The COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an unprecedented business threat – or a rare opportunity. It depends on the leadership of a company’s willingness to introspect.
Looking inwards is not exactly the defining mark of most businesses. During crises leaders tend to look outwards for expansion opportunities, ways to reduce overheads and opportunities to widen their customer bases and improve their marketing. This article, prompted by the disruptive COVID-19 pandemic, fundamentally challenges that inclination. New survey data suggests that unless corporates respond with soul-searching and self-analysis – and act on intrinsic weaknesses, they will fall behind.
Thriving in future means focusing on the current health, wellness, resilience, skills and retention of your most important internal stakeholders – your employees – during this period of digital transformation and working from home. It is important to adjust your management strategies for your human capital. This means you must keep employee experience, morale and productivity as high as possible to create economic value.
Shocking Brazil survey finds employees in the dark about employer’s plan of action
According to a Deloitte Advisory Poll of 662 Brazilian companies, (a good marker for South Africa), only 30% of employers believe that employees are the most overlooked stakeholders when their organisation is dealing with a crisis. The poll found that just 52% of employees ‘strongly agree’ that their employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to the coronavirus. Compare the remaining 70% (more complacent) Brazilian employers with this 52% employees and a worrying pattern emerges.
The Brazilian companies, however, do seem to be learning as their country approaches the peak of the pandemic. They have had 100 000 fatalities in the past three months (having doubled to this in the last 50 days – the world’s second highest death toll) and more than three million confirmed COVID-19 cases. The survey’s 52% quantum of satisfied staff was an improvement of 15% in the middle of March 2020. The percentages are (slowly) trending upwards.
The Deloitte’s survey highlights the importance of communication with staff through a finding that 85% of employees feel most motivated when management and leadership offer regular updates on company news. According to Smarp, only 47% of employers say they have the capabilities or processes they would need to meet a crisis with the best possible outcome. Smarp is a Helsinki-founded employee communications, knowledge-sharing and advocacy platform co-headquartered in Atlanta.
Encourage and enable workplace conversations
Among Smarp’s top tips is encouraging employees to share their thoughts and ideas, especially their ‘work from home’ experiences to build trust in the workplace. A full 63% of employees surveyed did not trust their company’s leadership and viewed transparency as one of the most respected, desirable company traits. The platform stresses that keeping staff connected with their peers (for example, through daily company conversations) and building cross-functional collaboration (eliminating work ‘silos’) with authentic, regular communication from leadership, helped build morale and goodwill within the company.
Three senior and associate partners in the global consulting firm, McKinsey and Company, say the new ways of working could be a blueprint for the long term.
How to outsmart the looming cyber-skills crisis
McKinsey and Company’s report on upskilling workforces to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis builds on 2017 data from the McKinsey Institute. The report emphasises how automation and artificial intelligence were driving the market, long before the coronavirus hyper-accelerated the trend.
The McKinsey Institute found that 14% of the global workforce would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 – with 87% of executives reporting skills gaps in the workforce, or expecting them within a few years. Less than half of respondents had a clear sense of how to address the problem. The McKinsey Institute recommends crafting a talent strategy that:
- Develops employees’ critical, digital and cognitive abilities
- Develops employees’ social and emotional skills
- Develops employees’ adaptability and resilience
‘Doubling down’ on training budgets and committing to reskilling are vital for survival and success, they said. They referred to a major pharmaceutical company with 10 000 sales reps switching from an off-line model to a 100% remote-working model this February. In spite of COVID-19 receding, the company plans to recalibrate to a permanent model of 30% of staff working online and 70% offline, thus leveraging the freshly developed skills of its sales reps.
According to the HR Daily Advisor portal, government debt-forgiveness programmes create the ideal opportunity for some businesses to cross-train employees in multiple skills to build company resilience for times of crisis. This would empower staff to be repositioned or take on extra responsibilities in a pinch, such as when a colleague with scarce skills is sick. Building a more skills-diverse workforce through a system of shadowing (for example upper-level employees) would also stimulate thinking and creativity. The portal recommends setting up a schedule of training, focussing on areas where skills are weak – showing new employees all available resources and using Zoom or Skype meetings to facilitate learning.
Digital skills address inequality
According to the World Economic Forum’s Guide to thriving in the post-COVID-19 workplace, strengthening digital skills enables resilience, creativity and boosts collaboration. Clear examples include being able to support less robust healthcare systems in rural areas and several urban areas (especially in developing countries) where there is widespread unemployment and hardship. The World Economic Forum highlights the importance of transitioning to a platform model, such as those used by technology giants. Companies can dramatically extend their reach by creating scalable ecosystems of technologies, services and products that bring consumers and producers together and enable third-party collaboration.
The World Economic Forum encourages workers to identify where the demand for work is shifting to, with US food and beverage services, followed by clothing and retail, and support and accommodation services most vulnerable to job lay-offs (in that order). The Forum recommends choosing work that is robust across a lot of different futures while betting on known trends, rather than anticipating what these might be.
There is no doubt; the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing pause for creative thought. Those who introspect, stand the best chance of not only surviving, but thriving beyond it.