COVID-19

Embracing the Next Normal: Six Key Questions Every Executive Team Should Be Asking

In a year wrought with uncertainty, one thing has remained constant: the need to adapt. We’ve been evolving with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic on a global scale and are experiencing a reawakening on issues related to social justice, climate change and a search for purpose. The call for action is reverberating across all aspects of our economy, even as more questions surface. But unlike the evolutions we’ve experienced in the past, success in the year ahead cannot be driven from the board room alone. The conversation is more nuanced and more personal – and those companies most likely to thrive in the next normal will be those who are able to connect with employees on a personal level and embed a change capability into their corporate culture.

1. How do I communicate with my team about the COVID-19 vaccine?

2. What should I be doing now to retain top talent and keep employees focused?

3. How can I begin preparing teams to return to the workplace – even if I’m not sure when we’ll return or what our policies will be?

4. Where and how do we need to change the way we do business to meet our customers’ evolving expectations?

5. What can – and should – I do to better manage compliance risks as the new Administration takes office?

6. How have we delivered on the DEI commitments we made last year – and where do we still need to bolster our efforts?

1. How do I communicate with my team about the COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccination is an emotionally charged topic. Lives have been lost, many groups continue to feel underrepresented in the research, and people are being asked to make decisions without any data about the long-term benefits and risks (among other factors). A successful communications campaign must therefore appeal on both a rational and emotional level, based on a clear understanding of local policies, the advice of health experts and employees’ personal views. Consistency in internal communications will be critical – particularly given legal concerns – but leaders also must have the training and tools necessary to adapt content to local circumstances and the needs of their teams.

Equally important, leaders must be prepared to respond to resistance that may cause conflict within their teams. Workers will gain access to vaccines at different times and since even vaccinated employees may still be carriers, a decision not to be vaccinated may be perceived by some as putting the lives of others in jeopardy, while those who have made a personal decision to abstain from the vaccine may feel pressured or discriminated against. To mitigate the risk, most companies are opting to continue with precautionary measures currently in place, such as mask-wearing, but internal tensions surrounding the vaccination debate are likely to increase over time and, in some situations, employees may refuse to report to work if they believe employers are not doing enough to push teams toward vaccination. Man-agers must be prepared to address these dynamics while also respecting religious, cultural, health and other sensitivities that may prompt decisions not to be vaccinated.

2. What should I be doing now to retain top talent and keep employees focused?

Annual promotions and incentive payouts open the door for employees to reinvigorate job searches in any year, but the risk is particularly acute for 2021 as many caregivers struggle to find the balance they need, those close to retirement weigh the risks and challenges of returning to the workplace, and others simply feel let down by their employer’s response to the pandemic. While it may appear your company has achieved a stable holding pattern until it’s time to announce plans to return to the workplace, the ability to retain top talent will, in many cases, require a reinvigorated and sustained effort.

Smart employers will encourage leaders to think carefully about their priorities for the year, which initiatives are likely to make the greatest impact and where there are opportunities to de-prioritize projects, rework meeting schedules or otherwise lessen the pressures employees are feeling – without losing momentum. Providing additional training and tools to support employees’ health and wellness; encouraging individuals to connect, share ideas and brainstorm solutions for the challenges they’re experiencing; and recognizing those employees who are going above and beyond can dramatically improve morale and thus bolster productivity and retention in the interim state. Effective leadership has increasingly become a series of one-on-one conversations balancing business imperatives with deep empathy for what individuals are experiencing on a personal level.

3. How can I begin preparing teams to return to the workplace – even if I’m not sure when we’ll return or what our policies will be?

