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From Now To Next

5 Questions for Leaders to ask as businesses begin to return.


This is my third global recession and by far the worst. This pandemic and consequent economic crisis are devastating because of the appalling scale of loss and illness and how enterprises of all sizes in nearly every sector have been impacted. A tsunami of job losses occurred overnight. Shop windows on closed streets were boarded up. Retail, office and factory car parks emptied. We have no cure and no vaccine at this time but must now walk the extraordinary line between the totally safe return of employees to our workplaces and ensuring they have jobs to return to. 

As firms slowly remove the dust sheets and move beyond this extraordinary and destructive period, two types of futures emerge for firms and their employees. The first is organisations who try to go back to how it was before this dreadful virus arrived. Even though it is only months not years, the scale of unprecedented change in society, physical workplaces, global supply chains and legislation mean these firms will struggle. Their employees will experience sterile working environments and already out of date work practises. Culture will be eroded.

The second category is firms who understand that there is no going back. There has never been a period of such total reactive transformation. Changes in working arrangements, cultural practices, applications of technology and business value propositions. These businesses will not only respond to new demands, they will create new markets. Their leaders will repurpose resources and develop new propositions for rising demand over the next 18 months. Their employees will experience real innovation, considerable learning, and momentous opportunity. The difference between these two types of firms is Agility. The former will not adapt, while the latter will flow like mercury into the gaps and opportunities that arise. This is where the best talent will want to work. Being agile means thinking differently and decentralising decision making. Here are five questions posed to leaders as they consider how to make their organisations more responsive to transforming market places.
1. Who led and continues to lead your firm from the middle, during lockdown and this extended crisis period? 
These are not senior employees in your firm but key influencers throughout your organisation who you may want to consider for future leadership development. They are the people who brought others with them by demonstrating resilience, raising moral and showing commitment and adaptability. Which of your senior “leaders” let you down, failed to deliver consistently, kept away from the fire? These are the people you need to move on.

2. How will you de-layer your firm? 
Agile companies are flat structured. Information moves freely throughout enabling fast decision making and error correction. No matter what your organisation chart says, you are a hierarchical firm if you tolerate egotistical leaders. The first concern for such executives is “how does this make me look?” They are driven to avoid any change or action that they perceive may diminish their personal status. To be a flat structured, agile organisation only hire leaders with humility and coach those without it.

3. Does your firm make adequate use of talent on demand solutions? 
The speed at which the shutters came down on the economy meant many essential projects were shelved overnight. If they were good enough in the first place and they still matter, get out of the blocks now and have them delivered by hiring contractors (contingent professionals). Equally, if you do not work in HR, you may find it difficult to appreciate the scale of complexity facing HR functions everywhere as they return their workforces, aligned to employee welfare, health and safety legislation. Workforce capability and performance is challenging at any point, but against the backdrop of the Covid crisis it demands all their attention. Bring in contractor HR support for operational HR or HR project delivery now. Don’t wait until essential people services fail, creating down the line problems for your customers and other critical stakeholders, act now and improve your organisation agility with flexible resources.

4. What is the most creative move your firm has made under this crisis? 
For many leaders, struggling with the “now” challenges of their organisations understandably makes contemplating the “next” version of their business, almost impossible. This is one of the reasons the Government’s repurposing of Brexit grants to support working capital needs of firms has had low take up. The requirements for funding are too centred around the need to produce evidence of efforts and commitment to R&D and innovation. When you are fighting for your enterprise’s daily existence, considering the “next new level” is tough. That said, innovation is at the heart of adaptation. What has your firm learned to do more efficiently? What has changed for your customers that impacts their needs now? If global supply chains begin to shorten, what can your organisation do to exploit this? How many of your employees would grab an opportunity to work on an innovation task force to think laterally for your firm, its processes, your customers, the future of the business. What might it lead to? 

5. How has your workplace changed for the better and what do you need to do to perpetuate this beyond this crisis? 
I am not sure I ever really understood fully what digital automation in the workplace meant and now my ability to work is dependent on it. I have never been a fan of remote working, for no particularly good reason, and yet that is how all HRM employees currently operate. Though most of us in HRM will return for many reasons to our offices, some will remain fully remote and everyone will have remote working opportunities. Learning is fun and change is a challenge. I spend more time talking face to face with employees now than at any previous time, it is just via MS Teams. While we will continue to invest in technology, process efficiency and customer value enhancing systems, our greatest task is to understand how to build an inclusive supportive work culture for employees no matter where they are working from. How do we help create structure and effective operating practices for employees in the future? How will we replicate the essential social elements of HRM’s culture and maintain the high-performance ethos that has always prevailed, in these new circumstances? What are the new engagement steps and rules for team members who might not be able to tap a colleague’s shoulder and ask for quick informal support? Having developed new value propositions to support business critical hiring we know the transformation of our business and operating model has only just begun.

So like many firms, we are asking these questions knowing clearly which camp we want our business to be in. Unlike previous economic shocks, there are not too many ready-made answers to these new challenges. There really is no playbook set of responses for the astonishing attack that Covid is. However, we are curious people, resolute and we share a common purpose - to matter and make a difference to our stakeholders. Stay safe and stay well. 


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