Right now, we are living in a period that's best described as chaos where the ability to make rational decisions is limited almost to zero and where the shock of what is happening weighs heavily. It represents a state of near-paralysis that few if anyone has a good sense of what the 'other side' looks like.
You get some idea what this means from an early poll conducted by HfS Research on March 27th and presented during a webinar last week:
That theme of at least partial paralysis continued through most of last week. Still, as we enter what for some will be a prolonged period of quasi imprisonment, marketed as #StayHomeStaySafe or #ShelterInPlace, adjustment strategies are emerging that provide a glimpse into the near future. But to give an idea of how businesses were thinking last week, this graphic from the HfS webinar is instructive.
I suspect that if that same poll is undertaken this week, the picture will have radically changed with one exception. The number of those committed to WFH dramatically reflects the actions taken by governments to force measures that help stem the spread of COVID-19. What now?
I'll say this right off the bat - despite listening to a clutch of leaders, I have yet to hear a convincing argument for using the consulting fallback of the 'war room,' and I find it disappointing that with a few exceptions, companies of all stripes are imposing blanket hiring freezes and slashing marketing budgets. I am especially disappointed in those vendors who seem to think that a 'technology is the answer' approach is the way to go. It's not. And here's why.
In an early conversation, Vijay Vijayasankar noted that a significant number of companies had not done enough by way of disaster planning or modeling to come up with ways to go forward. Going forward, there will be far more attention paid to this topic. It's inevitable but will require the kind of critical thinking that has been sadly lacking among many leaders.
As if to reinforce that idea, there was an interesting exchange on LinkedIn following a post by Christian Klein, co-CEO SAP promoting the concept of learning on the job and life long skills development rather than the current emphasis on college degrees as a requirement in job descriptions. As you might expect, there was something of a 'buy our tech stuff' message in there. This is not a new idea and one reflecting the view that careers change over time rather than being set in stone and that the emergence of alternatives to classroom learning is viable. Bernie Smith, Feels Founding Partner, said:
I think making learning all about skills really misses the point of college degrees. Undergraduate degrees are really about developing the learning skills that equip you to learn effectively independently after university. Aged 18 I was definitely not disciplined enough to navigate my engineering degree remotely. I'm not knocking digital learning at all, but it is not an alternative to a traditional degree for most
To me, that view is an excellent example of a mindset that represents a failure in the education system bound up in a culture that has avoided teaching critical thinking. As an example, I hold a first-class honors degree that majored in abnormal psychology - that's the psychology of crime. But that degree doesn't confer upon me the expertise necessary to figure out how serial killers operate. Instead, I learned how to examine complex problems from a variety of angles as a way of teasing out best-case answers as the starting point for a discussion.
Continuing on that theme, my remark to Klein - which he 'liked' on LinkedIn was:
A good initiative Christian but just as you were mentored what do you think about the place of apprenticeship that I understand has always figured in the German engineering psyche but which has fallen out of favour in many parts of the industrialised world? I’d be delighted to see that as a recognisable part of SAP’s renewal as it relates to consultants at the coal face of projects in what must now be an extraordinarily complex landscape.
With that in mind, I had a (long) conversation with Marilyn Pratt, the person I most closely associate with the operational development of the million-plus member SAP Developer Network. She talked about her work with Doctors Without Borders, where she learned how to provide teaching methods that meet people where they're at, rather than forcing a particular modality. If we all take for granted that online is the way to go for teaching, I wonder if we're missing a trick that transcends the reflexive technology answer?
Vijay reflects a frequently heard view that remote working is the new normal. It's not - it's the new abnormal, and people will experience many problems as they adjust. For example, one senior executive told me they're juggling work and children's education from home while also re-working work-life balance. In and amongst, work activity is dislocated.
The extent to which WFH and remote working generally become a prominent feature of the post-COVID-19 landscape is yet to be determined. I am not one who says this is a done deal because normalcy suggests a continuum that is so far not present. You see that from the variety of business leader assessments about the time it will take for COVID-19 to work its way through the population with estimates varying from two to 12 months. Again, drawing from HfS Research
(via HfS Research)
My current view is that the longer the situation persists, the more likely we are to see lasting change. Today people urgently need support, and if that means routine work productivity takes a dive in the short term, far better to help people adjust now than force them into new and unfamiliar work modalities. And as if the learning gods were listening, as I write this, a message came in from one of my grand-daughters:
Help! (via the author)
In-person socially connecting is an under-rated element of the workplace, even those where office politics dominate the atmosphere. In this context, the advice of Tim Minahan, CMO Citrix is useful but again requires adjustment:
Encourage employees to establish set office hours and communicate them clearly with teammates and family. Also, be sure to have them set time for regular breaks to stretch, step outside, or meditate. At Citrix, we host virtual mindful sessions multiple times each week to guide employees through brief meditation to recharge and enhance focus.
Some commentators think that there will be a return to normality at some point. What does that mean? I've no idea, and I'm not sure anyone else does at present. But then I was taken by emerging trends as observed by Steve Lucas, CEO ICMIS:
- For some industries, a focus on precision hiring to handle shifting needs, while in others, massive increases in hiring: Amazon is adding 100,000 people to their workforce. Walmart even more so.
- Candidate collaboration, where multiple companies are collaborating on a shared candidate pool to fill critical roles in a value chain.
- Heightened economic sensitivity with more hourly and gig workers. Ten years ago, we didn't have a gig economy. Now we do, and it's quite large.
- Volatility in certain industries will require scale-up/scale-down labor – the likes of which we have never seen before.
- Continuous virtual teams and the mass adoption of collaboration technology.
Each of these points requires a change in mindset among leaders as they thread their way through both personnel and economic adjustment.
Phil Wainewright posited that a swath of changes are coming at us. I was particularly interested in his comment about virtual events:
Once there have been several significant successes that show how to replicate much of the experience of a physical event without a large part of the cost and hassle, what appetite will there be for a wholesale return to the old model?
I disagree with the notion of replication of the physical in virtual spaces. As one person told me in a Twitter exchange: 'no-one wants to attend your virtual booth,' but I think it goes deeper than that.
We attend numerous shows each year, and we are planning for those show to be all but wiped out for most of the remainder of the year. These shows are often billed as customer events when, in reality, they are trade and marketing jamborees. The large scale show is interleaved with numerous smaller events designed to achieve face time that moves the deal needle along.
Making a switch to virtual not only changes the delivery model but brings into sharp focus just how much emphasis is put on the sales aspect. Understandably, tech vendors want to continue selling but as Thomas Otter says, now is the time to be helpful:
Tech, we need to play a supporting role here, not grab the controls. We haven't solved software viruses, so let's not be so arrogant to think that we can just jump in to solve this one. Less Batman, more Robin.
In one interaction I had with a user group, I posited that now would be an excellent time to use the virtual conference as a way of demonstrating how vendors support customers and show empathy and trust without it descending into veiled attempts at marketing. The forms that pull that off will come out of this better than those that don't.