Much of the commentary around COVID-19 continues to talk about adapting to a ‘new normal’. Of course businesses will need to follow the guidelines set out by local authorities, and the new normal will be with us for at least for the next few months as public health restrictions around social distancing remain in place. However we also need to be prepared that this new normal may not be temporary, and will gradually become a permanent change to our lives; businesses will play a key role in how the world adapts.
How Businesses Initially Adapted to COVID-19
The COVID-19 outbreak pushed many businesses into the digital age. For those businesses that had already invested in the use of technology, adapting may have been quite straightforward. In contrast some companies struggled to change processes and functions, resulting in what for some were rather chaotic early days when the pandemic first hit.
Moving forward we need to recognise that some areas of businesses simply were not able to radically adapt to a socially distanced world; care homes require person to person contact, the emergency services cannot operate remotely, and even industries that increasingly rely on robotics still require teams of humans to work efficiently. However, those businesses that have been able to successfully adapt and create new ways of working will have the opportunity to further develop these adaptions as we move forward.
All businesses will need to take stock and reassess whether they can and should be going back to the old way of doing things. So what can businesses do to adapt to the new normal?
Experimentation Will be Key
Most countries around the world announced their COVID-19 restrictions with little notice. At best, businesses might have had 72 hours to find new ways of working and often had to think on their feet. Solutions that worked for a company two months ago won't necessarily be those that prevail as we move forward.
In the coming weeks it will be crucial for businesses to be ruthless in reviewing their processes -understanding what has worked, what hasn’t and where there is room for improvement. It’s also OK to recognise that you might not get it 100% perfect the first time you try something new or adopt a different policy. Crucial is that you continue to monitor, evaluate and adapt, and effectively communicate and involve your teams in the process to ensure their buy in.
Consider How to Get Staff Back to Work
If you’re one of the many businesses that has had to close their office and encourage staff to work from home, it’s likely you’ve probably become very adept at managing a more substantial remote workforce over the last few months. Before reopening your office, consider what the best approach is for your business going forward.
If you found it relatively painless to adapt to social distancing as most of your staff can perform their duties from home, then should you bring everyone back to the office just because certain restrictions may now have been lifted? Do your staff need be at their desks from ‘9-5’ to do their job, or can you try a more flexible approach? You may also need to consider a phased return to work as public health advice may prevent you from having the full workforce back in the office at any one time.
Use the next few weeks to experiment and see what is best for your business. Of course there might be some people who do need to come into the office so consider who these people are, whether you can operate a rota system so no one team is in for the full week, or whether you can offer employees the ability to work from home more permanently. The answer will be different for every business.
Listen to and Enfranchise Your Teams and Customers
As well as process reviews and ongoing optimisation, it’s crucial that you listen both to your teams and to your customers. If you weren't already conducting regular feedback sessions with these two groups, begin to do so now.
Businesses will always need to listen to what their customers are telling them, but in the current circumstances it is ever more important to listen to your workforce first and foremost. Your customers will be adapting to a version of a new normal too, and in the majority of cases will be willing to accept that you may need to make changes to your operations.
Put your people first, develop a framework that works for them, and tweak it based on what your customers want. Make sure your staff are engaged as that will ensure they are more ready and willing to embrace the new normal.
Ensure You Retain a Sense of Togetherness
One of the key messages in our recent article about effective management of remote teams was around ensuring remote workers still feel connected and part of the team.
If ongoing remote working is a feature of your new normal, you must retain the sense of togetherness you have fostered in recent weeks. Don't just go back to your old ways. There will be a sense of experimentation with this too.
Continue to empower your teams with as many means of communication as possible. Encourage the use of video calling to give a sense of face to face contact. Continue to host virtual water coolers and get teams from different departments or client accounts to share ideas.
Don’t worry too much about the potential distractions of communication tools. If the work gets done and your people are meeting their aims and performance expectations, it’s a win-win for everyone.
Don't Be Afraid to Seek New Ideas
Social media platforms such as LinkedIn as well as business publications and forums continue to be filled with updates about how different industries are adapting and innovating the way they work.
There will be a lot of changes that you’re already doing but make sure you stay connected and continue to seek out ideas, not just within your own industry but also beyond. Don’t be afraid to ask your staff for ideas too; you can encourage employees to make suggestions whether that be through a formal working group or a more informal idea exchange.
While you will need to do certain things from a health and safety perspective as directed by the authorities, think of ways you can go above and beyond those minimum requirements.
Give Changes Time
Change management is a crucial skill both in your personal and professional life. Whether you're a business leader managing a process change or an employee dealing with fallout from these changes, it can often be tough to adapt.
Changes that occurred in the past few months came about out of necessity, however you may have seen some unexpected benefits as a result of the adaptations you made. Whether these changes are gradually phased out or become permanent because they are better way of doing things remains to be seen. But businesses that look to ditch the progress they’ve made and return to their old ways of working immediately are likely to face challenges both in-house and from customers and clients.
What is important is that as you continue to experiment and adjust, ensure you give changes time to embed. If after a while something isn’t working then try something different, but don’t rush from one initiative to the next without giving sufficient time to assess its effectiveness.
Finally, remember that the best way to adapt to the new normal is by accepting that it is here - embrace it. The new normal presents a significant opportunity for businesses to innovate, adapt and move forward with a positive outlook.