The coronavirus outbreak is likely to bring massive change to every workplace. But we all know that workplace change has already been happening for ages.

In recent years the pace of business has increased: reporting cycles are shorter, profit demands are higher, sales cycles are truncating. Instant gratification now seems to inhabit leadership and shareholder meetings. It’s like a chemical reaction where, to get it going quicker, you heat things up and increase the pressure. In business, the way things get heated up and pressurised involves people interacting more, and faster, to shrinking deadlines and the goals of reducing process times or increasing value.

But pace is not necessarily real change – it can be just doing the same things, faster.

Since the outbreak, however, we’re starting to see real change in the way many businesses operate, as if their many-year plans have suddenly been given a two-week deadline.

A couple of early, big-picture observations from around the world as the Coronavirus has taken hold:

  • Employers without flexibility are likely to get hit harder than those who are flexible in some way. Having a rigid business methodology built around fixed assumptions about the way things ‘should’ get done is proving to be risky.
  • Moments of crises like these are when the popular mantra “people are our most important asset” gets tested. Companies – and individual leaders – that lead strongly, really stand out. And companies and individual leaders that don’t lead strongly also, sadly, really stand out.
  • Change is becoming the only real constant. The status quo is never guaranteed, and maybe this latest crisis will prove the trend.
  • Technology is a key enabler of rapid change.

What this pandemic – and the strategy of physical distancing – have achieved, is to jolt employers – and entire societies – out of a “this is the way we’ve always done things” mindset. At this moment, the “way we‘ve always done things” might even be dangerous – for a considerable time – to the health of employees. Personally, it has been very satisfying, as a New Zealander, to see the strong reaction in my home country to, for example, tourists who refuse to self-isolate. It’s reassuring to know that in the “all-about-me” Instagram age, selfish narcissism can still be met by firm, decisive action in the public interest, regardless of social media outrage.

Physical Distancing

The role of direct human / social contact in business has now been highlighted in two ways – either it’s fundamental to a business’s success, and the loss of direct human contact is devastating for that business; or it’s merely a methodology, and the business can modify its practices to continue operating with minimal losses.

What are the obvious workplace changes that have been induced recently by “physical distancing”?

  • Working remotely / working from home.
  • Fewer face-to-face meetings.
  • Less business travel.
  • Less commuting (or, more private commuting).
  • Less seminar/events-based marketing.

The immediate challenge for businesses seeking to embrace remote working is that business culture is still, in many cases, accustomed to a management methodology of monitoring “activity”.

Whether we like it or not, as an employer or manager there is a sense of control and leadership in walking around an office and seeing lots of heads down, phones ringing, computer screens active, meeting rooms full, and people interacting and having conversations in the corridors. In different environments there may be vehicles loading, moving, equipment operating, etc. While all of these things are not precise measures of productivity (Facebook, anyone?), they are familiar and reassuring because, in the end, we can assume that at least SOMETHING must be getting done under our watchful eye…

But while productivity and profitability are still the yardstick of effective management, HOW we manage, and how we measure, is being forced to change. How DO we manage when there are no heads down, no screens flickering, no buzz of activity, no full meeting rooms?

For those businesses where social and human interaction is HOW they do business, a change in methodology is being forced upon them. And though current circumstances may be temporary, the change could be permanent. Why should a new way of doing business not become standard, or at least a standard option, going forward, if it’s sustainable, equally (or more) profitable, and scalable?

What does physical distancing mean for your business results?

Many workplaces are moving to remote working, where employees must be trusted and empowered to work without direct supervision, where communication must increase and be more thorough, where outcomes must be defined and pursued, and new ways found of ensuring that projects and individual work remain on track.

The values that we built into the DNA of our workplaces won’t change, but they will now be exposed (to quote a fairly famous person: “we reap as we have sown”). If you relied on activity monitoring, and had a business environment that didn’t see any issues with low engagement “as long as the work got done”, then the DNA of the business will be revealed when relying on unmotivated employees, who’re not loyal to business values and have low engagement, becomes key to delivery of results.

Likewise, if you built a workplace on a foundation of shared vision and values, with high engagement, changing how your team works will likely have no visible impact on the results they achieve.

Building a productive, remote-working culture

So, given that change is inevitable and physical distancing now requires, wherever possible, a level of remote working, how can we overcome poor DNA to build a sustainable, productive, remote-working culture? I believe Technology is the answer.

Here are some things you’ll need to consider when using technology to create better communication and leadership in the new, remote workplace:

  1. Good internet at remote sites / home – some employees may need to upgrade to handle business level demands – are they to be expected to fund that themselves, or is it wise to assist – even temporarily / in part – with the cost of that?
  2. Video conferencing – certain platforms are great for multi-site video conferencing – the better ones come at a cost, but they’re worth it. Getting a company account rather than relying on free services is better for professionalism and a sense of being supported to achieve results, rather than leaving your employees to, in a Darwinian sense, “sink or swim”. Having a company account also aligns systems and improves productivity through compatibility and simplicity of use.
  3. Remote access / Cloud Based systems are fundamental to remote working – in the short term it can be as simple as google docs and a drop box account; but if it’s long term, then specific software and systems are necessary – this affects everything from accounts, through to marketing, sales and business reporting. Good systems create visibility and guide remote employees through processes to ensure that workflows, reporting and management are made easier, not harder. The right systems will facilitate compliance and alignment, not detract from it.
  4. Remote Time Management Systems and cloud-based Payroll. Being able to record attendance from anywhere, and verify it (e.g. GPS fences, location management), is a significant factor in strong risk management and maintaining the integrity of systems, especially where clients are billed for an employee’s time.
  5. HRIM Systems, CRM systems – being successful across multiple initiatives, teams and campaigns means having visibility and live information that can be shared, reported on, and acted upon without delay.

As measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 become ever stricter, I wish you well in navigating the changing business environment. I hope you find some of the points I’ve made helpful as you implement your strategies to manage the impact of the coronavirus on your workplace and employees.