While it may seem that everything you read on change management is through the lens of COVID-19, indeed we can expect this trend to continue until the masks come off and people begin to stand closer than six feet from one another. The fact is that COVID-19 has indelibly reshaped the business landscape around the globe. Now, every decision, in every facet of business, is made “in light of” or “in response to” the pandemic. Change management is no exception. In this article, we will discuss the boards’ role in change management.
The Covid Accelerator
It is rare, even an anomaly, when an event comes along that entirely upends operations globally, as was the case in 2020 when COVID-19 cropped its ugly head. With no regard for carefully calculated business forecasting, blanket disruption of supply chains, and crippling effects on human assets and employees’ health, COVID-19 has put us all in a state of upheaval. Still, many resilient companies have been proactive in their response and willingness to adjust by adopting a more strategic approach to counter and move beyond the disruption brought on by the pandemic. Like the Phoenix of ancient mythology, business is cyclical in nature. In fact, there is even a shift in perspective where companies are rising from the ashes with hopeful expectancy and seeking ways to capitalize on the “new normal” within their realm of influence. This begs the question of whether or not it is time to invest in fundamental changes to organizations to include ERP technology upgrades or even mergers and acquisitions. The optimistic view is that the pandemic has, at the very least, become a catalyst of sorts acting as a strategy accelerator.
Many companies are developing initiatives and fast-track programs to meet the issues resulting from COVID head-on. For example, one major medical laboratory managed to keep its employees safe while maintaining production outputs by splitting its workforce into two shifts. Still, not unlike the laws of motion, every action in business has a reaction. In this case, the medical laboratory described above also had to ramp up its digital transformation efforts and rethink its sales model of sending sales representatives directly into ground-zero (hospitals). While this scenario is unique to this particular business, situations and circumstances like these are not uncommon. Board members must now devise plans to counter the adverse effects of COVID-19 and capitalize on the “good” that has presented itself, again, in light of the pandemic. Companies that depend on trade shows as their primary source of business would be wise to plan as if trade shows won’t ever come back. Let’s hope that is not the case; plan for the best but be prepared for the worst.
A Change for the Better
In another scenario, a company that traditionally operated face-to-face with the public suffered unparalleled difficulty as social distancing became the new normal. This change forced the company to expedite strategies that were already underway, albeit a long-term plan, to go digital seemingly overnight. The consequence of the change impacted the company and the customers who were accustomed to the legacy processes of previous years. Fortunately, many of the customers in this scenario adapted and even welcomed the change as progress. Still, this change completely transformed a company that operated one way and is essentially a new company. For this case, the good news is that the company is now back up to pre-pandemic sales volumes but operating solely in a digital environment. Because the pandemic forced their hands, their timely response proved to be a win-win for the business and its customers.
The Remote Conundrum
Now that many employees find themselves working remotely, changes have had an impact on supply-chains as well. Vendors, for example, who were accustomed to transacting business face-to-face, now have to conduct business remotely as well. For many smaller businesses that provide goods and services to larger companies but do not have the technical understanding or technological resources to conduct business in a remote environment, they find themselves in a dilemma that impacts their companies and the industries they serve. Because of COVID-19, smaller suppliers must “up their game” concerning their digital sophistication to compete in the new business landscape.
In times past, many employers shunned remote working due to the accountability and concern that productivity would suffer. At the risk of being redundant, in light of COVID-19, this perspective is largely changing. Forced by the pandemic, many employers have made work-from-home a thing of the present, and the results have been somewhat surprising. In fact, many companies have seen productivity improvements and have made arrangements with employees to work from home on a more permanent basis. On the flip side of this challenge, boards must do all they can to ensure that employees have the equipment they need to work remotely. This comes at a hefty price-tag for many businesses; however, when compared to the prospect of hemorrhaging losses, furloughs, and layoffs, it would seem a worthy investment to at least entertain the prospect of remote work. As it stands, there is an increasing trend in favor of remote work, and boards are having these kinds of discussions as a part of their own change management internally. In a particular case study we examined, the company has permanently allocated 40% of their existing workforce to work at home—this, from a company that had previously been adamant about employees being in the office every day.
Still, other companies have opted to take a broad approach to reassess their businesses’ future operations. Instead of pushing ahead full-force, they are dialing back to make sure their priorities are in order. It is easy to set changes in place while going through a crisis and lose sight of the fact that changes may not apply to a post-pandemic world and, in fact, may even be counterproductive.
A Team Approach
In every instance of change management, the actors impacted must be informed of new expectations, roles, and functions within the affected organization. To accelerate change, employees must know what the company is going to do, what the expectation is for the employees, and how the company will help achieve the expected results. Having “buy-in” from your employees, who will undoubtedly take on new responsibilities to add to their current workloads, is critical. Boards can play a part by helping management teams, operating in survival mode, not losing sight of the company’s values by reminding them to be sensitive to the needs of the employees. No doubt, the pandemic will test the mettle of every stakeholder involved, but it will undoubtedly test the culture, principles, and values of the company profoundly. The winners will be those who are adept at evaluating the needs of their employees and being malleable to individual circumstances each employee faces. When we consider that our workforces, made up of individuals with unique lives, in many cases are already in a state of upheaval, having employee-centric policies can go a long way in helping promote a sense of safety and can actually improve the quality of the outputs the employee provides in their service to the company.
It is imperative that that communication between the board and employees be transparent and frequent concerning change management. It is not uncommon for board members to make “check-in” calls to managers and even their direct reports. During these unprecedented times, employees value intangible things like working relationships, flexibility, and recognition even more than compensation, and efforts to engage and connect with employees lend themselves to feelings of safety and belonging, which are far more potent and rewarding than a mere boost in salary. These kinds of efforts are consistent with the successful attraction and retention of the quality of employees capable of managing in a world that is in a state of flux.
Many companies are offering employee surveys to get a pulse on what their employees are experiencing in order to respond appropriately to their concerns. These kinds of employee surveys have been insightful for many companies and helped drive decisions that impact their employees’ lives and their bottom line. Many companies realize that their people require more time with leadership in group settings and face-to-face time (albeit remotely), more engagement, and, yes, more meetings. Where leadership would typically conduct reporting quarterly or monthly, the new trend is more frequent. In many cases, leaders are engaged daily with employees, especially during a crisis, spending hours each day in one-on-one calls with their people.
When the Ashes Settle
But with all of the changes taking place in response to the pandemic, the outcome is hopeful that the change imperative will fade. When the time comes, many directors will have to face the challenge of ensuring that the hard-won gains won’t be lost in an exodus to return to the status quo. Directors and board members must prepare to help navigate the uncertainties that lay ahead. We can be sure that the need to adapt and accelerate the digitization of processes and systems will continue. These changes innately lend themselves to positive forward momentum and can even help drive a push to the advancement of changes made during the pandemic.
Ultimately, the board, directors, leaders, and management teams must prioritize its agility. Change management requires setting priorities around which changes are essential versus those that are tabled for future discussion, emphasizing the urgency and necessity the employees have in participating fully with the changes in place. It is safe to say that the only certainty about business is uncertainty, which is especially true during periods of crisis. Existential threats will come and go, and this is an attitude that should be everpresent in board members’ minds. But with change comes opportunity. As a company progresses and grows, change is inevitable. The former ways of doing business will often die, only to be reborn in a blaze of glory. And while it is difficult to put a positive spin on a pandemic, we can see how being actively engaged with your employees while putting change into effect can have positive benefits that extend beyond current circumstances.