“History teaches us that short-term measures taken in response to global crises leads to changes that last for decades” –  Industryweek.com

COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented disruption to the economy and people’s lives. What we’re experiencing are fundamental changes in the way businesses are operating; individuals are working and customer expectations are shifting.

No one exactly knows how long this period will last but adapting to these changes shouldn’t be considered a short-term measure but a permanent transition to what will be the ‘next normal’.

Additionally, these changes will irreversibly change what leaders and managers do on a daily basis. It’s time to throw away the old playbook and re-think how things are done.

What is the next normal? 

The ‘next normal’ describes the current state that emerges after a drastic change has been experienced. 

Social distancing kicked off a ‘global experiment’ forcing companies to send their employees home and find alternative ways to get work done and meet customer expectations. Likewise, customers have had to find alternative ways to procure goods and services.

This ‘experiment’ has dragged the laggards kicking and screaming to the realisation that remote working and digital commerce can be successful, as well as beneficial to their people and customers alike!

The ‘next normal’ therefore sees a burgeoning environment of remote working and digital commerce solutions. For many this is a significant paradigm shift. For the disrupters and early adopters, it’s a massive opportunity.

What we’ve learned through this experience is in fact that there is a different way of working open to us now… We’ve demonstrated that we can deliver projects to customers in a virtual environment. Now that’s not to say that we’re going to keep 46,000 people at home – we’re not. But equally, we’re not going to move 46,000 people back. We’re going to move some back and have some work from home … what that does is it opens up the talent door to us.” – Chris Aston, Worley, Macquarie Australia Conference May 2020

Responses like Worley’s will substantially change how organisations operate. This must in-turn prompt leaders to evaluate their current leadership capabilities, skills, and thinking. For many adapting to the ‘next normal’ requires a change in mindset and a greater emphasis on those capabilities needed for a rapidly changing environment.

What are some issues to expect

The fallout of COVID-19 brings many challenges to confront:

  • Remote working
  • Physical and psychological wellbeing of the workers
  • Changing customer expectations
  • Innovation from competitors
  • Job displacement
  • Re-training of the workforce
  • Cost containment
  • Crisis management
  • Severed global supply chains

Many of these issues will remain as be part of the ‘next normal’. Navigating these challenges will require a shift in the capabilities and actions of many leaders.

How can leaders navigate the ‘next normal’?

Be empathetic and build trust by having a genuine concern for people’s wellbeing 

COVID-19 is more than a health issue. The health and wellbeing of your team, customers and suppliers are paramount, as is the widespread fear of severe economic consequences.

Influential leaders check-in with their people, ask how they are doing and help to maintain their ‘fighting spirit’. A Gallup study revealed that only 49% of respondents felt that their organisations cared about their wellbeing during the COVID-19 changes. A lot more needs to be done in these times of uncertainty.

Extending empathy and care to the customers and suppliers builds stronger, trusting, relationships through recognising and understanding the challenges faced by all, and helping out where possible.

Stop bracing for the next normal, own it!

Bracing and waiting for the ‘next normal’ will set you back. Influential leaders will take a proactive approach, embrace it and take steps to move the organisation forward. In times of uncertainty, people look to their leaders for guidance and hope. Owning the way ahead will engender organisational confidence.

Have a clear vision and purpose 

Create a clear vision of the future your organisation is preparing for. Provide clarity of purpose. Your purpose provides the ‘why’ – a sense of direction, guiding your actions and informing your stakeholders. Your vision must acknowledge that ongoing change is part of the future and recognise the need to adapt, learn and pivot along the way.

Using your vision and purpose as a guide, communicate your outlook across three time horizons: 

Immediate term – This addresses immediate needs—the initial response to dealing with COVID-19 and the urgent issues arising from it. 

Considerations: Health, safety, moving to remote working and the wellbeing of your team. This then progressed to meet immediate customer needs and expectations, and employees concerns for job security. As things settle down the next time horizon will once again be about delivering the required outcomes today, tomorrow, next week, for the month.

Near term – Looking beyond the immediate to the next 1-6 months. Coming out of the crisis will be about survival, returning to ‘work’, dealing with reduced revenues, catching up on the backlog, and meeting new customer needs. This period will focus on stabilising and adjusting to the new and possibly unique circumstances.

Questions to answer: What does the business look like from now to the next three months? What has changed in the market? How have our customers’ needs changed? What does the new data tell us? Are we still productive? Do expectations need to be re-set?  

Longer-term – Establishing your view of the ‘next normal’, determining needs in the post COVID-19 economy and preparing for it.

Questions to answer: What does our business look like for the rest of the year and beyond? Are we prepared for another crisis? What are the new market expectations? Are our people adequately trained? Do we require re-skilling? What are our competitors doing? What are our new ways of working? Do we have a blended workforce (the combination of people working remotely and in the office)? Do we have the right tools, practices and behaviours in place?

Set up to make quick decisions

The ‘agile organisation’ has the clarity of purpose, makes quick decisions and executes effectively. 

The advent of COVID-19 has shown organisations that they are capable of making quick decisions, often with imperfect data. On the whole, those decisions have been directionally right and fit for purpose. 

In this changing landscape, the paradigm of being able to make time-critical decisions is going to remain for some time. It is therefore essential for organisations to recognise and reflect on what they did well, and use this to enable quick decision making to continue. The imperative is to create an environment and the mechanisms to facilitate rapid decision making.

Be present

‘Out of mind, out of sight’ is an old proverb used to describe the feeling of forgetting something once it’s out of sight. No proverb may be more important for leaders right now with the switch to remote work and digital platforms. Now more than ever, teams will require strong visible leadership. 

Strong leadership requires that people have a clear understanding of what their role is and being empowered through delegation to make their contribution to achieving the team’s purpose. It requires leaders that are actively engaged with their people, proactively communicating and helping their teams to succeed by supporting and coaching them in real-time. Leaders are the glue which binds a remote team together, facilitating teamwork and collaboration across the virtual landscape.

Importantly, leaders are present by seeking out what’s happening at the frontline, using customer feedback from their team, and other data sources to identify emerging trends to enable them to make course corrections to keep up with the changing landscape. This is critical for rapid decision making.

In summary, to be ready for the ‘next normal’ leaders must be prepared for and embrace the need to change. The starting point is building a foundation, based on empathy and trust by recognising and understanding the situation for their people, customers and suppliers. Next is envisioning what the future may look like, communicating this vision and creating a clarity of purpose for their team. Success will depend on your ability to ‘be present’ in a what will either be a virtual or ‘blended’ world, making quick decisions and empowering your team to anticipate and meet your customers’ changing needs.

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