Few would have predicted that so many employees would be working from home for so long, and with new COVID variants popping up across the globe, it’s understandable that many companies are not yet ready to begin discussing their plans to bring employees back to the workplace. That does not, however, mean that employees are not starting to create their own reality about what the future will look like and what degree of flexibility they expect to maintain. The employee value proposition in many industries will change dramatically as prioritization of office perks, flexible work arrangements, on-the-job training, social interactions and other factors continues to evolve. Companies may find they need to reimagine how work gets done in certain areas to retain and attract top talent, but it will be important that any evolution toward a more hybrid work environment is accompanied with the corresponding interventions that keep employees connected, productive and engaged. In fact, companies may find that pushing certain employees to get back to their workspaces, reconnect with colleagues and rediscover the advantages of collaborative workspaces as quickly as possible may not be popular at the onset but ultimately result in accelerated innovation and greater loyalty long term. As these decisions are being made, employers should reinforce that they’re listening and carefully planning for a safe return. A brief survey that starts to preview (and gauge reactions to) possibilities currently being considered not only informs planning but also helps to manage workers’ expectations. Equally important is continuing to show appreciation for any workers who are already onsite. Be sure to recognize the contributions of onsite teams publicly and learn from these early experiences. It will be crucial that the return of office workers does not overshadow the contributions of those who have been onsite all along.

 

4. Where and how do we need to change the way we do business to meet our customers’ evolving expectations?

Pandemic-related safety concerns, an accelerated shift to-ward digital and virtual interactions, and a heightened ESG focus have changed the way organizations engage with their customers (aka patients, clients or end-users) and how those customers make buying decisions. To remain competitive, B2B and B2C companies alike must understand the evolving needs and expectations of their customers and align teams around these priorities. Delivering a seamless and differentiated customer experience should be the driving focus for everyone in the organization, whether they’re on the front lines of service and sales, masterminding innovation, sourcing materials, overseeing billing, volunteering in the community or otherwise contributing.

Given the pace of change experienced in the past year, it’s understandable that many customer experience initiatives have been just that – a series of one-off decisions and actions that solve for the challenges of today… or, in some instances, yesterday. As these same businesses prepare for the future, they will be better served to develop an embedded change capability that encourages employees to continually iterate and seek improvement, push each other to deliver better outcomes, and pivot when new technologies and ways of working need to be incorporated. Companies who get it right will be deliberate in articulating shared goals, putting the right incentives in place, developing training and communications infrastructure that enables rapid change, monitoring progress against defined metrics and opening lines of feedback.

5. What can – and should – I do to better manage compliance risks as the new Administration takes office?

Whether it’s human safety, data security, environmental stewardship or any other aspect of corporate responsibility, compliance is expected to take on even greater importance in the months and years ahead. Those companies that get it right by positioning compliance as a critical enabler of business strategy will create a competitive advantage by spurring innovation and bolstering reputation over time. To succeed, companies must approach compliance not just as a matter of policy and annual trainings but also as a fundamental element of culture. Clear expectations must be established, expected behaviors must be clearly defined and – perhaps most important – leaders must set the tone from the very top of the organization. Every person in the organization should see their role in driving business outcomes and feel empowered to hold team members equally accountable to achieve the necessary results. Education and constant diligence are essential.

6. How have we delivered on the DEI commitments we made last year – and where do we still need to bolster our efforts?

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and far too many others in early 2020 shined a brighter spotlight on racial disparities across the U.S. and prompted many companies to make new commitments to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) across their businesses. Progress has been made by many companies, but as employers approach the one-year anniversaries of their commitments, they should take time to evaluate how that progress is perceived by employees, customers, communities, investors and other stakeholder groups – and where there may be opportunities to reinvigorate existing initiatives or launch new ones. In evaluating DEI programs, employers would be wise to consider two key elements: (1) the impact programs are making both inside their organizations and in their local communities and (2) the extent to which programs are seen as being truly inclusive. Change takes time, and while there may have been efforts behind the scenes to bring in new DEI leadership, update recruiting programs, reallocate dollars contributed to charity, etc., the impact of those efforts may not be broadly visible or fully understood by those not involved in the day-to-day execution of these initiatives. Additional communication, education and engagement – particularly in the context of national celebrations of diversity and one-year anniversaries – can help reinforce the moral and business imperatives unpinning DEI programs, underscore momentum and encourage others to come along. Similarly, events of 2020 prompted many organizations to heighten their focus on the Black community. Taking into account the number of women who dropped out of the workforce during the past year, the escalating immigration debate and the heightened focus on the intersection of identity, employers should ensure that all underrepresent groups feel recognized and heard.

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