What organisations and leaders can do to achieve greater certainty after the Covid-19 lockdown

June 3, 2020: Perspectives

Charlotte Hughes-Hallet

Wellington

The scale and pace of change today is extraordinary. For years companies have been preparing for forces of disruption such as shifting regulations, digitisation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI), the sudden impact of Covid-19, a single force, caught the world off guard.

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When a fundamental challenge for companies is to predict when and where disruption is coming from, Covid-19 arrives and manages to disrupt business models, air travel, supply chains and work-life balance around the world in less time than it takes to complete a 30-day fitness challenge.

No one knows exactly what the lasting impact Covid-19 will have on the economy and supply chains amongst other things, but we are already seeing and living the societal changes that will undeniably have lasting impacts. Whether it’s moving more of our lives online, new hygiene habits, greater comfort with absenteeism, a revived gratitude for the great outdoors, a new form of nationalism as we hail our essential workers or simply a re-kindled appreciation for plunger coffee, the novel virus is already reorienting our relationship to the outside world and each other. How quickly the new habits and awareness will recede (if ever) as the lockdown eases is uncertain and it will be different for different people, but we need to acknowledge that many things that were once ignored have been overturned by necessity, so we are destined for some permanent change.

Amid all this change and uncertainty, how can organisations best understand the new way of being-in-the-world and doing-in-the-world to achieve lasting impact?

There’s a myriad of perceptions floating around about the future of physical workspaces and business models as a result of the lockdown and working from home (WFH). While it’s important to understand what actions other companies are considering, there’s no ‘quick fix’ or ‘one-size fits all’ response. What we shouldn’t do is leave it unattended and only assume that disruption will have a negative impact.

The best thing organisations can do is re-discover; re-open the dialogue with their workforce (and customer base) to seek out opportunities.

At a time overcome with physical disconnection, now, more than ever is the time to listen. Everyone’s experience of being an employee during Covid-19 will be different. We’ve seen organisations that were once opposed to the idea of working from home, suddenly make it a top priority. People are managing the competing roles of employee, parent, caregiver and teaching assistant. Others may have worked the whole lockdown at their place of work, apprehensive as the rest ride it out in the safety of their home. In times of adversity, values and priorities shift; and employees are sure to request changes. This means organisations must relearn about their workforce.

Using digital and interactive tools, organisations can gather meaningful data and insight on workforce sentiment to recognise, understand and anticipate change. The insight will likely nod to things you already do well, but also opportunities and things that you might need to learn from scratch. Employee surveys will provide you with immediate, evidence-based insight which will help dispel old assumptions and help you understand your employee’s home working experience.

So, what questions should you be asking?

If you’re not asking the right questions, you’re at risk of diving into a treasure trove of statistics and statements and emerging with less than meaningful answers. Track what matters and that is your employees. Employees are the champions who underpin the success of your organisation, now is the time to ensure their needs are front and centre. So, hone in on the experience. If we could read minds, we could in principle shape perfect experiences and keep experiences current, but we can’t. What we can do is listen with qualitative surveys and polls. This means, rather than measuring how employees do their work from home, delve into how employees feel about their work and new-found work environment and remote working practices. As intangible and evolving as culture can be, ask about it. Seek to understand employees’ sense of belonging, purpose and connectedness when working remotely. Understand not only how employees are directing energy towards their tasks but towards colleagues, collaborators and customers.

This feedback will help to discover what employees value, what the obstacles and enablers are, where there are opportunities for innovation and flexibility and even allude to the complementary aspects of office and home. It goes without saying that you cannot measure everything, but a suite of good metrics allows you to get a pretty good picture of what is actually happening and where opportunities lie. Above all else, taking the initiative to ask for candid feedback shows leadership and solidarity during these challenging times.

To close the loop, you must be prepared to act.

Then the information needs to be used to take action. Just as you can’t measure everything, not every piece of feedback is going to prove that your intuition is right or offer straightforward solutions. Action can be as simple as sharing the findings with your employees or sending out a newsletter to answer common concerns. If findings point toward larger changes, there’s the ability to rely on further research and workshops that are curated to unearthing practical solutions.

It’s hard to predict the precise effects, but organisations should look for ways that empower them to be optimistic, agile, and prepared.

When disruption is so extensive and effects so unpredictable it is hard to differentiate setbacks from opportunities, but we need to acknowledge that standards we used to live by have been overwritten and some may never apply again. Information is incredibly valuable and having more information is only a good thing. Having data will help make the uncertainty a bit more certain. It will provide immediate, robust insight to help you navigate through this challenging time and enable you to scale your efforts towards a changed and fresh future.

Charlotte Hughes-Hallett is an Interior Designer at Warren and Mahoney. Charlotte’s portfolio includes workplace strategy and design projects. Charlotte is passionate about shaping unique and relevant experiences through design and seeks to continually enhance the relationship between people and their environments.