Work after COVID

Climbing the mountain starts with a vision of the peaks

About 30 years ago, Virginia Satir’s Change Process Model made its unlikely way from family therapy into corporate change management. Rarely has Satir’s model seemed more apt, focused as it is on the chaotic period that follows disruption and precedes a new status quo.

ServiceNow’s new survey explores the impact of COVID-19 on work and workforce innovation. It shows we are at precisely the point where organisations are — or should be — beginning the transition out of chaos.

Some organisations will already be well on their way. Others have yet to make the turn. But if you plotted out everyone’s course, I think the median line would show most of us considering our next steps.

Climbing the foothills

Here’s the survey finding that really caught my attention: Roughly half of all executives (47%) and employees (55%) think transitioning to the “new normal” will be even more challenging than the initial shock of COVID-19.

This suggests that roughly half of all organisations are still mired in chaos. That makes it hard, not to say disheartening, to look beyond and see that there is still a mountain to climb.

On a more encouraging note, the findings also suggest that half the organisations have a fairly clear sense of the journey to come. They might be scoping out the peaks and the best routes. They may even be well into the foothills on their climb.

Seeing the peaks

Making this transition from chaos to “integration”, to use Satir’s terminology, takes two things. First you need visibility into what the new status quo might look like. And second, you need a transformational idea that will help you get there.

The visibility required to plot a new path has been available for just a few weeks now. To continue our mountain-climbing analogy, the fog has lifted, and the peaks are visible for the first time. While significant uncertainty remains about the path and progress of the virus and our attempts to tackle it, certain new work behaviours have become routine.

Notably, remote work has become commonplace. Any remaining doubts about its possibilities have been largely erased. At the same time, its challenges have been highlighted.

We needed the recent backlash against remote work before we could begin to plot our path. We needed people who missed the decompression of their commuting time to speak out. We needed the young, isolated in their homes and working from the end of their beds, to highlight the impact on their physical and mental health. We needed workers drowning in Zoom calls and Slack chats to point out the culture and process failures that drove them.

In the ServiceNow survey, 93% of executives and 78% of employees expressed concern about how remote work would affect the future of the organisation. Without such signals, any future we design will be a false one that ignores human needs.

Plotting a path

Some organisations have begun the difficult path up to the new peaks. They understand that major changes are needed, not least to prepare the organisation for future shocks. I have long preached that in our current age, adaptability is a better predictor of sustainable success than optimisation. For many, this has been a hard-learned lesson.

Of all the key organisational functions, the Work Survey shows that only IT has the confidence of executives (57%) and employees (63%) that it could adapt to another major shock in the next 30 days. Temporary processes put in place to allow HR, sales and marketing, and finance to operate remotely are shaky and vulnerable. They need not just shoring up but likely a fundamental redesign for the hybrid environment.

What does that look like? Many organisations still seem fixated on the technology. A significant 88% of organisations report their expenses have fallen due to COVID-19. The majority of executives (57%) want to redirect the savings into digital transformation. This makes some sense: a similar percentage (60%) say they don’t have integrated digital workflows.

Managing the annual budget based on a decade-old collection of interlinked spreadsheets or controlling the call centre staffing rota on a photocopied template (both real, recent cases from my consulting experience) were bad practice pre-COVID. Today they are critical weak points. There is a lot of work to do around automating administration, interconnecting processes, and moving people from siloed software to integrate workflows.

Changing culture

Crucially, these technological shifts must happen in the context of real cultural change. Organisations that thrive in the new status quo will not just have digitised their delivery. They will have changed their approach to leadership, management, communication, and collaboration.

This starts with trust. Every employee needs to be given appropriate levels of autonomy and responsibility to complete their jobs at the location and in the time and manner that works for them. This means shifting our success metrics from inputs to outputs.

While we do this, we must make sure the organisation meets the human needs of its remote workforce. Is their work environment safe? Are they working in a manner that’s conducive to physical and mental health? Without the automatic oversight that comes from shared space, responsible employers will need to increase their investment in pastoral care of their people. Right now, 46% of employees don’t believe this will happen.

Everyone’s working day can be improved by automating administration, minimising the friction that frustrates people and keeps them from their core tasks of adding value. But most of all, we must start to rebuild our practices around a principle of remote first. In the new hybrid world, it must always be front of mind that not everyone is or can be in the room.

That means training, decisions, and conversations must all be designed in an inclusive manner so that all relevant personnel can participate. This will be a particular challenge for the 50% of executives who are keen to see a return to pre-COVID ways of working.

The next challenge

As we evolve our culture, processes, and technologies, we must always build in adaptability. COVID-19 has been a huge shock for many organisations. It is unlikely to be the last. The post-COVID landscape is coming into focus. While it promises new, empowering ways of working, there are threats on the horizon too.

The mission now is to build resilience, flexibility, and innovation capacity. When the next challenge comes, we should be better prepared.