Supporting Your Workforce in a Post-COVID World

May 28, 2020 |
mins Read

The concept of “business as usual” might seem like a quaint oxymoron today. But as we begin moving beyond the first stage of pandemic response, business leaders must reimagine what usual looks like—and be ready to guide transformation during the post-COVID recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered what’s likely the biggest change your organization has ever experienced—and will continue to experience. It’s forced many of us to make reactive, often difficult decisions that are transforming our organizations in unprecedented ways, including where, when and how we work.

Now, it’s time to proactively manage this transition and prepare to reset your organization for the future.

Pivoting to Manage a ‘W-shaped’ Recovery

It’s hard to know exactly how the future will unfold or how long it will take. Like many economists and public health experts, RGP change leaders anticipate a “W-shaped” recovery, as reopening fuels an initial rebound followed by a second dip and return back up, as a likely viral resurgence and/or continued economic challenges cause ongoing disruption. This could extend the timeline for recovery from several months to a few years.

This means you’ll continue facing turmoil and transformation as you navigate future health and economic challenges. Planning and execution will be critical, but you’ll also need the organizational agility to pivot in response to the changing landscape.

“The challenge of returning to the workplace isn’t just an operations challenge; it’s a human challenge.” — Gartner

As a leader, your challenge is to define how your organization will operate during and after the COVID recovery. This encompasses every aspect of your workforce and workplace. In addition to immediate concerns such as enabling secure remote access to critical business systems and managing risk and compliance, you need to consider factors like health and safety, workforce planning, and employee communication and training.

As Gartner notes, “It’s clear that the challenge of returning to the workplace isn’t just an operations challenge; it’s a human challenge.” So, where do you start?

Protecting Employees’ Health and Safety

Ensuring the health and safety of your workforce should be the top-of-mind priority for all leaders. When your employees get back to the office or plant, you’ll need to implement new safety procedures and/or protocols such as social distancing in workspaces, the manufacturing floor and other common areas. You’ll also need to make sure your workforce—and especially managers—are aware of new safety policies and procedures.

  • How will you ensure your employees understand the changes?
  • How will you enforce these new safety and health protocols?
  • Are you prepared to handle the potential risk that people may reach a saturation point and just disregard all extra precautions?

Planning for a Future-Ready Workforce

Workforce planning is about balancing human and operational challenges with business needs. Early on, RGP CEO Kate Duchene predicted that the workplace may never be the same after the pandemic. “The workplace of the future isn’t about the rigid inflexibility of either/or,” she wrote. “It’s about the agile flexibility of this/and.”

Planning for this future-ready approach will likely be a multi-step process, as you assess your current state, align your workforce to current health and economic conditions, and begin to engage people with the next steps.

  • Which roles are essential to support the business and to support your customers?
  • Who will be essential in the office and who can continue to work from home? Will this be a permanent change or temporary?
  • If business has slowed, do you need to reallocate your workforce to other roles?
  • What skills does your workforce have or how can they be cross trained to support temporary and/or new permanent roles?
  • Are you bringing back furloughed employees? Will their roles and responsibilities change?
  • Are your managers prepared with the skills and tools they need to support your workforce and these new ways of working?

How to Lead When Everything Has Changed

The need to rapidly pivot for the pandemic has challenged even the best change leaders. Are you prepared to lead and support your workforce during this period of prolonged uncertainty? What about your team—do they feel ready to manage today’s challenges and adapt to future changes? How are you preparing them for this journey? Answers to these two questions are vital to your successful recovery.

Show empathy for change fatigue and be prepared to communicate in new ways.

Let’s face it: we’re all so very tired of this. You need to understand and manage the “people part” of transformation. Now is the time for servant leadership: Show empathy for the change fatigue, emotional responses, and anxiety and stress that people feel. And be prepared to reach out to your workforce in new ways to communicate and instill trust in your organization. When employees feel supported, performance improves and they’re more committed to the organization.1

Building a Comprehensive Communication Strategy

After weeks or months away from the office—or maybe not returning at all, your employees will need to understand new ways of working. Clear communication will be more important than ever, especially as you work to redefine your corporate culture. This may mean more frequent updates as well as training and engagement about changes and organizational expectations.

Create awareness, understanding and knowledge on how the business will operate going forward.

  • How will you manage potential resistance to adoption?
  • Do employees know where to access critical information?
  • How can you help your workforce understand required changes and develop necessary proficiency?

Consider the ways that changes will impact your employees and what they need to know about working in the new environment, including:

  • New regulatory and legal requirements
  • Revised workplace safety protocols
  • New work procedures and/or processes
  • Redefined performance metrics

Promoting Effective Employee Engagement

Employees are facing greater personal, emotional and workplace challenges than ever before. Many face challenges balancing work and life responsibilities, modified working arrangements and job uncertainties. This elevates their level of anxiety and stress and diminishes their ability to focus.

Engaging your employees to support your organization’s successful recovery requires more than business-as-usual interactions. You must also bolster their level of commitment and connection to your organization.

  • Does your workforce feel supported by their managers and leadership?
  • Do teams feel they still have social cohesion and a positive team environment, regardless of workplace changes?
  • Do your people feel valued and respected?
  • Are your employees optimistic and solution-oriented?

Whether we’re dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic recovery for the next six months or the next few years, you’ll need a comprehensive reset strategy as well as the expertise and resources to successfully lead and manage change.

If you need extra support, whether COVID-related or not, please reach out to our experienced Change Management and Organization Development experts.

Get ready to lead change and support your workforce post-recovery with our Reset Planning Checklist.

1. Blanchard, K, and Broadwell, R. (2018). Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results. Berrett-Koehler Publishers

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