This is part 4 in our series Responding to Coronavirus Disruption
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Rohit TalwarThe COVID-19 pandemic crisis has been with us for just a few months and we are just weeks or days into different degrees of lockdown globally but we already beginning to develop insights on the emerging possible futures of business, work and the workplace once we move beyond the current situation.

Many entities have already had to reshape themselves to a model where the bulk of their workforce is operating from home. For some, a total rethink of their strategy, business model, technology platforms, operating design, supply chain, and partnership ecosystem has been necessary. Here are 10 shifts that organizations are having to embrace that could have lasting impacts.

1. The New Leadership Leaders are beginning to appreciate the importance of flexibility and experimentation in everything from business models and distribution systems to the organization of work and the management of a largely home-based workforce. Empathy and emotionally literate leadership skills are becoming critical. The crisis is highlighting those who have the capacity to engage, motivate, and lead when all staff engagement is done via video and telephone. In video mode, we may well be missing some of the subtle cues we might pick up in physical interactions.

Instead, the best leaders are learning to acknowledge their own fears, uncertainties, and adaptation challenges, and to ask deeper questions that allow people to share their concerns and needs in a rapidly changing environment. With many roles coming under greater scrutiny in a cost control focused environment, for some in management and leadership roles the situation is quite exposing as it reveals that their jobs lacked substance or impact.

2. Innovation Necessity really is the mother of invention. Radical new ideas are emerging for every challenge. At the macro level, previously unthinkable ideas are being considered and actioned, such as the notions of guaranteed basic incomes, compulsory health testing of an entire nation, total population lockdowns, and global flight bans. Organizationally, for many, innovation has become a true survival priority rather than just a budget line item.

The need for new ideas at speed is driving rapid experimentation and the results are often incredible. For example, massive global self-organizing networks have formed to share data, algorithms, and computing resources to tackle different aspects of modelling the behaviour of COVID-19 and to generate, simulate, and test alternative medical solutions and response strategies. Similarly, prototypes for essential medical equipment are being designed and 3D printed in days rather than months or years.

The process of innovation is also being reimagined. Prior to the crisis, we had witnessed a continual growth in different facilitated innovation approaches. This is now being embraced in the virtual space. The need for variety in the online meeting experience is driving organizations to learn and trial a variety of approaches to generate and deliver innovations faster – from online sprints to crowdsourcing.

3. Culture, Empowerment, and Trust Major cultural challenges are emerging for predominantly office-based organizations where the physical environment helped shape and reinforce culture. They are learning to introduce virtual mechanisms to replace informal chats, the fly by conversation, serendipitous water cooler encounters, and lunch and learn sessions. With most organizations still bedding down to the new ways of working and trying to react to market uncertainty and volatility, management is often highly preoccupied with the now, the near, and the next. Rapid waves of redundancies are also flattening some management structures and increasing spans of responsibility.

These changes and the speed at which events are unfolding have driven greater delegation of authority to enable individuals to respond to a rapidly changing reality. Allowing staff to take more responsibility, show more initiative, and make more decisions should also highlight the extent to which greater trust can be invested in the workforce going forward. The changes will also highlight where trust needs to be backed up by training, coaching, and review as people learn to operate with less supervision and instruction.

4. Prioritisation and Decision Making – The sheer scale of change and differing levels of impact are driving organizations to get smarter about project and task prioritization. Many are taking the opportunity to challenge the near- and medium-term value of every initiative and evaluate their chances of success under different post-pandemic scenarios. Focusing on the vital few is freeing up time and allowing the potential acceleration of pivot projects that respond to the changing opportunity landscape. In many cases, large digital transformation projects are being placed on hold, with the emphasis and resources shifting to truly transformational opportunities that could prove more fruitful in the new economy, using technologies such as artificial intelligence.

With meetings moving online, the willingness to learn and experiment with more participatory and collaborative decision-making approaches is growing. The simple act of a moderator controlling who can speak at any time in a group video chat changes the nature of discussion, people can finish their points without interruption, and everyone’s voice can be heard. The loudest voices need not dominate. The crisis is also driving a willingness to experiment with crowd sourcing, collective intelligence, and group decision making tools that offer a range of different and engaging ways of getting to decisions, appreciating differing perspectives, and reaching buy-in or consensus.

5. Learning – The situation is driving learning at every level. This starts from basic adaptation challenges such as how to work productively while your children are across the room doing homework or playing. The need to use remote working tools in particular is forcing people to acquire greater technology awareness (see below). At a broader level, there is a strong imperative to raise our scientific literacy to understand concepts such as the basics of the Coronavirus, exponential growth, and the science behind social distancing.

