In the face of COVID pandemic, it has become fashionable to talk of a ‘new normal’. I think of it more as a forced fast forward to an unfamiliar order. Challenging economic conditions are now likely to extend for long periods of time as waves of new infections stop and start periodically. In response to margin and cost pressures, shareholders are looking to create more efficient organizations which can solve consumer & customer problems in real time.
At a person level, the pandemic has triggered individuals to reassess their consumption patterns, realize the primacy of social connections and the value of time. The COVID impact on economy and resulting stress on businesses has also brought into sharp focus the need for lifelong learning. Employees need to look beyond their degrees and qualifications, to maintain relevance and gain advantage in a stressed market, which continues to be hungry for talent. These changes will now impact what people strive for economically, redefine the role of work in their life, and place new demands on their time and energy. Extending this trend to the workplace, the motivations and drivers of employees are going to undergo a dramatic shift.
Work is what people do and not where they do it.
Hence, leaders need to reconsider the very definition of jobs, capabilities and workforce planning, to enable business performance, while ensuring employees remain motivated. The ability of HR teams to deliver these outcomes with empathy and collaboration, while avoiding negative cultural fallouts will separate the winning organization in this pandemic from the losers.
In the face of this business and therefore job uncertainty, employees will realize the importance of demonstrating measurable key results for their rewards. They will demand that more time be spent working productively rather than on commutes or long-winded alignment meetings. They will be less patient when critical decisions or resources needed for their outcomes are delayed unnecessarily. For them, goal-oriented team sprints will more desirable than steady paced sequential workflows.
For HR, the implications of such changes can be profound. Jobs will become more flexible to allow wider impact. Increasingly, Managers will need to focus a lot more on insights and unique skills or knowledge to facilitate decisions rather than the size of their pyramid or obsessing over who was slacking in office today. This has always been the logic of moving towards an OKR (Objective and Key Results) oriented culture. As always, it will need to be supported by technology adoption and agile design. OKR’s will need to be used to measure effectiveness for even process enabling roles. In a service delivery organization, OKR’s will enable employees to take more ownership for initiating improvements, thus building a more agile work structure and culture.
Initially, due to the sudden-ness of the pandemic, organizations had no option but to trust employees and employees accepted outcome related measures and revised salaries. Employees and managers have now realized the positive benefits they can bring to their lives by working AFO or away from office (I prefer this term to working from home or WFH!). Cost and margin pressures have forced multiple rounds of efficiency and role assessment exercises. The agile workflows created real-time (without the typical intellectualization) have thrown up examples of innovative solutions for client delivery, high quality virtual support for processes and last mile delivery for consumers. As a result, most leaders have also come to accept the benefits of flexibility and OKR’s for building an efficient org structure. The change has been sudden and fast tracked much transformation in the workplace, but this momentum must continue.
In a VUCA world, both shareholders and employees will gain by continuing to invest in capability building (as against competence training) and nurturing the curious mind-set (as against process alignment). Across the organization, when employees with knowledge and skills question current practices, better ways of growing business will emerge. By continuing to leverage new technology, organizations will unlock hidden productivity benefits. By continuing to support employee self-realization, organizations will tap into new reservoirs of passion. HR would now do well to keep looking at designing roles first for outcomes, then process and last on inputs.
I think of the ‘new normal’ as a cultural transformation in people and organizations which I had not thought possible in my generation. We were all inching towards it, but the pandemic seems to have warped us into the future. Let us now plan our workplaces for a smart and driven workforce, leveraging technologies of today. This will help us build business models which are dynamic and hence far more resilient to any challenges the future may hold.