On Dec. 31, 1999, a few minutes before midnight, people awaited the dawn of a new decade. As the seconds ticked away, many were anxious, some even panicking – because of the Y2K effect, a digital global crash as the millennium turned, which would paralyze computer networks and result in worldwide disaster, inspiring apocalyptic visions of doom and despair. In the end, there were no significant problems and the world as we knew it stayed intact.
Twenty years on, it seems the conspiracists may just have got the timing wrong and Y2020 is the true calling to accounts. Unlike Y2K, though, where professionals had years to prepare, the current COVID-19 crisis seemed to come out of the blue. There were warnings, of course. It’s just that no one was listening.
This is a global crisis, threatening not just our structures but our very existence. Whether we like it or not, it is changing how we interact, how we move around and how we work. From one day to the next, the way we live has been dramatically transformed, with the one certainty that the way we do business, too, will change. So, what can we learn from this?
1. Organizations are capable of fast decision-making
In many workplaces, decision-making is cumbersome, requiring a lengthy approval process and agreements from different stakeholders. In recent weeks, changes that would normally take months, even years, in the face of “this is how we do things,” have been implemented in a matter of days.
These same organizations have found they are able to move quickly, to change workplace practices and thinking outside the traditional structures that have governed them for years. Even organizations that never appeared tech-savvy have put communication tools in place to make remote working a reality. When quick decision-making is a necessity, changes can happen at a fast pace. It is unfortunate that we needed a pandemic to shake us up, but it is also a good lesson for when this crisis is over: Organizations are able to act quickly, efficiently, with agility, when they want to.
2. Rethinking the Employment Contract
We’ve also rethought the need for a physical workspace. Most of us are working remotely, and for many, it seems to be working well; in some cases, we are even more productive. Endless meetings are reduced to the necessary ones, which has freed up a lot of time to do the real work. Business travel has been replaced, where possible, with calls over Skype and WebEx; interactions with colleagues have become virtual. And business continuity has remained, for the most part, intact.
As we move away from the current crisis, who’s to say that remote working will not become the norm? Organizations are learning that they can use technology effectively to conduct business at a distance. Now that it’s been tried and tested, organizations may rethink the employment contract altogether – perhaps replacing the notion of fixed term or full-time employees with more part-time workers and greater flexibility, thereby also reducing the organization’s fixed costs.
3. The shift toward more trust-based leadership
For many organizations, the current crisis provides a huge opportunity to build or enhance a culture of trust. Traditionally, many organizations have relied on their employees being in the office; meeting with them, reviewing responsibilities together. Now employers have no choice but to empower their employees and to trust that work responsibilities and deadlines will be met. This changes the whole employee-employer work dynamic. This autonomy over work conditions communicates to employees that their leadership trusts them.
How an organization’s leadership deals with crisis challenges is crucial. Keeping a level of normality during this uncertain period and positioning the organization’s leaders as role models who have the situation under control helps to enhance employees’ trust, commitment and loyalty toward the organization.
So, What Now?
This crisis is showing us a new way of operating. Organizations now have an opportunity to observe, reflect, re-create, change and adapt to these new ways of being and working. So, while this may be the end of the workplace as we know it, who knows? It may just be the beginning of a new era of organizational flexibility, agility and adaptability.