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What did the pandemic reveal: new problems or more of the same?

Every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does.”― W. Edwards Deming

Authors: Stela Lupushor, James Williams

We may look back on 2020 as the year we were no longer able to ignore what's been right in front of us all along. Economic disparities like income inequality, household debt loads, access to education, social unrest, etc. have been simmering for some time. The pandemic just added significantly more fuel to the fire. It exposed the weaknesses in core business beliefs like efficiency-focused globalized economic models[1]: from offshoring labor arbitrage, lack of ownership of our critical material and supply chains, to the rigid modalities of where and how work is conducted. All of these challenges were sandwiched between the stress of shifting to work from home, fear of losing jobs, to concern for the health and well-being of loved ones. Compounded by the fact that almost overnight our workforce picked up two to three additional roles (psychiatrists, school-teacher, cleaning staff etc.).

What’s fascinating, is that many of these vulnerabilities fall almost exclusively to the Human Resources (HR) department to contend with. Whereas before HR was a strategic business collaborator it is now being thrust center stage. In some instances, to invent and lead practices critical to not only sustaining operations and growth, but also shepherd employees’ health and well-being. Never before has the function been as pivotal. If it is to enable a more resilient future, it must first understand where and how these commonly held business practices were exposed, and re-imagine the people management aspects appropriately. The goal being to learn fast, become smarter, and help the workforce and business prevail in the long run.

Unfortunate as it is, the pandemic actually presents a unique chance to evaluate the resistance that has been laid bare in this extreme environment. To do so, HR will have to choose one of two paths forward. It can hunker down and wait to renovate things until after they return to “normal”, or lean in to remove the prevailing friction from the system of work. Tiachi Ohno, the father of lean manufacturing, likened this choice to a river, where in times of abundance the river flows freely (with occasional rapids). However, in times of scarcity the water level lowers, and reveals the true problems hidden beneath (rocks below the surface). Only by removing the “rocks” can resources be freed to effectively move forward, otherwise energy and time is spent circumnavigating. Addressing these “rocks” might be challenging but since we are being forced to adapt anyway, tackling them at this time might be the path of least resistance.

What did the pandemic reveal?

Rock Exposed: Where and How Work is Performed: Not in person OR remote BUT Flexible

Everyone doesn’t have to be in person for the company to operate

Just like the open office rave that was discredited[2], the rush to fully remote [3] also belies sound data. There are forms of work that cannot be readily replicated virtually[4], the more generative the work (think collaborative, innovative, new/novel) the harder it is to accomplish remotely. There was always a risk-value to having everyone be in the office before, however the pandemic is forcing us to understand this more deeply as now that risk is deadly. And though this is helping to accelerate the default organizational thinking away from “always in-person”. Until a more mature understanding of “who and how” of groups that collaborate generate the greatest value, companies will continue to slip back to this mode of thinking.

This is observed in companies like Facebook who were quick to announce generous work from home policies, even telling workers that in the future more than half would never have to be in an office again[5]. However, their activity of continuing to massively expand their office footprint (beyond capacity requirements for growth with a 50% remote target) shows that there is doubt they can viably execute in a more virtual distribution of work[6]. Even Amazon[7] with a huge push for “remote work” is buying up corporate real estate and adding in-person jobs. Revealing an expectation for the future that where work is conducted may shift, some amount of it will still be in a formal office[8].

We are already seeing some of the unintended consequences of being rigid and binary in terms of options (in-person vs remote). With the lack of childcare and schools going virtual, it means working parents (and predominantly women[9]) must choose between jobs and their children. Individuals who will be asked to return to work in-person will be at a higher risk of exposure and subsequently a sense of resentment from some, as well as - risk and liability to the organization. Fully remote work will also impact the level of innovation and potentially long-term viability of the company (some in person is important).

To mitigate the rock, there is an opportunity to reconsider the rigidity of options where work is conducted, and base it on the value of being in person, both from productivity and employee health/well-being. More importantly, give employees the autonomy[10] and ability to choose where and how they work.

