The current crisis has created existential challenges for many leaders and organizations, and forced many others to explore novel ways of managing their businesses and engaging employees and customers. Ways of working that were unthinkable a few weeks ago when the pandemic began and employers, employees and customers were initially adjusting (due to social distancing, lockdowns, business continuity challenges) are now par for the course (digitization, distributed organizations with virtual connectivity, even new business models and opportunities).
A new kind of reality and new normal is emerging across organizations. While dealing with the “now” has been perhaps the biggest and most immediate challenge entrepreneurs are facing, dealing with the next few quarters is likely to be even more daunting. And yet, there is not much of an option, external realities are forcing important mindset and working arrangement shifts for employers and employees alike. After all, what may have taken 6 months previously will now need to get done in 45 days. What may have taken 45 days previously will now need to get done in 5 days.
And so, outlined below are key considerations for entrepreneurs, particularly those who lead scaled up organizations, as they prepare for the medium term, particularly vis-a-vis their people. In speaking with some entrepreneurs within the Elevar portfolio and “human resources” professionals within the Elevar ecosystem, it was obvious that many different approaches were being taken – and there was considerable value in listing a set of questions that organizations needed to think about. These questions are also useful for organizations that want to build on their existing employee engagement practices, even in somewhat normal times.
Employee Well Being Today
First, health and safety need to be top priority. Below is a simple checklist for the “now” – a set of quick considerations to keep employees safe and productive. One can also look at the article on business continuity in this regard. We have attempted to capture them under 3 dimensions here: physical well being, emotional well being and productivity – all of which are of course interrelated.
Questions to explore
Physical Well Being:
Is there availability of adequate, usable, and appropriate training, education, and informational material about health and safety, including proper hygiene practices and the use of workplace controls?
Do employees have an adequate understanding of their benefits, as well as of their medical and assistance options through health insurance? Have employees’ insurance policies been looked at to determine relevance to deal with the current scenarios?
Are sick leave policies flexible (to also deal with illness of family members)?
Are there safe and quality remote consultation / telemedicine options that can be considered for employees and their families?
Are all workplace and employee related laws being complied with – both in general and in relation to the crisis?
Are employees aware of safety requirements and the steps to take in case there is a medical situation?
Emotional well being:
Have realistic and clear expectations been set with employees (and vendors where appropriate) with respect to how the organization is managing the crisis, keeping in mind potential concerns in relation to job security, compensation and other considerations?
Are there effective internal communication plans (including hearing from leadership, creation of HR helplines etc.) to address feelings of isolation and ambiguity? Do employees have a real, open channel to express what they think, feel, and experience with their managers, HR resources or even external resources?
Have clear expectations been set on goals, priorities, metrics and remote work policies?
Are there clear and frequent communication checkpoints to ensure team collaboration and productivity? Are employees connecting proactively and frequently (including regular one on ones)?
Are managers being sensitized (and trained) to show empathy, patience and flexibility when it comes to challenges employees may face?
With no sunk cost of commuting, are employees being empowered to find value and flexibility in their schedules to unlock productivity?
Are technology resources adequate to ensure effective remote working, including with respect to information and systems security like VPNs?
Organizational Structure and Design
Irrespective of whether an organization is facing a survival crisis or sensing an opportunity (or both), questions around organizational design, structures, culture, span of control and productivity will be important things to consider. The movement of more aspects of businesses online will not just save on office related expenses and push teams to work together in new and innovative ways, but will force organizations to determine fresh approaches towards employee and client engagement and touchpoints. Many companies indeed have an opportunity to add unique value to customers and build brand loyalty during these unusual times. Companies, while figuring out the new normal and uncertainties in the marketplace, will need to optimize their people related processes to ensure decisiveness, market responsiveness and agility. This includes revisiting decision making chains, considering flatter structures with fewer hierarchies, and putting greater power in the hands of people on the front lines, while at the same time ensuring that collaboration happens.
Questions to explore
How will customer touchpoints change?
Which functions can be automated or moved online?
Which functions will need greater emphasis and resources?
How does the organization need to transform to perform? What will overall team size and structures look like?
How do organizational structures need to be designed to create smart and versatile teams that can move quickly and independently (i.e shift from work by functional areas to work by projects or processes)?
Human capital requirements:
How will the deployment of human capital be affected by organizational changes?
Which senior roles will need to go through a change (even lose relevance), and what roles will be created to deal with the new realities?
Processes and interdependencies:
What interdependencies will exist between teams? How will organization ecosystems be defined and partnering / collaboration be enabled for cross-functional expertise to be shared?
How will decision making and approval processes need to change to build greater responsiveness to market realities?
What kind of permanent & secure infrastructure does the organization need to invest in (hardware, software, training) to enable the new reality?
