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Get out of the disruption trough and adapt to the new normal

Erica Gunn Profile picture for user Erica Gunn June 22, 2020
This year has brought a radical and sudden transformation of how we work. Workfront's Erica Gunn offers advice on how to restore productivity after so much change

Five stages of the work productivity change curve - Workfront
Five stages of the work productivity change curve (Workfront)

You are here. At the bottom of the disruption trough. Volumes have been written about business continuity plans, remote working, and tips for effectively communicating and collaborating with a dispersed team. Those were, of course, vital first steps in confronting an unpredictable and volatile market. But now that we're a few months past the point of impact, it's becoming increasingly clear that our coronavirus quick fixes aren't scalable.

In a recent Workfront webinar — Adapting to changing market forces: the need to iteratively plan and prioritize work — Workfront marketing vice president Jada Balster and I talked through all five stages of the work productivity change curve (see image). Today, I want to focus on everything from the red line forward. We are where we are. Now it's time to figure out where to go from here.

Let's talk about how to switch from reactive mode to proactive mode and create a more agile and nimble business that's poised to adapt to market shifts.

Where we are today

According to Global Workplace Analytics, roughly 5 million knowledge workers worldwide were working from home in January. That number is expected to reach 75 million before the crisis is over, with forecasts predicting about a third of them will continue to regularly work from home for the next two years — at least. That's a radical transformation of how we work in an incredibly short time.

The speed of this transition meant that our first task was to steady the ship and keep the lights on. The second task was to ensure we had effective communication tools. With those milestones reached, organizations shifted to thinking, "I'm not sure what's happening in the market or how to quantify the impact on my business, but there's a lot of work to do." People were busy, but the efforts weren't well directed. The new goals weren't clear.

The new norm became a lot of busy without a lot of productivity, because we were in the process of identifying our new strategies and strategic outcomes. We needed to keep people working, even as we waited to see how the crisis would impact our overall strategic plans. And that's where many organizations are languishing today.

If there's a sector of the economy that hasn't seen dramatic changes as a result of the pandemic, I'm not aware of it. Every organization has had to shift strategy in one direction or another, whether business has grown (healthcare, big pharma, medical supply, grocery) or shrunk (travel, tourism, restaurants, retail).

According to a Global Workplace Analytics survey conducted in April 2020, 62% of respondents had already experienced a fall in employee productivity by that point or expected to in the next three months, 34% had delayed or halted strategic hiring, and 22% had delayed or halted rolling out new products or services. Those numbers describe a pretty significant disruption trough.

Here are three steps to take if you'd like a shot at turning those numbers around.

1. Integrate to collaborate across divisions to keep teams productive

We're talking. We're communicating (sometimes for eight straight hours on Zoom). We're completing tasks. We're collaborating. Now we need to rise above mere interpersonal collaboration. We also need to integrate across divisions.

Different organizations within the company operate in very different ways. IT might have a different way of working than the marketing team, which is different from the supply chain team's preferences, which diverges from merchandising. Even within one division, like marketing, smaller teams often have their own unique ways of working.

To keep every team focused on the right work at the right time, it's vital to be able to integrate and collaborate across divisions. This requires a common work management platform that bridges the gaps between teams while allowing each group the flexibility and autonomy to manage their work their own way. A report from 451 Research concludes:

It's tempting to think that conferencing and messaging tools can bear the brunt of remote working, but the reality is that prolonged and mass remote working changes the dynamics around work that remote conversation doesn't solve. Instead, tools keeping employees focused, aligned and engaged around goals should be at the heart of keeping the workforce productive.

2. Align strategy and delivery to chart a new course

Many teams have had resources and budgets cut, some quite significantly. It's more critical than ever to consistently apply your limited people and dollar resources to your most important work to drive the most important strategic outcomes.

But once you've identified the new outcomes you want to achieve in this strange new world we're all trying to navigate, shifting your people and resources in line with those new initiatives is no small task. Start by evaluating which strategic outcomes for your business aren't changing. Which outcomes are still relevant, still important, still worth driving toward? Any amount of continuity will feel refreshing amidst so much change, so it's important to make note of what hasn't changed about your business and to communicate that.

Then take a look at the desired outcomes that have changed dramatically. Clearly identify them. Share them with the overall organization. And start connecting your team members' daily work to those new initiatives. This is really where the power of a work management platform comes into play, as it offers a line of sight into how your resources are executing against your most important work — at a time when the most important work is not always clear and can change pretty frequently.

You may have noticed that in these tumultuous times, everyone is super eager to help the business be successful, and the ideas are pouring in. You need a way to see all of those ideas in one place, so you can balance them against other priorities and make sure you're making strategic decisions about them. A big part of that involves streamlining your intake process, so you have one view of your work, which makes it possible to align your work to your strategy, manage demand, eliminate waste, and better leverage your people and your money.

3. Iteratively plan and prioritize to adapt to market changes

Think back to the beginning of 2020. What was your business strategy at that time? Where did you think you'd be as a business right now? How does that compare to where you actually are as a business today?

Welcome to the new normal. As the market continually shifts under everyone's feet, you need the ability to re-plan programs and initiatives on the fly. We're in uncharted waters. There's no way to predict what the market will look like in two months, much less 12 months or two years from now. The most important thing you can do for your business today is to increase your business agility, so you can more nimbly navigate the inevitable changes to come. More likely than not, whatever the right combination of work is for today, it won't be the right mix 6 months from now.

You need the ability to efficiently build your work and strategy around it — leaving yourself the flexibility to iteratively plan and re-plan as markets shift, budgets shrink, and projects come under increased scrutiny.

What about in-flight work that already has hours of effort and resources attached to it? Pulling the plug on work that's no longer relevant or top priority can be difficult decisions to make (and sometimes emotional decisions, too!). That's where data comes in. When you have a work management platform to highlight issues with alignment, progress, and other risk factors, it becomes easier to make smart decisions about where to devote limited resources in uncertain times. Data-driven conversations are often easier than emotional or 'gut' decisions that might result in stopping a favorite initiative.

Onward and upward — aligning resources to big bets

As endless as it may seem, this current moment in time won't last forever. And the way to make sure the path ahead takes you on an upward trajectory is to focus on integrating teams across divisions, aligning your new strategy to delivery, and iteratively planning and prioritizing your work (following much shorter cycle times) to adapt to a volatile market.

If there was ever a time to increase business agility and align your people and resources to your biggest bets, that time is now.

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