Rock Exposed: Managing to the Plan

We’re always misaligned, because by the time we complete the planning everything has changed

Business planning is a challenging task, even more so when the environment is changing day by day. By the time planning is done, dynamics have shifted resulting in huge misalignment between work and enterprise goals. Oftentimes the organizational leadership are pivoting more quickly, and those required to bring it to life are left confused or in the dark[11]. It's not just technology adoption but also the need for learning, skills building, and adaptation that is required to bring future capabilities online. The transformation is linked to the rewards structure and compensation which requires equity and incentives for people to drive inclusive work versus siloed tension where IT is driving digital adoption, finance focuses on efficiency, and HR is left to engage and motivate the workforce using old paradigms and planning mechanisms.

Organizations that “stick to the plan” tend to experience huge expenditures on things like digital transformation, layoffs to meet quarterly targets, and misalignment with evolving consumer behavior. And unfortunately come away with little to show for it from an operations and customer experience standpoint. They continue to optimize for the local/silo/department at the expense of the entire enterprise. This often leads leaders to game the system and play shell games (layoffs replaced with contractors, restructuring to postpone critical business decisions) versus understanding the underlying business dynamics. All the gaming and kicking the can down the road, erodes workforce and shareholder confidence[12].

To move from the plan as the gospel, organizations must consider reframing their planning focus. Instead embracing it as an exercise to understand enterprise dynamics and interdependencies versus a spreadsheet budget built and managed in a vacuum. This requires deeper synthesis of the “system” of work to align the enterprise, jobs to be done, with the rewards and incentives to enable execution. Think of creating a model at the enterprise level so that as conditions change the business has some ability to understand the impact and respond, versus a “target” that must be met with little understanding of the broader organizational impact.

Rock Exposed: The Right Kind of Agility

Agility isn’t about being faster, it’s responsiveness and adaptability

In the past major economic shocks, organizations that were able to sense and respond [13] outperformed their peers even in the hardest hit environments. The pandemic highlighted the rigidity of supply chains, management structures, and organizational philosophy. Those organizations that were closer to their customers were able to move quickly and responded better[14]. Organizations have the opportunity to revisit the notion of agility as purely speed of execution. The right kind of agility enables responsiveness and adaptation based on observation and response to different signals. While conversely just-in-time “agility” is designed to be very precise to produce efficiency, it unintendedly creates fragility in the face of disruption. Which in this environment is now killing us[15], as Darwin pointed out so long ago - strength and speed are ultimately less important than responsiveness to change.

Organizations that stick to their status quo and attempt to preserve their efficiency-focused operations risk being bogged down in rigid management and production structures. Too much focus on process execution might lead to great internal metrics while customer and product outcomes suffer[16].

To mitigate the rock, organizations have the opportunity to meet customer demands while communicating with an authentic voice aligned to what the brand stands for. Additionally, the measurements and effort should be focused on outcomes versus process execution.

Rock Exposed: Definition of Organizational Health

This isn’t just financial it's also the mental, physical, and energy of your workforce

For many organizations prior to COVID-19, organizational health was a financial exercise that assessed the “well-being” of the balance sheet. With a myriad of statistical and business metrics ranging from accounts receivables to more intangible factors like the net promoter score. For the employee aspect this was almost entirely encompassed by the engagement score, which was meant to account for the crucial “human” input due to its correlation with productivity. However, if there is one thing the pandemic has made exceedingly clear, it's that though the “health” of the business may be reflected in these financial terms, companies need a broader understanding of their workforce if they are going to operate in a healthy manner.

As the world’s population quarantined to fight the spread of the virus, we also took on the negative aspects like loneliness and social isolation, which are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity[17]. These conditions in turn affected work; at the heart of the pandemic nearly 40% of people at every seniority level of a company saw a decrease in mental health[18]. The impact was quite visible with even prominent CEOs like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella warning of his concern that remote work could lead to negative consequences for social interaction and social health[19]. As the spotlight necessarily shifted to the worker, the lack of tools and intelligence to understand them holistically further highlighted how secondary they were to the financial lens of the business to begin with.

