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Will You Lead or Follow in the New Normal?

Shahin Sobhani and Joshua Lincoln
July, 2020

3 priorities to ensure success in remote working and learning

As the world surpasses 12 million recorded cases and 540,000 deaths from Coronavirus, it is becoming increasingly clear that recovery will be a slow and painful process. The COVID-19 pandemic has massively disrupted the economy and aggravated longstanding social inequalities, resulting in a resurgence of social justice protests.

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Despite these massive shifts, some businesses and governments, whether consciously or unconsciously, still cling to the hope of a “return to normal” — normal markets, normal profit margins and normal electoral cycles. This is a mistake. The future will not look like the past.

Amidst the tragedy caused by COVID-19, organizations must find their footing and work diligently to create the new normal. The question is, in this unknown world, will your organization lead or follow?

Why corporate learning is critical

In the “new normal” caused by the pandemic, remote working and learning have already emerged as critical for success. Before COVID-19, only 33% of corporate training was done via virtual classroom or self-paced digital learning while 54% was still delivered in person. Yet in-person learning, as every university is finding out, is now a very risky proposition.

To survive in the new environment, businesses will need to reverse that balance and shift far more to remote learning. The traditional obstacle preventing companies from moving to digital learning was cost, though this had dramatically improved in the years leading up to COVID-19. The challenge now is that businesses in survival mode have already started cutting their learning and development budgets at precisely the moment when they should be maintaining or increasing them.

Today’s barrier is not just a delivery issue, meaning how training is delivered within corporations, but a prioritization issue – businesses need to reserve budget for training. The purpose of corporate training is to help onboard employees and support them in all aspects of their functions through continuous training. Because the pandemic is changing the very way in which business is done, corporate training is mission critical for people to perform at their best. Furthermore, the kind of corporate training previously carried out may be neither possible nor desirable today. Both the delivery and the content of corporate training need to be rethought and redesigned.

Surprisingly, the answer is not to just do more “online.” As work-from-home (or living-at-work) — whether loved or hated — becomes a permanent part of the new normal, companies need to help their staff explore and refine both the optimal work processes and their boundaries. This necessitates a tolerance for the unknown, a willingness to take risks, an acceptance of mistakes, and a dedication to experimentation. For the foreseeable future, the virus has made companies and employees alike pioneers.

Defining the new normal will require experimentation around three human-centered priorities:

1. Reboot communication and consultation

In the traditional manager-worker relationship, the worker’s experience often takes a backseat to the manager’s authority. This balance has shifted because the business’ survival now depends on front-line workers managing the daily risks and difficulties of customer interface under pandemic conditions.

As speed, safety and flexibility all become more important, managers need to truly listen to their front line, which is closest to the pulse of this rapidly moving situation and is — literally — running the risks. Any manager who does not truly listen to their front line is on borrowed time.

Agility and adaption to local circumstances are now more essential than ever. Businesses must innovate service delivery and customer service on the fly and week by week. At the same time, there is also now less margin for error with respect to safety protocols and quality standards.

The managerial impulse will be to go more rigid, with tighter one-size-fits-all protocols and processes. Instead, these layered challenges are best handled through iterative communication, feedback loops and consultative processes. As a number of studies begin to tease out the relationship between individual and group work, and the benefits of moderation, timing and bursts in communication, teams need to continually test out what works for them.

2. Accelerate diversity and inclusion

It is now well documented that COVID-19 and its knock-on effects disproportionately affect vulnerable populations — minority communities, the elderly, women, the poor. Therefore, part of the response to the virus must be to reverse the effect of these long-standing social injustices.

In remote learning, promoting diversity and inclusion must consider questions of equal access. Managers need to give careful attention to broadband connection, IT equipment, and even access to working spaces in the home.

Overall, less than half of all households (48%) have what the 2018 US census defines as “high connectivity”: a laptop or desktop computer, a smartphone, a tablet, and a broadband Internet connection. According to the same census data, minority households were the least likely to have high connectivity. Low-income households were far less likely to have high connectivity than high income households (21% of households with an income under $25,000 v 80% of households with an income of $150,000). The rural/urban divide also compounds this gap: only 54% of low-income rural households had high-speed broadband versus 96% of high-income urban households. There is work to do.

COVID-19 is also eroding decades of hard-fought gender gains in the workplace as women lose jobs at a faster rate than men. Remote work and corporate training need to be redesigned to ensure they do not disadvantage caregivers — mainly but not exclusively women — working out of the home. The overall understanding of remote work and training needs to evolve from a benevolent tolerance of the “toddler run” and the “potty break” to a new reality in which comprehensive and tailored child care are seen as critical.

Above all, businesses will now need to work even harder to reach out and recruit, retain and promote a diverse workforce at every level.

3. Act with empathy (and expect it from others)

No matter how tech savvy you may be, all workers have been pushed to use and rely on technology far more than in the past. As companies and managers navigate the physical changes to working in the pandemic, it is important to remain attuned to the psychological and emotional needs of employees and customers.

COVID-19 has heightened the challenge of maintaining a work-life balance, and employees may need more flexibility from managers to mitigate this issue. More seriously, there are many for whom home may not be a place of comfort and safety. Awareness of these issues is the mandatory “new normal” baseline for managers.

For example, the virus has disproportionately affected older citizens. Older learners and workers are not only getting sick at higher rates, they are also more likely to be challenged by the increased use of technology and new ways of working, so care must be taken to ensure they are not left behind. Corporate remote learning and operations need to extend beyond one-size-fits-all learning models to address these needs, as it started to do with addressing accessibility requirements.

Solving these problems and the many unknowns still over the horizon will require genuine empathy — felt and acted on by those in leadership. Regardless of the business age and size, success will also require a spirit of entrepreneurship and experimentation.

Contribute to the new normal or be consumed by it

In times of change, the data shows that those who act fast and engage firmly with the new reality will do the best in the long run. Organizations that fail to step up and contribute to formulating the new normal will be left to embrace the reality created by others. If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

As they pivot, managers will need to embrace a posture of humility to help their people see success. If you think you know what the new normal is, think again. None of us do. Listen to those around you, care for them, trust them, and they will help you create the future. We are all pioneers now.

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