How can technology be used to implement the choices that flow from 1 to 4 above?
Employee Hiring and Onboarding
The current crisis is likely to create long lasting changes in the talent market, where expertise and expense will be key considerations. Organizations will have a broader continuum of options for sourcing and diversifying talent, whether it be full time employees, part time employees, freelancers or employees with specific considerations. There may also be a window of opportunity to attract exceptional talent that may have otherwise been unattainable, due to the impact that the pandemic is having on companies and the job markets. Given the uncertain environment, changing market landscape and requirement for technical expertise, companies may prefer to fill organizational gaps with part time specialists until they are able to determine the criticality of the role and their full time needs. On the flip side, people may prefer to operate as independent consultants and render expertise to multiple organizations versus committing long-term to one employer, to hedge their bets and retain greater flexibility.
Questions to explore
As organizational structures are redesigned, what are some new and emerging roles?
Which roles can be fulfilled by part time employees? Which roles will require fixed working hours and which roles can be fulfilled with flexible working hours? Which roles will be geography agnostic, capable of being fulfilled from anywhere in the country, or indeed the world?
What skills and mindsets should employers look for if talent is to be remote and effective?
What is the necessary balance between specialists and generalists to manage the ambiguous environment?
New sources of talent:
Are there talent pools that have emerged to find new prospects?
How can employers attract part time talent and talent seeking flexible working hours? How can they attract talent from around the world, project based talent, and high quality freelancers?
How can the right environment be created for women who are keen to return to the workplace or start their careers?
How can organizations bring on retired professionals who may need to return to the workplace, for roles with deep expertise and experience?
How can differently abled talent be attracted?
Policies & legislations:
What internal policies do organizations need to put in place to create an enabling environment for 1 and 2 above?
What regulations and risks do employers need to be aware of in order to broaden the scope of employment contracts to address new sources of talent, particularly freelancers and project based talent?
Which of the existing recruitment and onboarding processes can move online or be automated? What software / systems need to be adopted?
How will organizations evolve their ability to map competencies given the realities of the workplace? What (psychometric) testing will be useful to assess the required behaviours of employees going forward?
Employees could leave the organization for various reasons like resignation and retirement, and in exceptional circumstances, layoffs, termination etc. Irrespective of why an employee is leaving the organization, the “manner & process” of offboarding needs to be thoughtful, empathetic and fair. More importantly, the process often is emotional for the employee (and their colleagues) and needs to be done in a way that is in accordance with the law and demonstrates the inclusive ethos of the organization.
Questions to explore:
How can a culture be built to ensure that departing employees see a fair and transparent process, and so become potential brand ambassadors for the company?
How can employers celebrate a departing employee, his / her contribution and time at the organization?
If the exit is involuntary, have all options been considered before a decision is taken; and what support can be provided to help the employee land on their feet? This is particularly hard, and important, in a crisis.
How can impact be managed on the existing employees’ morale and culture as exits (voluntary / involuntary) happen?
What are the various aspects of an employee’s exit process and are they different in a crisis?
What role-specific handover is required?
How will this be communicated to the employee’s team and organization?
What measures are to be considered to ensure information & data security?
Who will conduct an exit interview, what questions will be part of the process and how will the responses be used to improve the organization?
Employee training will remain relevant – but expectations around productivity will significantly increase. Existing employees will need to be retrained and upskilled quickly to navigate the demands of a new work environment, evolving roles and organizational changes. New employees will need to settle in and be productive within a shorter span of time to keep up with the evolving market conditions. The way that training is provided will also need to shift and adapt. One of the biggest mistakes organizations make when shifting to virtual learning is to reuse existing materials and formats rather than designing them anew.
Questions to explore:
Determine the needs of the organization and role:
Given changes across organizational design, remote working culture and role expectations, what knowledge, mindset and skills do existing and new employees need in order to be effective?
How do employers ensure that learning can start even prior to a new employee (full time / part time) joining?
Revisit training approaches:
How can the existing training content & systems of delivery be scaled to deal with a new normal of working?
How can learning and training approaches be reengineered whilst ensuring engagement, relevance and accountability?
How can organizations encourage self-driven learning and a solution mindset in employees?
How can learning experiences be thoughtfully curated, like virtual classrooms, blended-learning practices, online learning groups, gamification, simulations, competitions etc. – to ensure that the risk of dropouts and disinterest (due to lack of effective peer and senior presence) is mitigated?
How can companies equip managers to play a role in making employees more productive and manage distributed teams?
Employee Engagement and Culture
While many scaled / scaling companies have always had distributed organizations, intentionality and clarity in managing culture, performance and communication will be even more important to offset the uncertain environment and worry (even fear) in the minds of employees. For employees who are transitioning to work from home, feelings of isolation and stress will be genuine concerns. These issues will be even more critical for organizations that are facing the realities of a distributed workforce for the first time. One has to deal with misalignment of expectations, ambiguities with respect to the structure of a work day, and questions on when a particular employee was working (or not).
