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Returning to a new normal

By Dr Ruth Massie
Over the past few weeks significant focus has, understandably, been focused on getting organised in light of the COVID-19 virus.


As we all settle into a new normal, whether that be working from home or furloughed, whether it’s due to social distancing measures or through individuals own health concerns, there comes a point where we need to look forward. We, as leaders, need to begin to focus on what is next: How do we return to business as usual? What does our new ‘normal’ even look like? This might seem like a daunting task, but there are a few key questions every leader should ask to help them articulate your organisation’s new normal.


Firstly, how are your staff doing? What processes are working well? What processes are not working so well?

It’s important to understand how your staff are coping, putting aside (for a moment) the significant emotional and psychological impacts of the lock down, how are they finding working at home? Help them to identify what part of their job is manageable from home and what parts are not. Is their working environment a practical or is it a ‘make-do-and-mend’ style set-up that works for this unique situation? Help your staff to focus on where they can be productive and help to manage the fallout of things they cannot manage.

Not every process is currently vital but do keep an eye on what is coming down the track. You may need to flex people’s roles, or re-engage furloughed employees, in order to remain viable. As such, it is important to remain in contact with all of your staff, regardless of their current status. There is also the opportunity to look for what is working well/even better, what can we learn from this and how and how can we use this to improve the way the organisation works in the long term.

Having spent more than two decades focusing on business continuity and resilience, both as a practitioner and an academic, experience shows me that this level of engagement will pay dividends in the long term survival of your organisation. Engagement with your staff is key to both the long term retention of your key staff but also provides opportunities for staff to shine and grow in their roles. Your staff have the most detailed understanding of the problems being faced by your customers, hearing their voices will ensure you remain focused on your customers’ needs.


Start thinking forward

Are there projects that were on the back burner that staff could now focus on in lieu of the unmanageable parts of their roles? It’s important to engage your staff in these decisions, we all have ideas for part of our jobs that could be done better, easier, faster, if only we had the time to engage with them. Now is our time to engage with cross-boundary projects that can improve our organisation; encourage engagement across your organisation. Ask questions like, what have we learnt to do better in this time? What should we look like in 2021, 2025 even 2030?

Many processes will have been adapted in the short term, look carefully at the adaptions. Are they temporary or should they be permanent? Are there parts of the process that have improved, after all “necessity is the mother of invention”.


Envision your new normal

The next stage is to think about how you envision your new normal, not in an esoteric way but in term of concrete action. How would you like your organisation to look in the near future? Have you started up new product lines or value propositions, have you culled other activities? Is your strategy still relevant and achievable? Are your strategic timelines still appropriate?

Over the past decade, or more, most organisations have transitioned into being predominately digital orientated organisations. This pandemic has shown both the reliance on and value of those digital solutions. It is important to reflect on where your organisation in relation to its digital journey and ask questions such as; which digital decisions have shown value? Which have not? Should you be accelerating that journey or steadying it?

As a leader in your organisation, you have many decisions that you need to make at this point. Some of them will be tough and some will have far reaching consequences. You need to develop a clear plan and share it with all of your staff.


Returning to the new normal

At some point the government will ease the restrictions and we will start returning to our work places. Don’t hurry to bring people in. Be strategic and thoughtful. People will be nervous. You need to develop a plan that enables gradual re-entry to the buildings. For example, you will need to bring cleaning staff in first to do a deep clean; you may then want to bring in your facilities staff to do the maintenance. This might be an opportunity to do those extra maintenance activities that never quite get done before all the staff return.

When you are ready to bring your general staff in, think about the desk arrangements. Social distancing is likely going to be a thing for quite a while yet. Do you need all of the team in on day one? Can you stagger the return? Can you alternate days? What’s your plan for those on 12 week isolation instructions versus those on shorter social distancing measures? It’s important not to forget that your staff have different time frames for returning. You should also refresh your home working policy, after all I think we have all learnt on that subject and this is an opportunity to use your combined experience to make realistic plans

Now what? You have staff and offices but you need to consider what it is they will be doing. What has changed, what processes are new, improved, removed? You need to ensure that the staff understand these changes. Encourage your staff not to default to their previous ways of working; ‘because we’ve always done it this way’ is no longer an acceptable answer – it certainly won’t be how your competitors are thinking.


The future

It’s hard to think of the future now, but it’s key to your organisation’s survival. Business won’t just fail during this lock down phase, there will be repercussions in the months, possibly even years, to come. By thinking about your future now, engaging with your staff and strategically planning your return to a new normal you have the opportunity for you and your staff to come through this ‘fighting fit’.


Preparing people

About the Author

Dr Ruth Massie is a Senior Lecturer in Cyber Resilience Leadership at Cranfield School of Management. Ruth’s research area is organisational resilience with a primary research focuses on understanding how Board level Directors engage with information, contextualise it, and incorporate it into their decision making. This is particularly in the context of cyber and how Board’s view the complexity, and risk, in relation to their organisations. Her secondary research focus is on tertiary education as a profession. Ruth’s teaching focuses on both Cyber Leadership and Business Continuity.

Tags: leadership, article