At the macro level, leaders and employees alike are having to learn about notions like scenario thinking as they prepare for a wide range of possible futures. These range from scenarios for the evolution of COVID-19 over the next few days, weeks, or months through to the different possible economic outlooks for markets, nations, and the planet. The removal of commuting time is also offering us the chance to learn new skills from mastering meditation and flower arranging to data science, artificial intelligence, and behavioural economics – the take up of online courses is on the rise. The benefits of a workforce that is constantly learning could become evident across many aspects of what organizations do in the future – from strategic thinking through to experimenting with new technologies and approaches.

6. Digital Literacy – By the end of the crisis we could well see a more digitally capable workforce – which could have massive benefits in terms of delivering technology change programmes. Many are investing some of the time saved on commuting to deepen their digital literacy – from learning productivity functions in Word and PowerPoint to taking online classes in the technologies that could form part of their next task or job.

7. Productivity and Efficiency Many are reporting that productivity and efficiency are improving through the reduction of workplace interruptions, cancellation of projects, and greater attention on clear communications. Individuals can focus more effectively on the task at hand, and learn the skills required to enhance their productivity. Research on telecommuting has consistently supported the idea that remote workers are more productive than their office-based counterparts. The Coronavirus pandemic may be a significant tipping point in the work-from-home trend if the majority of companies decide their employees should remain remote.

8. Flexibility and AdaptabilityOrganisationally, firms are having to adapt both what they do and how they do it – at speed. For example, around the world we see convention centres being repurposed as hospital, restaurants pivoting to cater for essential workers and takeaway delivery, and event organisers repositioning exhibitions and conferences as online offerings and community building activities. Others such as grounded airlines are having to face the challenge of laying off large numbers of flight crews or repurposing them to work on critical service innovations – including supporting healthcare professionals in non-clinical roles in caring for Covid-19 patients – and training that will help differentiate them when the recovery starts.

Managers and workers are having to find workarounds of how to do things they previously took for granted or never had to worry about. Organizations are constantly changing priorities, reshaping, cutting headcounts, and freezing hiring. In response, individuals are having to take on new roles, tasks, and responsibilities at speed and learn to develop rapport with others who they may not previously have encountered or managed. This is driving the demand for training in collaboration, cultural awareness, flexibility, adaptability, coping with chaos, and decision making under uncertainty.

9. Collaboration and Ecosystems – New partnerships and collaborations are becoming commonplace – as evidenced by the unusual alliances forming between Formula One race teams and aviation equipment manufacturers to design and develop new ventilator solutions. How many other real-world challenges could these new ecosystems be harnessed to address?

Governments are working with the public, voluntary, and private sector to address challenges on a previously unseen and unimaginable scale. For example, over 750,000 people have volunteered in days to support the UK National Health Service and wider society – in everything from transporting patients to delivering food to people in self-quarantine and calling those in isolation. Similarly, a range of resources and facilities have been mobilised to take all of the homeless off the streets within days – something that was previously considered a five to 10-year challenge. Again, the question arises as to how many of these new solutions and ways and mobilising resources at scale could become part of the fabric of civil society going forward?

10. Foresight, Scenario Thinking, and Resilience – For many, the crisis has highlighted the need to be better prepared for the unexpected as well as our “assumed or preferred future”. This is driving demand for skills in horizon scanning for future risks and opportunities. From being a “nice to have”, scenario planning is becoming a critical tool to explore different possible ways in which developments might combine and play out in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Some are also learning to use these future insights and scenarios to expand the range and severity of risk impacts factored into their resilience and recovery plans. For many, there is also a growing recognition at national and entity level that well thought through and properly tested contingency plans, supporting resources, and mobilization protocols have to be in place to respond quickly, effectively, and assuredly to avoid having to make too many decisions from scratch in the middle of an unfolding crisis.

The situation has presented organizations with a “not to be wasted” opportunity to acquire new approaches, ways of thinking, and skills that can help navigate the current crisis and lay the foundations for the next future of work.

Finally, I would like to leave you with some questions you and your organization should be pondering:

  1. How is the balance of conversation and focus shifting in your organization between addressing immediate operational challengers and thinking about future scenarios, strategies, and the organization of work?
  2. How are you and your organization managing the mental health risks associated with the lack of work-based social interaction through the switch to home working?
  3. What approaches – skills, tools, coaching support – are you and your organization deploying to maximise productivity?
  4. Which changes that you see being implemented now to ensure operational continuity do you expect to remain in place post-pandemic?

Rohit Talwar is the CEO of Fast Future Research, a global research and consulting company that specializes in identifying future growth industries and helps governments and global companies to explore and respond to the sectors, ideas, trends and forces shaping the next five to 20 years.

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