Let’s call 2020 a reaction. It was the year that happened to us, and we responded as well as we could on as many levels as possible, all at the same time. There was no plan or playbook, nor standard operating procedures to reference. We consulted expert advice, stayed nimble, and learned via trial and error.
Still, for many who are now working remotely or in hybrid models, questions still outnumber a firm grasp on what will be next. With multiple vaccines in play, there is a clear opportunity for change management, and it’s time to identify the next course of action.
When the COVID-19 era began, schedules were abandoned, organizational workflows were disrupted, and workers grappled to make sense out of it all. While managers now reflect sentiments of “We got through it” and “We’ve got it down now,” Laurel Farrar, CEO of Distribute Consulting and founder of the Remote Work Association, cautions otherwise. “Companies made a workplace change. People are working in different locations, but they have not gone ‘remote’ in a sustainable sense,” she said. “Anybody can change a work setting, but developing, strengthening, and optimizing an organization that works in different locations is entirely different.”
As companies begin to look ahead, they are simultaneously testing their current footing. They’re trying to determine if the remote policies they abruptly switched to are viable for long-term planning and if they will withstand future, unanticipated challenges. Mor Sela, a partner at the Remote Work Institute in Israel, continues to hear that “the biggest surprise to this ‘work from home experiment’ was management finding out that it actually works.” He now sees the majority of his clients determining how to either complete a full migration to remote work or formalize a hybrid model.
Parallels of preparedness
Leaders in the Emergency Management field are trained to execute according to plans, mitigate surprises, and also be ready for inevitable change. A common premise is that the day you start response efforts is also the day you begin planning for recovery and a shift back to “normal,” with whatever additional procedures are required to function in a changed landscape.
In our work, we emphasize that recovery is even more challenging than dealing with the immediate crisis. Recovery takes time and deliberate planning to be effective. Done well, we can take control over what will happen by advocating for conscious leadership decisions.
Preparedness planning is based on the fact that a well-planned recovery lays the foundation for normalizing future operations. Homeland Security’s mission is to be ready; however, that process is not always cyclical. During the initial storm of the pandemic, businesses found themselves in response mode overnight. Few companies had plans in place for the rapid pace of the disease’s advance worldwide, which necessitated the shift into a response mode. Only now, as we reach a summit of vaccine rollout, can we seek to recover by reestablishing how our organizations will work while we plan for post-pandemic mitigation and long-term preparedness measures. We have found that applying this model to our current state enables us to make some sense out of where we have been and identify the path forward to recovery, rather than simply reenter a transformed organizational landscape.
Planning for recovery, and beyond
Change, in general, is hard to manage effectively; however, the envisioned future necessitates just that. While the actual steps of a post-pandemic recovery will differ between companies, in many cases offices will reopen and people will return. Remote work will just be known as “work,” and the new normal will be hybrid teams. Going fully remote last spring poses a unique challenge as organizations recenter workflows. “It is dangerous territory because we have their confidence but they don’t know the hard part is still coming,” Farrar says. “To make the next phase sustainable is more than just moving where people work.”
Because the 2020 remote-work pivot essentially happened all at once, leaders and workers experienced the change together. There was no opportunity to deliberately plan or engage in extensive feedback. Rather, the abrupt shift was an eye-opening experience in determining what tactics worked well or needed to be readdressed over the course of the year. As managers look beyond these first steps of the recovery phase and into the curated space where remote and hybrid work can be more viable (protection) and less vulnerable to disruption (mitigation), it behooves them to consider lessons learned and plan through the full recovery, normalizing workflows for a new phase of business.
Recovery and managing change
Readiness planning prevents, protects against, and mitigates the impact of events on normal functions. While businesses may not have been ready for the COVID-19 era, they pivoted and have managed accordingly for nearly a year. Although we can see possible returns to pre-pandemic operations, it is understandably difficult for leaders to envision what the organizational future will entail, and therefore how best to proceed with recovery and beyond.
Business leaders are encouraged to envision their goals for the future, then transform them into a new long-term organizational model. Inviting organizational input facilitates successful buy-in. This may include identifying which temporary policies were successful and can feasibly be institutionalized and which strategies will make remote work both sustainable and scalable in the organization’s future.
Strategies for a way ahead
As companies consider their next steps in the recovery process, they can consider the goal of normalized operations. Farrar reminds us that going remote and staying remote are two completely different things. “Until a company goes through virtual organizational development, [remote work] will not be sustainable,” she says. It is not enough to simply declare the organization recovered with a return-to-work announcement. To achieve a sense of normalcy, companies will need to proceed through recovery and return to the place of proactive planning for whatever comes next.
Mitigate anxiety with a short-term goal in mind. Companies that instituted a short-term response plan should formally seek to set a remote working policy in place. “Even if this is just a contingency plan to get you through July 2021 for example,” Farrar says, “understanding the plan enables workers to optimize and maintain their work and efficiency in the short term.”
Clarify expectations. As leaders sift through successes and lessons learned, identify the middle ground of what is desired going forward. Whether asynchronous work will be promoted or communication check-ins will be routinized—or both—what works best for long-term operations and growth can be identified and communicated now. As in emergency management, communication is an essential key in the shift from response to recovery, removing ambiguity, and establishing trust and credibility in leadership.
Codify processes and procedures. Balancing procedures for a workplace that is both remote and in-person requires rethinking the fundamentals. When you remove a supervisor’s ability to observe performance for some but not others, metrics for success must be determined and managed as well. While employee handbooks, key performance indicators, and standard operating procedures have been foundations of human resource management for decades, “these aren’t the same as in the 1990s,” Farrar explains. “To support remote work going forward, these guides will enable consistency in how work is both done and managed,” she says. Once decided, expectations for each individual should be documented to ensure mutual accountability between the company and the worker. U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who led the responses to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, described this as the need to “question the status quo” and adapt existing procedures for the new reality after a complex major event.
Create a location-irrelevant work model for the future. Farrar suggests that the companies that will achieve the greatest success will not be those that create separate remote work accommodations, but rather organizations where everyone operates on a virtual infrastructure. Sela advises, “Focus less on real-time communications and develop more asynchronous collaboration techniques and habits.” Operating this way will normalize operations and expectations so that it will not matter if you are working at home, with a client, in your office, or at a satellite office. You will have the same access to data and people. Making the investment in this shift will ensure remote work is sustainable and scalable for future growth.
Provide training for success. Spending all day on videoconferences is exhausting. Few were previously trained to facilitate or participate remotely. Farrar suggests, “Find out what isn’t working and then see what you can do to support that.” Topics may include facilitating videoconferences, building trusting relationships virtually, and creating virtual work environments that don’t wear people down but rather stimulate innovation. The more comfortable leaders and workers can be with the new normal, the greater the organization’s potential throughout recovery and the next phases of success.
In a previous interview, Admiral Allen said:
“I think that we need to understand and hopefully accept the fact we’re going to have large anomalous and unprecedented events, and they’re not always going to fit the molds of the current statutes, regulations, and response plans, and I think we need to learn how to be more flexible and agile in how we adapt.”
We believe the time to adapt and develop plans and processes for the recovery of your organization is now.
Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant.
Tiffany Danko is an adjunct associate professor at USC Bovard College and a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.