Stop gaps like pulse surveys and listening strategies aren’t enough, especially given the stigma associated with HR as a “watchdog” for management. In fact, employees listed HR as the group they were the least willing to talk to about mental health concerns[20]. This lack of support can’t be driven from a single department and requires more than benefits programs or “wellness” initiatives. It has to include recognition that people are essential to the health of the organization and be reflected accordingly in management doctrine. This means supporting each person, as a person, and broadening our view of organizational health to be inclusive of all the people responsible for its well-being.

Rock Exposed: One Size fits all No Longer Fits

Employees as consumers expect a similar consumer grade experience

Employees were treated to a stark contrast as their personal and work lives converged at the onset of the pandemic. As work literally shifted overnight, expectations of how to accommodate new forms of parenting, home offices, virtual operations, and team management were met with policies and professional experiences that left much to be desired[21]. When every aspect of your interactions with businesses as a consumer is tracked and curated to your preferences, it becomes hard not to notice the many ways that organizations are still incapable of the same level of personalization for their workforce.

Though customization can be costly, personalization[22] can still be achieved through intentional configuration and “customer segmentation”. The push for rote standardization – especially in employee policy and management procedures – hamstrings companies in their ability to respond in a relevant business fashion as well as humane way. When we consider the “return to work” strategy, we rarely think of all the possible combinations and specific needs of various workforce cohorts and individuals’ life stages, all riddled with specific and unique personal and family needs. In this case people are considered as inanimate input in the value chain and production process versus an asset that has the ultimate impact on whether the customer is delighted, or the problem solved in the most consumer-friendly way.

If HR, IT, or other support functions, were a product in a competitive market, would the business willingly consume it? Would employees choose an alternative or even pay a premium for something else? The built-in power dynamic of no alternatives to various organizational practices masks how truly flawed they are to meet employees’ unique needs. For example, even in the positive pursuit of providing child-caring support such as tutors, study halls and stipends [23] to parents balancing work and their children’s online schooling, there is still a prescribed “standard” that will limit access to the same benefits for other caretakers who might be supporting elder relatives. Given the drastic alternative is to quit, most employees opt to cope with them and accept the perceived or real unfairness.

Shifting this paradigm is as easy as moving support function measures from execution, completion, and cycle times to additionally reflect consumption patterns, user experience, customer segmentation and personalization. Really no different from how most businesses approach interactions with anyone they’d like to be a repeat consumer.

As we adapt fast and change how we work, what we value and expect from the workplace, and what organizations offer up, we have a unique opportunity as HR practitioners to make intentional and positive changes to the experience of workers. Do not let this crisis go to waste and let’s bust the rocks while they are visible.

This article was originally published in: IHRM's Workforce Solutions Review 4Q 2020 issue.

[1] Global Supply Chains in a Post-Pandemic World [2] The Truth About Open Offices [3] At JPMorgan, Productivity Falls for Staff Working at Home [4] Remote Work Doesn’t Have to Mean All-Day Video Calls [5] Facebook Will Permanently Shift 50% of its employees to remote work as COVID-19 Impact is Fully Absorbed [6] Facebook buys an unused headquarters even as more employees work remotely [7] Amazon's big bet: $1.4bn splashed on new offices, plus 3,500 extra jobs [8] Amazon will hire 2,000 NYC employees at new Lord & Taylor Building Location [9] Coronavirus: Will women have to work harder after the pandemic? [10] Employees Perform Better When They Can Control Their Space [11] When it comes to managing change, Power rather than push (“Marathon Effect”) [12] Look before you layoff [13] Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage [14] Best Buy Earnings Fall, Target Sales Soar: Here’s How All The Big Retailers Fared In The First Quarter [15] Flexibility in the Time of Supply Chain Uncertainty [16] Customer Experience Versus Process Efficiency: Towards an Analytical Framework About Ambidextrous BPM [17] Novotney, Amy. The Risks of Social Isolation, American Psychological Association (May 2019, Vol 50, No.5) [18] Smith, Ryan. How CEO’s Can Support Employees Mental Health in a Crisis, Harvard Business Review (May 2020) [19] [20] Smith, Ryan. How CEO’s Can Support Employees Mental Health in a Crisis, Harvard Business Review (May 2020) [21] [22] Personalisation in HR: some ideas [23] Company-provided pods, tutors and study halls fill in child care gaps (

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