A people-first strategy for returning to work after Covid-19

The post Covid-19 world will not be the same as it was before. Romy Hughes explores the aspects of a good strategy that companies need to think about as we begin to look at life after the pandemic

If you distil ‘strategy’ down to its simplest form, it is about looking at the world around you and making plans to thrive within it. Most organisations are good at being tactical on a short- to medium-term basis, but they rarely look at their long-term strategy. Tactically-driven organisations can thrive for a long time, as long as their environment doesn’t change significantly. But eventually the world will change and they will not know how to change along with it. Well the world certainly has changed.

Strategic organisations are well placed to thrive in the world that is unfolding around us right now. That is because if you are used to writing strategies, you are used to thinking about the future and how it might impact you. If the future changes, it isn’t the end of the world – a strategic organisation simply takes account of the new data and adapts accordingly.

Those organisations with a clearly defined strategy for digital transformation for example were able to thrive during the lockdown, or at the very least, minimise the disruption to their business. This is because they had already considered how such a change in their workplace would impact the organisation – from its people to its internal processes, how it interacts with customers and stakeholders, where its data will reside, which technology it would need (hardware, software and services etc.), what procurement and governance changes would be needed, reporting and monitoring etc.

By contrast, those organisations who had merely paid lip service to digital transformation before the lockdown simply bought Zoom and hoped for the best, while praying that everything returned to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible.

People-first strategy under the ‘new normal’
It is fair to say the post Covid-19 world will not be the same as it was before, and there are many ways the next few years could play out; we may develop a vaccine next year and move on relatively quickly, or global pandemics will simply become a permanent background to our lives. The world may pull together for the common good in a post-Covid consensus, or populism and nationalism will lead to an escalation in global tensions. We may experience a short economic blip until the end of the year, or the longest and deepest recession in a hundred years. It is hard to say which of these scenarios will come to pass, but whenever things return to ‘normal’, they will not be the normal we were used to.

The difference between a strategic and a tactical business is that a strategic business has already considered all of these scenarios and is building its plans accordingly.

The first step in this ‘new normal strategy’ is how to return the workforce to work. Communicating this strategy is important because employees are naturally concerned for their health as they face the prospect of returning to work. Will the right safeguards be put in place? Has my employer considered where we are most at risk? Have they got enough PPE?

Personal health aside, employees are also deeply concerned about the long-term viability of their jobs. Ultimately, employees are being asked to take a short-term risk by returning to work. They need to know the short-term risk is worth it. Would you want to risk your health by returning to work if you weren’t sure if you would still have a job next month?

It is for these reasons that every organisation must have a post Covid-19 strategy worked out, and they MUST discuss this strategy with every member of staff. Notice I used the word ‘discuss’, there, not ‘present’. It is important to involve the workforce in the development of the strategy too. Don’t present it as final – empower the workforce to feed into the strategy and be prepared to amend it as you go along (i.e. be prepared to adapt as the data changes). The willingness to adapt the strategy as we go along is also critical, given the unprecedented situation where we are all learning as we go along.

Four components of a post Covid-19 strategy
A post Covid-19 strategy should follow many of the same principles as a good change management plan. It is necessary to dissect every operation, interaction and employee process in order to determine how a change in one part will affect the whole. These interactions need to be considered for all of the numerous scenarios which could play out over the next few years.

The plan should consider these scenarios on the following four elements of the organisation:

1.    Processes: The goal is to minimise disruption to business-as-usual. Every failure to predict how a change in process will impact live operations adds uncertainty and risk to the organisation.

2.    People & Culture: There is a high risk that staff will become more resistant to change and feel de-motivated during this period of disruption. It is therefore important to prepare stakeholders and leadership to develop a culture that buys into the new strategy.

3.    Technology & Tools: There will inevitably be changes to the technology landscape, so a full assessment of existing IT systems, infrastructure and support organisation should be undertaken to understand the impact on IT systems and the organisation.

4.    Information: Knowledge sharing is key. Decisions are made based on information, so it is important for information and knowledge to be shared freely throughout the organisation. Taking GDPR into consideration it is also important to understand where the organisation’s data is stored, who owns it, who has access to it and how it is accessed. This needs to be fully documented and any changes must be carefully considered against data policies.

While there wasn’t time to consider all of these elements when reacting to the impact of Covid-19, there is time now to consider these for the future. Whichever of the post-Covid scenarios plays out, a strategic organisation will have a plan for every single eventuality; they will know where they will be challenged, where they need to change, and they will have communicated it to their staff and empowered them to help develop the solution. Has your organisation done the same?

By Romy Hughes is director of Brightman.