Mind the (Digital) Gap!

The recent crisis saw many workers obliged to change to digital working methods from one day to the next with very little time for preparation – in fact in many cases there was a scramble to even acquire the necessary hardware before shops were closed down for several weeks. Employees were literally thrown into a major change. In many cases, companies had probably previously rejected/postponed such changes on several occasions with the reasoning that the company’s processes and staff were not yet ready for such drastic change! All change specialists know that successful change needs to be well-prepared, so how could it be possible to achieve so much at such short notice? One answer is that under a crisis situation most people function in a sort of overdrive modus and rise to the moment, coping with challenges in the face of which they would normally have paled. Here the word to note is “coped”; they adapted, they fitted in, they showed great flexibility, but that does not necessarily mean that the outcome remains suitable as a long-term organisational structure.

Reality Check after the storm?

Once the crisis has ebbed and there is less acute pressure, it is time to assess what has been implemented and compare this with what you would have hoped to put in place had you received adequate prior warning; in other words a reality check. It is vitally important to get your employees on board for this exercise. Firstly, they need to know that you are interested in their opinions and that these will be taken into account. Gather their suggestions and observations, take the time to get a global overview of what worked well and what did not. Secondly, it may be that the planned “optimal” scenario would not have been the best after all. Thirdly, on the basis of so much practical experience under extreme conditions it should now be possible to take a longer-term view of any further changes.

New Ways of Thinking

Once you have been able to appraise the current situation, you also need to transpose this to your company strategy, as this has probably changed considerably since pre-lockdown. In many cases, you may discover that existing processes simply became digital, because there was no other way of organising tasks at the time, but now it would make sense to review them in the light of other developments. The same may apply to company guidelines, for example relating to working hours – if staff continues to work in a virtual context it may make more sense to define core working hours when everyone should be reachable rather than fixed working hours.

If you will be operating under a hybrid system in the future, you will need to take many social as well as digital considerations into account. When everyone is no longer in the same boat, the risk of friction rises. Is everyone putting in the same commitment regardless of whether they are working from home or at the office? How is this input being measured? Many companies are switching to an objective-based approach, but this requires a high-level of management understanding for everyone’s tasks, as well as project management skills, not to mention a flair for people management! Managing a virtual team already requires a whole new skillset compared with previous experience with in-house employees; in a hybrid context the challenge becomes more complex at all levels.

It is vitally important to explain why these changes will be made and to consider the implications for everyone involved, as in some cases they may result in a need for additional training or a switch to a new field of work. Similarly, this may have an impact on job descriptions, as changing requirements are no longer aligned with previous ones. Internal mobility will become increasingly important, as the rapid changes linked to digitalisation impact different tasks, as long as these changes are seen as an opportunity, they should be welcomed.

Of course, external processes and points of contact will be equally impacted by digitalisation. By taking the time to talk to your external stakeholders you will discover what measures they are implementing and what their potential impact will be on your company. This may be the right moment for them to transition to new software package such as SAP, which will affect the way ordering is carried out, for example.

Energy goes where communication flows

Take time for an in-depth assessment before making changes, they need to reflect your commitment to a long-term future and must not raise fears of rationalisation, as otherwise your best people will be the first to leave – strangely enough they are the most likely to suffer from self-doubt! At this stage communication is the key to understanding “why”; after so much upheaval, many may have expected the status quo to remain unchanged and will be unwilling to accept these new ways unless they understand the necessity. Others will be relieved that their opinions were heard and taken into account; they could see what worked and what no longer made sense. If you have a CSR committee, get them on board to help guide their colleagues, especially if you are realigning to a new business model such as that of the circular economy, which will need to be carefully explained.

Similarly, the way you communicate with your internal and external contacts may need to be reviewed. Is a printed newsletter still compatible with your CSR strategy and your readers – if they are not really at their offices, how will they receive it? Perhaps a digital version would take changed working practices better into account, appearing more often, but for that in a more concise form. Have you defined which internal tools are available for which type of communication and does everyone have easy access to them all? An internal chat channel can only function well, if all employees have rapid access to it, whereas an Intranet can provide longer term access to points of reference, such as working tools, and templates. The latter is of course designed for global consumption, whereas the former makes it possible to communicate at different levels if appropriate in smaller groups with instantaneous information sharing. Ask your teams what they need before imposing tools, but avoid confusion by clarifying which source is designated for which content.

The challenges of the Covid crisis have brought home the need for contingency planning and at the very least for increased digitalisation, in fact it will not be long until we no longer talk about digital transformation, because all the non-digital companies will have become extinct! As with every change project, assess which solution best suits the size of your company and the budget available and get your people involved. If they can identify with the changes and even own them, they will commit to making them possible and successful. Once they have become anchored in your employee experience, the transition to the customer experience will be relatively easy, because your people will pass on positive messages to their contacts: But never forget that we humans need face-to-face contact to thrive, as Edward M. Hallowell says in his book “Human Moment at Work”[1] all too often written communication can be misinterpreted and lead to unnecessary misunderstandings … “the strategic use of the human moment adds color to our lives and helps us build confidence and trust at work. We ignore it at our peril.”

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[1] Human Moment at Work Edward M. Hallowell 01.01.1999