For most of the working people on the planet, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes to the workplace over the course of the last 8-10 weeks. For the majority of those who remain working at some capacity (50%? 100%? 150%?) the approach to work—from where they work, to how they work, to when they work and with whom they work—has changed.

This shift from our (mostly) comfortable working environment and style, to a completely new approach has for many, happened in a dramatic way, at lighting speed. And there is legitimate debate in academia and the blogosphere about whether we will ever return to “normal”. It may well be that we do not—time will tell.

We have learned a lot in this chaotic time however.

We have learned that most organizations can adapt quickly, create new ways to collaborate, and keep the organization functioning, overall. It may well be that it functions at a reduced capacity, but our clients tell us that for the most part, they have adapted to these new circumstances and are finding new ways to conduct their work.

We have learned that collaborating at a distance requires new tools: videoconferencing technologies have now become the norm for “meetings”.

We have learned that clarifying decision authorities—who gets to make the final call—accelerates the pace of getting work done. In the early days of the pandemic, most politicians (and most people) surrendered their decision authorities to public health workers (like the Medical Officer of Health, or the Provincial Chief Medical Officer), because these roles and the people in them, have more expertise and are therefore more capable of making decisions about isolation, crowds, containment and infectious spread.

And we have learned that some things suffer.

We have learned that social distancing, isolation, and working alone is hard on almost everyone—some more than others. The effects on mental health of being alone for lengthy periods of time are well documented (I thought this article from Science News was an excellent summary). Workplaces are complex social systems and being together in them satisfies an innate and deeply rooted human need. I wrote about this in my last blog (There’s more to work than work).

We have learned that videoconferencing is a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions. Much has been written in the past 6-8 weeks about the exhausting effects of videoconferences; some people describe them as “flat-out weird”. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance going on in most videoconference sessions. These effects are well documented—you can read about them here and here, for example.

For managers, the absence of face-to-face human encounters may mean finding ways to “make a space” for discussions about the mental health impacts of isolation, and a keener eye on interactions. I think it’s appropriate to ask if you think someone who works for you is suffering—some might disagree. In our approach to managerial leadership, managers are accountable for ensuring their people are capable, in every way, to do their work. In these times, I would suggest that ensuring those we work with are in a good state of mental health is important.

We have learned that collaborating at a distance creates work in the organization. All that co-ordinating, fussing with microphones and cameras—all of that activity is work, by our definition. It may well be that the volume of this work goes down over time as people become more familiar with these technologies but there could be other work that is associated with new ways of working that managers will have to take into account.

And I believe we are in the process of learning that this approach to work is likely not sustainable. There is a difference between a sprint and a marathon. People can be remarkably resilient for a period of time but eventually, tolerance wanes, and when it does, performance suffers. There is a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about abandoning offices altogether; personally, I wouldn’t be giving up real estate any time soon.

We have also learned that some work that isn’t getting done may not be necessary to the organization in the future. There is a lot of discussion going on about how organizations are finding ways to function, despite reduced workforces and physical distancing. This suggests that there may have been work going on in the “used-to-be-normal” workplace that does not add value to the organization.

We at Core believe there are a number of things everyone who manages people might want to think about as operations ramp back up post-pandemic… whenever that occurs. Among them:

  1. Be mindful and aware of the state of mental health of the people you are accountable for. Some people may need more help than others when re-entering the workplace. Be conscious of this and be prepared to address it—perhaps with a beefed-up benefit plan that includes more benefits for allied healthcare providers like psychologists and social workers. Most group benefit plans provide very limited benefits in these areas.
  2. Take a lesson from public health providers—clearly defined decision authorities are critical, especially in times of crisis. But even in the best of times, being clear on who gets to make which decisions is vitally important to an effective workplace. This applies within your own business unit and perhaps more importantly, across the business (what we call cross-boundary relationships). You may be surprised by the number of interview subjects we have spoken to over the years who are unclear about their own ability to make decisions. “I think that’s my decision, but I’m not 100% sure” is a common refrain. When someone is not clear whether they can make a decision, they will involve their manager in their work—and sometimes the manager’s manager. This slows work to a glacial pace.
  3. Take some time to consider the work—not the role (or the person in the role)—and decide whether the work is truly necessary in order for the organization to be successful. This will allow you to consciously decide whether to resume the work, or not. People can be redirected to work that does have a meaningful impact on the bottom line. This is a great opportunity to look at business processes and consider whether every step (which is work) adds value,
  4. Review your own management practices. When you delegate work, are you clear about what you need, and when? We teach “quality, quantity, time and resources” (QQTR). Even simpler, “what by when” and “are you clear on what I am asking you to do and do you have everything you need to get it done on time?”
  5. Think about performance management. Perhaps it’s time to think more about the quality of the outputs of a role than on the time it takes to get the work done (assuming it is done in a timely way, which is the manager’s decision to make), or the manner in which it is done (assuming no rules or laws are broken).

Anything you can do to clarify who does what work, who gets to decide on what things, and how things work across organizational boundaries, before your company resumes work at full speed, will likely create improvements.

When we are implementing new organizational designs with our clients, we use a tool we developed specifically for these purposes. We call our online tool Clarity. It is designed to create accountability-based role profiles and has served a number of our clients well.

And if there is anything I can do to help you think through some of these issues, or if you’d just like to knock some ideas around, you can click here to book some time for a chat. No obligation, no selling—just my way of doing something to help managers manage in this complicated new world.

Core International | Organization Design Consultants