Organizations currently face a host of changes arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn, and emerging social movements. As a result, organizations that may have been perfectly designed to achieve results in the past now face significantly different conditions.
As we think about how these trends affect organizations, we believe leaders need to re-think, in a broad sense, the entire footprint of how they are structured and how they operate. In our space, that typically means organization design. But it may also mean going beyond factors we traditionally consider, such as work processes, structures/reporting relationships, metrics, and talent. We need to broaden the basics to consider our physical facilities and the tools and technologies we use. We may need to revisit how we make decisions or allocate decision rights. We might reconsider how we look at issues of fairness, diversity, and inclusion. Those factors and others will essentially change the footprints of how we all have to operate.
This means more than simply how many employees we have and where they report. It may include structuring and performing our processes differently. For example, the way office buildings are set up may no longer be suited to the way we need to work going forward. Modifications may be needed to practice social distancing or achieve higher standards of cleanliness.
One of my colleague’s sons plays soccer in a highly-competitive league that requires expensive equipment. As the end of one spring season neared, his shoes became too tight. His parents bought a larger pair that they expected he could wear through the fall league. However, by autumn, he had already outgrown those barely-used shoes, so they had to buy yet another pair. In later years, they kept buying larger pairs to stay ahead of his ever-expanding footprint. When his growth suddenly stopped, they were stuck with unworn shoes much larger than he would ever need.
This simple example of how people manage the impact of physical growth also applies to organizations. Now that we are working virtually, organizations suddenly have big buildings with lots of space. Last winter’s footprint may not fit today’s needs.
One client told me, “We just finished a new corporate campus designed to house 1,600 employees. The decision has already been made that we will bring no more than 400 people back to that location.” Now they have this massive infrastructure – built at a cost which was previously justified – but that will only use 25 percent of its capacity. This may be the right decision for safety reasons, but it changes the size of shoes that they will be wearing as an organization.
Another organization with 23 locations intends to whittle that down to only four locations. This does not mean all of those employees are going away, although some may because of the economic downturn. Many of those employees will likely be asked to work from home for the long-term, with only a few concentrated areas where they can work face-to-face.
One of our clients has a large R&D organization. Normally those employees work together in a co-located site where they can share ideas and collaborate on projects. During the stay-at-home phase that so many have experienced recently, they no longer shared that physical location. Still, they were able to remain productive while working virtually. Now they are asking themselves, “How do we keep doing that? How do we redesign our processes so the hand-offs are redefined and the work is accomplished differently?”
We all appreciate that there is going to be a new normal. I believe that leaders and executives should recognize not simply that these changes are coming, which all probably do. They should also recognize the need to take a systemic view of the changes.
There are several potential consequences if this is not addressed. As workers and people, we have encountered some difficulties in rapidly adjusting to new ways of working. These adaptations have not always been elegant. We have made do and remained tolerant, even joking and laughing about those hassles during Zoom calls and WebEx meetings. But the reality is, if this remains the new normal and we are always dealing with those nuisances, we could become frustrated and possibly disengaged. As employees, we might look for opportunities to work elsewhere because someone else has figured out how to make it easier to work in a new and different configuration. Employee retention becomes one consequence.
Also consider the leadership consequence. I may have grown up in an environment where, as a leader, I could look out at the floor and see all my people. I could walk to someone’s desk and look over his or her shoulder to see the progress on the current project. Now I can no longer see what they are doing, so I must trust that the right things are happening. While previously, I could always assemble whoever I needed to have an immediate conversation, now have to IM them or schedule that conversation. Some things have become very different. How do I lead in that environment?
As the impact of recent events ripple through each organization, executives need to recognize the systemic nature of these changes. Then they must facilitate the process of having folks throughout their organization sit down and think about how the work can still be done — in ways that will drive differentiation for the organization and allow the organization to win.
There are methods and processes for doing this. However, we may need to adapt them for the new environment. By thinking creatively, we can modify those same tools to ultimately create better ways of working.