As a provider of professional services, I consider myself fortunate that the profession lends itself to working from home (WFH). I feel privileged that I can continue to work and deliver my services from the comfort and security of my own house. (I did lose the battle for the study to my wife who is also WFH, but the kitchen table’s size and proximity to the coffee machine is a bonus). I do feel tremendous empathy for the service providers, manufacturers, tradespeople and other essential services workers in the community that do not have such choices available. They may indeed wish for the same flexibility; however, I am quite sure those of us who are still employed are all very grateful for the work we do have… many of our fellow citizens simply don’t have jobs.

This crisis is demonstrating that the way we behave, interact and communicate may have changed forever. In fact, our response to COVID-19 will be seen as one of largest social experiments in living history.

On one hand, organisations are finding that they can deliver products and services just as effectively, if not more so, using this new way of working. It makes one ponder the future requirement for multi-story buildings, onsite organisational structures of thousands of people, and long-term leases. I suspect flexible working arrangements are here to stay… unless you’ve been home schooling, in which case, “Let me get back to work ASAP.” The roads are essentially empty, waterways and skies have never been clearer, a welcomed break for the environment. Maybe it is Mother Nature’s way of telling us she has just had enough?

Conversely this ‘social experiment’ may prove to us that humans are a gregarious species who require human interaction and a sense of belonging, therefore proving the old model may in fact be the right one, or at least a variation of it is still valid. I suspect this variation in the way we engage with our workplace and co-workers will form the future way of working.

Interestingly, as I speak with clients and candidates (our two customers in Executive Search), those in my broader professional network and friends, I have observed a transitioning of thought and behaviour in people and organisations.

  1. Initial concerns were about people’s safety, as we tried desperately to avoid infections in the workplace. We split functional teams as a risk mitigation strategy and rotated them either to different parts of the workplace or to home.
  2. We were then challenged by technology, and whether this new regime could be supported by our IT systems, bandwidth and the NBN (Australia’s National Broadband Network).
  3. The next piece of the journey involved productivity and communication, providing information updates, organisational stability, business continuity, security and hope. Also, a concern for mental health and well-being was brought to the fore with programs put in place to reduce stress levels.
  4. And finally, the forward planning phase – for the emergence to the other side. Organisations are starting to review their markets, their competitors, their structures and their internal talent to determine how they will succeed in this new world circa six months from now. This will mean restructuring, hiring of new talent and unfortunately for some loss of jobs. This will definitely keep People & Culture teams, business management, leadership development and executive search teams busy.

Somewhere between phases 2 and 3, we witnessed organisations pivot their product and service offerings to accommodate demand. Cosmetic and alcohol manufacturers converted their production lines to produce hand sanitiser. Event management companies became providers of ready-made meals, using all the food they ordered for the now cancelled events. Restaurants became take-aways and the use of delivery services not only grew exponentially but also changed, for example, you can hire an Uber by the hour to get all your chores done in one trip. Sleep mask manufacturers and packaging companies pivoted and began making ventilators and face masks. Such innovation and creativity can only serve Australia well. Speaking of creativity, have you ever seen so many YouTube and TikTok videos of people recording coronavirus related lyrics to well-known music, or the crazy things people get up to when stuck at home. Some shocking, some brilliant!

Many organisations have realised their sourcing strategies have failed them, because they were too reliant on one market to source products or specific ports to handle their shipping routes, while others relied too heavily on overseas facilities to manage their call centres. Organisations are now re-thinking these outsourced services and putting risk mitigation strategies in place. Let’s hope this event stimulates local manufacturing, brings some help-desk services back to Australia and introduces a more diversified supply chain, even if it costs us a little more for the privilege. Countries will want to protect their GDP and sovereign borders even more so now. Is this the end of globalisation as we know it?

A further emerging theme is the assessment of leadership teams. The qualities of the best leaders are being demonstrated through thorough planning and execution, courage and inspiration, humility in the face of a crisis, well considered contingencies and effective and frequent communication balancing reality with hope. It is also identifying those in the organisation who are stepping-up, taking on the role of communicator, motivator and inspirational leader and it is often not the most senior person in the organisation. In many cases it is the People & Culture teams that are the heroes – a timely reminder of the value Human Resource teams bring to organisations. On the flip side, the cracks or behavioural gaps in some leaders have become glaringly apparent during this crisis causing Chairs and CEOs to re-evaluate their leadership teams.

Whilst risk mitigation strategies are being developed, organisational structure and capability is also being reviewed against a backdrop of a different, more agile, more innovative and even more nimble world. When many organisations emerge post lockdown without the revenue or the profits they were anticipating, will it mean significant change and transformation? I suspect so. Organisations are questioning how they will look and operate, differentiate, remain relevant and create value in the future. Similarly, as individuals, this is the time to assess your value, transform yourself, augment your skills and promote your ideas. Right now the ears of management have never been more open to the question, “How can we do things better, what should we do differently moving forward, what have we learnt from this new normal, what strategies and activities worked, what didn’t?”

We were already preparing for disruption with the emergence of AI, digitisation, sophisticated technology, 3D printing, robotics, autonomous vehicles and the like… and then here comes along a nano sized, invisible, micro-organism – a virus called COVID-19, that has caused more disruption, and at significantly greater speed than any of the aforementioned combined, causing us to press the reset button.

A final observation this crisis has unearthed is human behaviour at home and in the community. Some not so pleasant such as mental health issues due to isolation, domestic violence and drug abuse. Listen out for those in need and ask if you can help. While on a more positive note, it has highlighted a genuine concern for people’s well-being, spending more time with those close to us, offering help to our neighbours in need or people in the community and counselling each other. If this makes for a better society, then there is an upside to this crisis.

What are your observations of our new world?

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