The COVID-19 pandemic is its own ecosystem. It will mutate and return. It is only one iceberg among many. And, while preoccupied with response and containment, few see the opportunity to reimagine a workplace where emotional connectedness trumps social distancing.
Business-as-usual will prove naïve, dangerous, and even deadly. The rush to return to normal is reductive and regressive. The risks of returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic are clear. And, the necessary return to work creates anxiety approaching panic and paranoia.
Organizations want and need to open for business. That calls for the restoration of systems and operations. They must grease and power the gears that produce their products and services. They must address the needs of employees called back to work, and they must do so with empathy and in compliance with pandemic guidelines. This is a response and recovery strategy.
This is not enough. In the face of this global pandemic with its deep social and economic impact, organizations must do more than cope. They must explore the opportunity for foundational change. Supply chains have collapsed and followed political self-interest. Hospitality-based economies may never recover. The pandemic has bankrupted cities and states. A generation has felt its education disappear. And, returns to work continues to correlate with spikes in infection.
What’s an organization to do?
The media have exploited the statistical S-curve to demonstrate the reach of the pandemic. They coach us to see it move from Ground-Zero in a slow climb that turns into an accelerated advance. They expect what they consider an inevitable flattening before a gradual decline.
This works well for economists, but there is another element to this. The geometry of the S-curve will see it rise again beyond its decline. As people return to work and daily life, it will spike again.
The collapse of the employment economy thrusts existential decisions on business leaders. But the best of them will find an opportunity in this. They will cope with the implications, but they will also launch futures that go beyond mere fixes. To make this happen, they must bridge social distancing with emotional connectedness.
· Share — Every organization finds itself in a unique situation. Banking, construction, healthcare, heavy manufacturing, and so on, they all have individual issues. Some models are built of face-to-face contact with customers, and some are not. They all need leaders able to discern the nature of their problems with a here and now diagnosis.
Stakeholders must understand this is not business-as-usual. Leaders willing to invite them into co-creating solutions send the first sign that the wind is changing. Sailors aim slightly off the straight line to leverage the wind coming their way. Likewise, leaders can reach out to peer officers, managers, and the rank-and-file workers to test their talent, capability, and commitment to a new way of doing business — a new horizon, vision, and purpose.
Best Practice: Use co-creation to revisit your practice mapping and future blueprinting towards a new purpose. Bring teams together to create their own future under your new vision, policies and practices. In order to
· Purpose — Remote workers, necessary workers, and unemployed workers have found themselves in stressful conditions. The new normal has hit them hard. Many working from home rave about it; others find it presents just another sort of stress. People working in necessary industries, from hospitals to supermarkets, find themselves exposed to possible infection. And, unemployed workers simply want to get back to work.
People need a reason to work beyond financial benefits. They need to know what their work produces, how it enhances the customer experience, and why they are investing their talents. This downtime is an opportunity for leadership to co-collaborate with these stakeholders to reinvent or reconfirm the business purpose. They must share in the reimagining of the what and how of work, but first they must define, share, and embrace a new why.
Best Practice: Leverage sharing to understand and reset aspirational goals with urgency.
· Urgent — Management and workers will deny the losses incurred during the pandemic. They may personalize the loss as singularly theirs. They will dwell on how much they have suffered, and they will blame others for their situation. However, leadership must contain and restrain this natural response. They must model optimism and consistent faith in a viable future.
They must convey a sense of urgency. Leaders should reopen their doors with a surge of energy and renewed enthusiasm. A restaurant could change its menu, a bank increase its drive-through capacity, a florist expands its online presence. Education, religious services, hospitality venues, and more will never be the same. Those making changes now stand the best chance to succeed.
Best Practice: Excite the hearts and minds of associates, challenging them to stand up and lean into a future they can respect.
· Respect — While risk managers set up sneeze guards at supermarket checkouts, TSA agents take passenger temperatures, and Human Resources professionals revise policies and procedures, these preventive measures do not embrace employee needs. People are anxious to return to work, but they are worried, too.
Leaders should empathize with those fears by acknowledging them, addressing them clearly and confidently, and demonstrating safe behaviors. They must understand these fears are emotional and require fixes founded in emotional connection. And, only demonstrated respect for employees will earn their respect. Leaders must develop a constant and consistent voice that acknowledges and rewards individual workers, teams, and departments.
Best Practice: Make co-creation a way of life, a culture of imagination, invention, and innovation.
S-P-U-R is an easy way to frame the approach to reopening work, changing a business model, or leveraging the social situation in context.
COVID-19 has stopped the world. The infection has spread without management. It has bred nasty politics and doomsday analysts. Any plan for organizations to pick up where they left off is ill-conceived, regressive, and short-sighted. The instinct to repair and move on as normal is dangerously misdirected and insufficient.
Organizations and the people they serve need leaders who share “a someday soon model.” They see a new future, not a new normal. They embrace, embody, and empathize rather than order, direct, and drive. Their authority arises from their willingness to co-collaborate and co-invent instead of coming from position and title.
Leaders make data-based decisions, take results-based actions, and share respect-based achievements. And, they remain accountable to all stakeholders — inside and outside the organization.