As vaccines are being administered, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s lives and the business environment will gradually lessen over time. This is a welcomed change, but organisations must resist the urge of a complete reversion to their pre-pandemic practices.
Given the fact that the crisis imposed severe restrictions, it also provided us with a unique opportunity to try thousands of alternatives and innovate with new practices, some of which are beneficial in any period. In addition, the crisis lowered the resistance to change and thus helped healthy organisations get rid of deeply entrenched, dysfunctional practices that would be difficult to shed in normal times.
Many organisations were forced to do things that would have been considered inconceivable not so long ago. In addition to many companies’ successful digital transformations and widespread remote work, courts started delivering justice online, healthcare providers shifted to telemedicine for many minor illnesses, banks paid out loans without meeting clients in person, and auditors conducted virtual company audits without visiting company premises.
But what will happen to these practices once the pandemic is over?
1. New practices should be sustained
In the early days of the pandemic, circumstances forced companies to react and experiment in swift and pragmatic ways. Most companies followed one unequivocal dictum: Keep pace and survive. Now it’s time to make space to reflect.
As a first step, companies should identify which new practices were successful, why they were successful, and under which circumstances they’re expected to continue to succeed. New practices are more likely to be retained and sustained if managers and employees consciously identify and recognize them, then establish them. Survey employees to understand what they did differently during the crisis and then conduct follow-up discussions about what succeeded for them and what didn’t. Distill the efforts that were successful into common organizational procedures, translating them into documentation and communicating new expected practices to employees.
2. Reduce any connection to old practices
We’re notorious creatures of habit. Given two choices, we’ll almost certainly opt for the more familiar one. Old habits and their signals are not only ingrained in our brains, but they’re also embedded in our surrounding environment. Language, spatial arrangements, rules, and work systems are preservers of knowledge in organizations that can trigger relapse. Manipulating or removing those symbols facilitates sustained change.
Organisations should be encouraged to unlearn dysfunctional practices by reducing influences of old knowledge structures that can hinder the adoption of new ones. This requires three easy steps:
- Question and reconsider the explicit and implicit criteria by which employees are evaluated — for example, whether they come to the office regularly and on time.
- Scrutinise and eliminate activities that were considered a norm previously but are no longer required — for example, daily in-person morning meetings held in a conference room at the office.
- Identify and change triggers that make people retrieve old norms — for example, if you had a tradition of having a group pizza lunch on Friday, host it in a video conference-enabled room so that people working from home can join.
3. Openly discuss and explain the new procedures
Even after changes have been implemented, employees continue to carry deeply embedded assumptions about routines and practices before Covid-19. As long as these old assumptions are ingrained in individuals’ memory and there are disagreements about them going forward, the risk of failure remains high.
For example, one company initiated a dialogue among employees about the work-from-home mandate that was implemented during the pandemic. Now that conditions are becoming conducive to a return to offices, the company is discussing a permanent remote work policy.
In our analysis, we identified three distinct groups of employees based on their perceptions of the original change. One group was enthusiastic about it and demanded that it be sustained. Another group was comfortable with the change given the extraordinary circumstances but believed that it should be reversed once the pandemic is over. The third group never wanted the change and couldn’t wait for a reversion to the old practice. Although the shift to remote work was initially implemented on an organisation-wide basis, management didn’t know about the differences in people’s hidden perceptions about them. Unearthing these ideas and their different assumptions helped the organisation reflect on, transparently discuss, and set uniform expectations for each other, which allowed them to create more nuanced work-from-home policies that balanced the needs of all three groups.
Letting different viewpoints clash after change has been implemented does more harm than good. In order to make change sustainable, everyone must have a similar, if not the same, understanding of the reason, merits, and punishment and rewards associated with new procedures. For example, if physical, in-office meetings shouldn’t be held on days employees are allowed to work from home, make that clear. If an in-person meeting on one of those days is unavoidable, make sure employees understand that they won’t be penalised for participating virtually. Bringing varying opinions and perceptions to the surface, openly discussing divergent assumptions, and settling them will help align those expectations.
4. New practices should become habits
New practices can be sustained only if they’re turned into habits. In the final step of our framework, organisations must make sure that good practices are cemented into the organisational setting. The tendency to fall back into established routines is always one step away. It’s important, therefore, to go beyond initial rollouts and information sessions to regularly reinforce the new practices. This involves reminding people what the new procedures are until they don’t feel new anymore. It’s almost like reminding drivers about new speed bumps and lane changes for a period of time until they get used the new quirks. Instead of hoping that employees will automatically internalise changes as new routines, organisations must repeatedly communicate their benefits while providing incentives for their adoption and potential disincentives for their non-adoption. After several trials, new routines will become the familiar ones, and change will be sustained.
In places where pandemic restrictions are easing, companies must embrace this unique opportunity to retain the beneficial practices they adopted during the crisis. To do so effectively, leaders must be thoughtful about identifying which have been successful and deliberate in ensuring that the changes stick.
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