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Covid-19 and What Hasn’t Changed

Stephanie Peskett
April, 2020

By Stephanie Peskett

Over virtual coffee several weeks ago, a team member asked the group “What’s the one phrase, expression, or statement you find yourself saying often?” The responses varied from “the new normal” to “unprecedented times” to “leading in uncertainty.” In that moment, their statements were very true. People had only recently started social distancing and working virtually.

Person holding mobile in front of laptop

Although much of the initial shock from the crisis has dissipated, the sentiments described by my colleagues persist: things will never be the same, everything has been turned upside down, and nothing is certain anymore. While these feelings are very real, there is a lurking danger that these statements are becoming a limiting set of beliefs.

There is a deluge of ‘expert’ papers, advice, and whitepapers in the marketplace trying to make sense of how to react to the current situation, but it’s challenging to know what advice is of value. Much of what is being advised converges around a few key ideas, but surprisingly enough, most of these ideas don’t actually seem to be new at all.

Much of this so-called sage advice was as relevant six months ago as it is today, and some was just as relevant six years ago. What has changed is that we are now standing on the fabled ‘burning platform’ forcing us to act. Actions that were important but not urgent are now both.

The trick here is that if a problem moves around the urgent and important spectrum, your response to it also needs to change. So, as a people strategy leader, how do you navigate these uncertain times?

Engaging the organization in a learning strategy

For many businesses, your previous strategy probably still applies today. What will have changed is the risk mitigation, contingencies and how and when you execute your strategy. Prior to this crisis, you probably had more time to conduct the intellectual preparation and planning of your people strategy. You would engage and involve stakeholders to get agreement across the board with the key players. You would aim to get sign off for the ‘biggest play’ possible, impacting those who mattered the most or the greatest number of employees. This isn’t how the sign off process is working now or will likely work in the coming months or even years.

People strategy execution has had to evolve to become faster and more adaptive. This means more permission to act on what you believe is best and making smaller, planned people strategy bets and lots of them. The COVID-19 crisis has become the burning platform enabling strategic implementation of people strategies that needed a radical shift even prior to the current situation.

Take for example a mining and industrial organization that has been planning to introduce a single global coaching provider, top to bottom and worldwide for their business, since 2017. The organization wanted high quality, scale, excellent cost management and a clear strategic alignment of coaching to their leadership expectations and organizational values. Despite this good intention, there had never been a strategic need to prioritize this initiative above some of the ‘fix the basics’ activities. The COVID-19 crisis reframed this idea into a priority. A strong, uniform coaching strategy would drive resourcing leaders in a fast, agile manner, developing them as better leaders in a crisis and deploying support for their resilience in this crisis. Acting in the moment of need, the organization implemented this initiative. As a result, the company’s strategy has been hugely strengthened by having a strong Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) case. It prevents absenteeism and encourages more productivity and engagement worldwide.

Developing an organization-wide learning strategy isn’t new but contextualizing it and using disruption to navigate uncertainty has strengthened its positioning as a valuable priority.

Learning initiatives and core learning

In recent years, most organizations have shifted towards including initiative-focused learning in their strategies. This means that in addition to the more traditional planned and repeated core learning, organizations are including a more focused learning component that revolves around the business’ context and overall strategy. This approach remains effective, but in 2020 there is a need to shift further towards the initiative focus. These initiatives need to center around adaptability, virtual and digital capability, leading effectively in uncertainty, resilience, and team effectiveness.

The techniques and technology for previous initiative-based learning haven’t changed, but the current business context means that more people in your learning teams need to be able to execute on them.

Modalities of learning

There is currently an outsized focus on changing modalities of learning, but in reality, only one modality has changed – face to face is now off the table and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is not an excuse to pause, but rather a challenge to reframe. Learning strategies outside the classroom has been done successfully for a long time, as have those old 70/20/10 plans that were intended to be the backbone of learning design for the last 20 years. The biggest mistake we can make is to pause learning activity in the hope that “face to face will return…eventually”.

It’s unclear what will happen, but in the meantime, there are plenty of resources and learning to draw on to ensure that the advancement of people’s growth isn’t held back. The real question is how to make it safe for people to continue to grow and deliver fantastic learning virtually.

Shifting learning modalities has been one of the more common strategic themes in recent times. Now in the wake of this crisis, there is the opportunity to leverage digital and virtual solutions, making learning more modularized - smaller, easier to consume, a journey over time that paces alongside the person, their role and the natural flow of their work.

Focus on wellbeing and mental health

As a result of COVID-19, more open source support is available to assist those with less developed strategies, but the methods for deployment have not changed dramatically. Many of the solutions being used in this space are already digital and virtual, as most of the technological innovation already occurred in the last decade. Utilize what you have and remember that the best resources may just be the human elements – making space for peer to peer learning, reflection time and creating armistice time in diaries to prevent the endless virtual meetings. These are the simple fixes and if consulted, most employees can give you lots of ideas about what they want and need in this space.

The continuous theme for the wellbeing and mental health of employees is ongoing and the only change is that now our strategies and preparation work are being tested for their efficacy.

Differentiated Talent Proposition

In a moment of crisis, you are continuing to differentiate talent, but so far it is more focused around the ’moments of need’. You deploy people faster and more deliberately. For example, key people stepping up to play steering and guiding roles in the crisis, as well as or instead of their ‘day job.’ To do this effectively, you must draw on your experiences from short term assignments, secondments, project and agile methodology. Often, you just need to do it faster. Down the track as the economic impact of the crisis is better understood, re-evaluating roles and talent will be inevitable, but restructures are one of the few certainties in your people strategies.

People have always been at the heart of an organization’s success. COVID-19 and its associated restrictions and lockdown requirements have only highlighted this and the importance of strategically deploying your talent to reach its maximum potential.

Looking Around and Ahead

Despite the many changes unfolding and at record speed, there is still consistency and simplicity out there too. Look for it. Focus your attention on short and long term and look for where you can find consistency across the narrative for the next 12 – 18 months, even in this inevitable uncertainty.

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