Shaping a new normal

What COVID taught us about how to shape a new normal after a crisis or period of change.

6 min read

COVID isn’t done with us yet, and the seemingly inevitable recession it will bring has already begun in many countries. Yet for a lot of people, it does feel that we are entering a new phase, as kids go back to school, offices re-open and governments try to kick-start economies back into life. The ‘new or next normal’ this return will lead to has been much discussed, but often with the implied suggestion that it will be something that firms emerge into and have to learn to deal with. What has been less explored is how organisations themselves will shape this new world, and some of the opportunities and challenges they will face in doing so. To examine this, YSC recently conducted interviews with over 50 CEOs, Heads of HR, and other senior leaders, to get their views on some of the decision points firms will have.

Our survey asked three basic questions:

·What differences have you noticed in how leadership teams have operated and behaved during the COVID-19 crisis?

·What is the one difference in how organisations and leaders have operated that you most hope they sustain after the crisis?

·What will be the key challenges standing in the way of them implementing and sustaining this change?

Meeting the COVID challenge

The majority of people we spoke to thought that the crisis had generally had a positive effect on how leaders in their firm operated. They spoke of how communication levels had increased in both quantity and quality, from the Board right the way down through the business. Of how, once focused by the crisis, conversations had become more purposeful and productive. Of how leaders had become more visible, open and relational, as they worked harder to engage their suddenly remote teams. And of how the move to Zoom had led to more informal conversations that very literally opened a window into people’s home lives, and how this had in turn led to leaders being more understanding of how people’s personal lives could impact their work.

We also heard how collaboration had increased, as businesses came together to ensure survival and meet the immediate crisis of COVID. Silo-ism then, largely appears to have gone out the window. And while a few firms complained of how leaders had initially stuck their heads in the sand and avoided making decisions at the beginning of the crisis, most said that leaders had become more decisive and pragmatic, moving to action far quicker than before. Some of this pace was driven by a simple need to control costs and ensure survival. But the stories we heard of how firms had found creative ways to meet the challenges they faced revealed that this pacey decisiveness involved not just reactive responses, but also a substantial effort to be inventive. “We rose to the challenge”, was thus a phrase we heard repeatedly, along with tales of how people had lent into the problems they faced and demonstrated higher levels of ownership for what need to do be done. And finally, business after business told us of how adaptability and agility had risen massively, as existing plans were quickly shed, and dramatic changes rapidly adopted.

Of course, not all the stories we heard were positive. But where businesses reported the crisis having a negative impact on leadership behaviour, it was usually driven by one of two things. First, the need for firms to make structural decisions, such as laying off or furloughing workers. Simply put, there were tales of some unnecessarily unempathetic behaviour by leaders in the way that they managed and communicated this difficult process. Second, some firms seem to have struggled to adapt their expectations of people to accommodate the new lockdown working arrangements. We thus heard tales of work-life balance being “shattered” and of firms being inflexible in helping people juggle the competing demands created by constantly working from home.

The changes to maintain

When we then asked firms which of these changes they wanted to keep, we repeatedly heard four key things:

1.Ownership and initiative. A hope that people would continue to demonstrate the higher levels of ownership, proactivity and initiative seen during the crisis.

2.Adapting and executing at pace. A desire to maintain the decisiveness and adaptability seen during the crisis – the ability to get things done quickly and rapidly adopt significant changes;

3.Focused collaboration. A hope that the higher levels of shared focus and collaboration, and consequent lower levels of silo-ism seen in the crisis could continue.

4.Engagement and communication. A call to keep the focus on staff engagement – on communicating more frequently and openly, on creating a clear sense of common purpose, and on offering people greater flexibility in how and where they work.

The challenge of elasticity

However, while every leader thought that the gradual return to ‘normal’ would bring with it real opportunities to change and improve how their business operated, they all had concerns about the ability of their organisation to actually make these improvements. And the phrase we heard again and again here was elasticity: the sense that things could just snap back to how they were before.

When we asked leaders what could cause this elasticity, they identified three key drivers. The first was “antiquated mindsets”: the sense that at the most senior levels of businesses, there were individuals who had very traditional views about what work should be and involve, and who would as a result either not see or resist opportunities to do things differently. The second was “muscle memory”: the suspicion that once the external pressure of the COVID crisis has passed, sheer habit could lead old ways of working to emerge. And finally, there was a fear that the internal politics largely stopped by the need to focus on the crisis would return once this common cause dissipated. That the mindset of competition and a concern with pleasing superiors would once again emerge as the primary drivers of leaders’ behaviour, at the expense of concentrating just on what the business and its people need.

Being deliberate

If organisations and their leaders are to avoid this pressure to simply revert to old norms as they return to work, and make the most of the opportunity to rethink and improve how they operate, they need to invest. And not money, but time. They need to create the time to deliberate the options ahead of them, so that they can be deliberate in the actions they take.

In many if not most firms, COVID created a short-term reactionary approach that was necessary to meet the challenges of the crisis. People worked the problem, and once done, worked the next one. But if leaders continue in this heads-down way, focusing on whatever the most immediate presented challenge of the moment is, they will inevitably end up just adapting to the new normal, and miss the opportunity to also shape it.

For instance, right now, many organisations are preoccupied with where their people work. They have formed project teams focused on getting people back into their offices safely or enabling them to work more frequently from home. And for the most part, these efforts are focused very much on how to physically enable this move – on the implications for infrastructure. Yet far, far fewer firms are also formally and systematically reviewing how people work. There is thus more discussion about hybrid working arrangements than there is about sustaining organisational culture in this scenario. And only a small minority of firms are formally reviewing what lessons they can learn from how they handled they immediate crisis and apply this to new working arrangements.

There are some big, fundamental questions to ask here, as well, such as:

·What does the crisis tell us about how we can better make decisions in the business?

·How do we sustain the higher levels of ownership and initiative demonstrated by leaders?

·How can we maintain the strong sense of shared purpose created by the crisis and refocus it on strategic goals?

·How can we use the higher sense of engagement we have created during the crisis to ensure energy and morale are maintained through the recession that is likely to follow?

·Given how fast we made changes during the crisis, do we need to rethink our expectations of how long change takes and what is needed to make it work?

As firms find their way through what will hopefully be the final months of COVID, they have a real and present opportunity to shape a new way of operating that takes the best of how they have reacted to the crisis and uses it to create sustained improvements in how they operate. To actually do so, though, they will need to ensure they are purposeful and systematic in reviewing how COVID changed them and what the lessons to be learnt from this are. Then, and only then, will they be able to actively shape the new normal, rather than just being a recipient of it.

© Nik Kinley, 2024

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