All around the world, I hear hopeful sentiments about returning to work or getting back to normal by going to the office, holding meetings, and having lunch meetings in a post-COVID-19 world. We have all been dealing with a painful change and are ready to get back to “Normal.” Unfortunately, it does not seem that we are able to bounce back to our old ways of working… instead, we must define a “New Normal” depending on our workplace, context, and industry.
Each organization has unique considerations based on the nature of the workforce, availability of alternatives, need for safety, demands for services, use of technology, location, and regulation. In many cases, HR policies will need to be revisited and employment practices modified to meet the needs of the new reality. This will require a swift and significant change that must be well executed for each organization. As we consider how to define and implement a “New Normal” it seems appropriate that we take note of a few good change management principles as noted by Dr. John Kotter. Here are a few considerations in managing your migration to the “New Normal” in your organization:
- Create Case for Change – While it may seem that there is a clear case for making changes (i.e. – possible death from virus), it will be important for each organization to anchor each change to a strong case for change. Implementing new measures such as social distancing, work from home, wearing masks, etc. each must be anchored in clear rationale. For example, if certain areas of the workplace are off limits to many employees, a “Keep out” notice may be less effective than explaining that the area is reserved for high-exposure distribution personnel. To help reinforce the case for change with each measure, it is often helpful to support the new action with specific rationale, examples, consequences, and measures.
- Form a powerful Coalition – When it comes to making business decisions, most firms have clear lines of authority and accountability. However, in a crisis situation we must have more central decision-making with multiple considerations. A central crisis management team is often needed to address and consider the impact of proposed actions and policy changes. Due to the human nature of this crisis, HR is usually at the head of the table, but it is equally important to have representatives from all the key areas and from multiple levels in the organization.
- Create a Vision for Change – In most change situations, we have a clear sense of where we are going with an ultimate strategic goal. This helps to provide people with a degree of certainty and clarity about the future. When it comes to changes due to COVID-19, we have an unknown future and unclear vision of what lies ahead. One of my golden rules in managing change is this: “People need certainty: We can either provide this through certainty of outcome or certainty of process.” Since we don’t know the future, we can only provide certainty of process (e.g. – we will re-assess in October and again in January based on how the situation evolves).
- Stakeholder Management – To address the changes to the workplace and HR practices, care should be taken to fully consider the stakeholders in the organization. This must include people that work with the company who may not be employees (contract staff, suppliers, customers, etc.). In addition to considering stakeholders by job group and type, we may also wish to consider the unique personal needs of our people. Which employees are dealing with extra demands due to home schooling, family illnesses, or other COVID-19 impacts? Spending extra time to segment stakeholders in multiple ways will help to identify the impact of future measures on not only the physical, but also the mental well-being.
- Remove Obstacles – While we may do our best to think through the new workplace and define a “New Normal” there will be challenges along the way. For example, we may decide that the finance department can work from home, but we may later find out about system access limitations or audit requirements that prohibit some of these processes. It will be important for the central team to surface these challenges and remove them in some way or create work-around solutions. To manage the changes associated with the new workplace practices and policies, we must encourage the raising of issues to improve acceptance and reduce stress associated with the changes.
- Create Short-Term Wins – Along the way, it is always a great idea to measure, monitor, and publish progress to the “New Normal.” While this may seem unnecessary in light of the pandemic, it is important for everyone to feel a part of the success and potentially involved in developing new solutions. For example, one company published photos from the security cameras in the office showing no people in the office as a part of a congratulation to all employees for doing their part to work from home. Celebrating staggered work hours, social distancing, mask-wearing, and other measures may take some creative approaches – but will be needed to help reinforce ongoing compliance behaviors.
- Anchor in Corporate Culture – As the new practices and policies are developed for our post- COVID-19 world are developed, it is ideal to anchor these in the principles and values of the corporate culture. For example, one firm with a strong value for mutual respect posted reminders about wearing masks in the office noting the corporate value statement related to mutual respect. Times of crisis can test corporate values and culture and this is a great time to show people what the organization stands for and reinforce the desired culture for the future. Of course, the specific actions and policies may change, but the feeling and manner by which the organization deals with the change will be remembered for a long time.
While the future is yet unknown, each organization will need to assess and develop their own future when it comes to a “New Normal” for the workplace. In doing so, it is important to adopt some clear management principles and approaches for managing the change process. We have all been thrust into this new reality due to COVID-19 without choice. However, we now must deal with the situation and manage changes, which is now a matter of strategic choice in how we manage our human capital for the future. While we will not be bouncing back to our old ways soon, my hope is that we will take a change management approach to bounce to a new human-centred future.