Questions to explore:
Defining organizational culture:
How can the focus be shifted towards creating and managing a culture by design, as opposed to a culture by default?
How can the firm’s values be defined concisely, so people have the clarity and guidelines to make decisions on their own and quickly?
What will be the new relevant culture given that there will be employees engaged with the companies in different ways? Example: how do organizations embody a culture of openness when workforces are remote?
For the remote workforces, how do organizations embody a culture of openness and connectedness ? How can the shift be enabled from a 9 to 5 mentality and expectation for employees to work when their managers work, to a culture of trust, accountability and deliverables?
How do employers build a workplace that enables employees to understand and develop a commitment to outcomes in the organization?
What formal and informal systems will be needed to drive desired behaviour, a culture of accountability and a sense of belonging / involvement given the decrease in facetime between employees? Examples: virtual parties to celebrate success, monthly emails recognizing employees, peer recognition practices.
How does leadership communicate and embody shifting values (i.e innovation and entrepreneurial behaviour)?
Companies will have to spend much more time and energy communicating with employees – there’s no such thing as overcommunicating right now. Ensuring clear, transparent and honest communication through channels that enable an effective top-down, bottom-up, and inter-function communication will be key. Leaders must connect with employees in real time and make them feel that they are valued as people. Candour is especially valuable and clear business and individual priorities are crucial so that employees can focus on what’s really essential. Furthermore, increased video calls, surveys, chats, open forums to engage with employees will be important to get a pulse of employees.
Questions to explore:
What people and groups need to communicate with each other frequently to enable work to happen effectively and for ground level and customer insights to flow to leadership? This would probably mean a fundamental re-look at the purpose, cadence and rhythms of meetings given the difficult environment.
What norms will enhance productivity and quality of interaction? Examples: response time for emails, keeping video on during calls, encouraging phone and video conversations instead of email etc.
How can employers incorporate elements that create emotional connection on a human level i.e. informally connect, catch up, celebrate and get to know each other, replicate corridor and water cooler conversations? What tools (technology or otherwise) can be used to enhance the quality of communications internally?
How can the fun quotient in the organization be enhanced? Examples: zumba classes, online pictionary, virtual tea and lunch meetings, team building exercises etc.
How can leaders not only connect across the organization, but also across the industry with collaboration that fits a deeper, broader purpose?
Managing Performance and Employee Incentives
Leaders need to play a far more active role in communicating expectations and reviewing performance during a crisis, while keeping a tight control on their operational expenses. Tasks and assignments may be more short term and will have to be monitored on a frequent basis. Enhanced emphasis on employee productivity will be demanded and performance will increasingly become outcome driven (with the focus shifting away from effort and the time of logging in and out), with no place for mediocrity and slack. Companies will need to re-calibrate the way performance assessments and reviews are done, and indeed how they think of employee compensation and incentives.
Questions to explore:
Clarity of outcomes / metrics:
How can organizations ensure that employees have as much goal / KPI clarity as possible – while recognizing that the need of the hour is to step out and achieve more?
What mindset shifts will be needed to remain outcome-oriented, and indeed solution oriented?
How often do employers need to conduct performance and talent reviews?
What needs to change in the way organizations manage, recognize and reward employees in the organization to bring out the best in them?
What needs to be done to ensure that senior and mid management compensation is outcome-driven, while accounting for their contribution towards organizational and individual priorities?
How can culture be built that celebrates performance and builds systems that significantly differentiate performers & non performers? Examples: significant upside in compensation, stock awards, accelerated growth for performers, and clarity for those not pulling their weight irrespective of seniority and past contributions.
What other non-cash compensation and incentives are employees valuing and can be implemented? Examples: employee stock, flexibility, healthcare options like counselling support, holistic health and life insurance packages (for both full time and part time employees).
How do employers incentivize those employees that cannot work remotely and will need to be in the field, and therefore run a higher exposure and risk of being sick?
The ways business is carried out in a post-Covid world will change dramatically. This will require radical shifts in the way the organization is structured and managed and in the interaction with and amongst the employees. Marginal incremental changes may work temporarily, but in order to stay relevant in the medium-term, business leaders will need disruptive behaviour to keep up with the shifts and impacts in their business models and in the markets. Moreover, without asking themselves these medium-term questions, organizations may miss out on customer and talent acquisition, brand building, employee engagement and growth opportunities. Do we have answers and best practices? Not yet! Which brings us back to the importance of leaders deliberating and paying attention to the “people” side of the business – to stay relevant, set the trend and be ahead of the curve.