will work in the future. This, in addition to reducing the level of uncertainty, can help many workers in their personal decision-making in important issues such as relocation: in the United States, for example, some moving companies have reported increases in activity in recent months of up to 160%, and about one in three people are considering a move within the next six months.
- Redesigning offices and physical locations: making distributed work the first option does not mean doing away with offices, but it certainly means resizing and redesigning them. Offices will become a place for providing services to the team: equipment, facilities or installations that most people won’t have at home, as well as for socializing, for certain meetings or events, etc. The office where everyone goes to work every day has lost its meaning.
- Redesigning interaction: distributed working implies new rules of interaction. This will involve reducing the number of synchronous meetings and activities, and understanding that an email, a Slack thread or a shared document should not necessarily be understood as something that requires immediate response, and that people have their own pace and preferences when working. The initial impression we had at the beginning of the pandemic that we were now going to work all day, all the time is simply untenable, and it is important for the organization to understand this. The redesign of interaction also involves other things: how to encourage innovation, how to engage in virtual brainstormings… these are not necessarily obvious questions, and they might require some training.
- Trust: distributed work only functions when companies are able to create an environment of trust with the workforce. If your managers are not capable of understanding this, they keep trying to micromanage and they even intend to install monitoring tools on their teams’ computers, don’t let them: it’s better to change managers.
And finally: don’t try to judge the impact of these changes too quickly. It can take weeks or months for habits to be adopted and ingrained. If you try to evaluate things after a few days, it will be a disaster: processes that are still poorly prepared, workers are still skeptic, there will be people who insist on doing things the old way, many inefficient practices, etc. We’re talking about decades of conditioned habits and reflexes… you have to give the new processes time to consolidate properly.
The world has changed, and these changes are here to stay. In the coming months we will see many aspects of life redefined, and work will be one of them. If you don’t grasp this and are simply hoping for things to return to the way they were in 2019, you’re going to have problems. Be proactive instead.
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