The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting humankind globally, as cities and countries have effectively shut down to combat the virus with physical distancing. Individually, people react differently in times of emergency: Some attempt a business-as-usual approach, while others switch into crisis mode. What we all share is at least some need to improvise in adapting to an unprecedented situation.
Organizations have also had to find their ways through the pandemic. Many businesses have had to shift rapidly to virtual work environments.
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However, maintaining business continuity through this crisis does not simply mean substituting digital work for analog work. Organizations are being forced to deal with a disruption to their momentum as well as financial and other crisis constraints, alongside a sudden need to change work practices and routines. It is not (digital) business as usual.
There’s a silver lining in this situation: Both employees and customers recognize that we are in an extraordinary moment. Together we’re sharing a universal experience of experimentation and improvisation. Without anyone expecting perfection, space has opened up for opportunities that would not have been available under different circumstances.
We believe companies have a chance to use this time not just to react to the pressing demands of the crisis but to identify proactive strategies for future opportunities as well. We examine strategies companies can adopt to address how they manage their relationships; how they think about their reach; how they use this chance for reflection; and how to experiment with organizational renovation.
Four Organizational Strategies for Adapting in Crisis
The first two strategies are born out of necessity: They are reactive ways to cope with the COVID-19 crisis. The next two strategies encourage organizations to proactively seize this time as an occasion for contemplation and transformation.
Manage relationships, from in-person physical distancing to digitally distant socializing. Work in general and leadership in particular is relational. As working under COVID-19 increasingly means working from home, social bonds are strained. This requires managers to embrace a digital work culture with digital socializing like sharing stories and pictures or being together online when having lunch or coffee.
As organizations encourage employees to make their homes ready for business, those organizations also have to make themselves ready for home. This is the less-talked-about side of the social bond. With schools and childcare facilities in lockdown, organizations and their leaders need to respect home commitments, surroundings, and disruptions. Deliberately acknowledging this as a first step toward a more family-inclusive home-office culture will be beneficial not just to those with care responsibilities but to all employees, who will benefit from an increase in self-efficacy and autonomy. Existing employees will appreciate this, while new employees may be drawn to such a culture — theoretically widening the pool of potential hires.
Managers should actively embrace these challenges and accept that life will sometimes infringe on work, while still respecting separation when work begins to crawl into life. This will be valued immensely and lead to a work culture where work is at home, but not competing with it. It will also contribute to relationships that are respected and respectful over a distance in new ways — with distance even turning out to be an asset in the end.
Understand that local reach now has global scope. When in-person interaction is possible, it usually feels like the preferred option. In the past, remote employees who worked in environments with predominantly physically colocated workers commonly experienced a second-class participation. The prohibition against meeting in person now allows — and compels — organizations to truly focus on engaging with their virtual team.
In terms of companies’ reach to their customers, again, the near universality of the crisis makes a difference. Because offerings by all organizations within an industry have been hit in a very similar manner, customers are left comparing multiple digital experiences instead of in-person ones to digital ones. Online, organizations can reach completely new customers and customer segments with new and even improvised solutions.
We call this a “glocal” reach, meaning that local initiatives can have truly global scope. For many businesses, the global audience becomes the target group — as it is now the only group. Organizations may be able to reach completely new people, diversifying and widening both their employee teams and customer pools.
Embrace a chance for reflection. The fallout from COVID-19 may slow down some of the rush of work. When we physically can’t move from place to place and have to spend time at home or otherwise isolated, we become more secluded. This independence has the potential to be a good thing, offering long-term transformative potential.
For managers, distance working potentially means less chance for micromanaging and more focus on outcome and deliverables. Managers can accept and embrace not knowing what employees do in specific moments of the day and even cut employees some slack to encourage time slots for creative, exploratory musings. Managers can offer more autonomy to employees by checking in less frequently on progress in favor of evaluating outcomes. Facilitating self-managed time away from distraction will help employees to grow during this time.
Of course, this may be tough, especially if a manager has a negative mindset about home-office culture, or if managers create constant auditing trails. New ways of working can also result in short-term loss of productivity. Still, managers should offer leeway, observe novel ideas and practices, and use this disruption to try out new approaches — including following ideas that unfold from the bottom up.
Be ready for whole-scale renovation. Crisis moments require resilience: Organizations need to be able to bend without breaking. These moments may also present themselves as opportunities to transform while on the move, and to explore what should stay and what can go. Kurt Lewin, in his 1947 article “Group Decision and Social Change,” described these moments as being “unfrozen” from general customs.
Organizational structures that may have been based on physical situations like room size or proximity now are free of spatial constraints. Leaders can try out and test novel digital practices and tools. For instance, they may wish to test new means to brainstorm. Virtual work environments may also bring to light that some people who may be relatively quieter at the physical office are more active and conversant online.
More fundamentally, a new strategic orientation might shift the organizational structure from regional projects based on the closeness of team members to product-based projects. Now may be the time to explore future-of-work transformations such as self-managed virtual teams or collaboration with online-based communities. The barriers to change for these ways of working have been lowered.
The best time to begin transformation efforts will be when the crisis is still a universally shared experience. There will be a much higher tolerance for initial stumbles or the shortcomings that often accompany any substantial organizational change process.
Any crisis can be regarded as an opportunity. This does not in any way mean the crisis is good in itself, but it appreciates how humans — and organizations — deal with adversity. By necessity and commitment, organizations can reactively and proactively transform themselves in this unprecedented and universal situation of organizing under COVID-19.