COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with unprecedented challenges. However, we believe that even during these pressing times, there is tremendous value to be gained by collaborating and learning from each other. Hearing new and diverse perspectives can help us expand our own points of view, and provide us with deeper insights as we take critical decisions to increase our resilience.
Nearly 200 business professionals joined us for the 6th virtual session in the Enterprise & Market Resilience, Middle East Forum series. The aim of the series is to have an hour-long discussion around various themes impacting businesses in COVID-19 scenario, and bring together a community of professionals from different industries to share their challenges, experiences and success stories.
The theme for this session was to understand how leaders tackle workforce challenges, the role of data and digitalization to bring insights into how we manage and get the best from our people going forward, as well as looking at current and future workforce strategies. We had an elite panel comprising of business leaders from across industries having deep experience with global organizations.
Priorities for Leadership and HR during COVID-19
From the early stages of COVID-19, little information was available and organizations were closely monitoring how the situation was developing. Organizations had to focus on the safety and wellbeing of their people and communities as well as business continuity.
Effective Communication as a Top Priority
Communication has been identified as one of the critical challenges that organizations faced when adapting to a remote workforce. In order to manage this challenge, organizations had to ensure that all employees received real time information to be able to make informed decisions, the existence of the right level of awareness across the organization, and that information was disseminated in a timely manner.
Organizations with employees working on the field and sites mentioned that communication was a critical element to ensure business continuity. An effective approach to manage this was to issue guidelines to empower people on site to the extent possible and to identify the most effective communication channels to be used so if any issues on site were identified, they could be quickly highlighted to leadership for immediate resolution.
Strategic Role of HR & Digital Readiness of People
Things have changed beyond any of our expectations, and the uncertainty of the situation has impacted organizations across all industries. No one has a clear vision of what kind of market environment each organization is going to face. Organizations that were focused on investing into new markets and talent acquisition prior to the pandemic have had to change course.
HR function needs to focus on the digital readiness of the people, not only to complete their work activities, but also to be able to utilize technologies in a competitive manner. Skill-related strategies and priorities have changed. Organizations are now focusing their efforts to develop a workforce equipped with agility and resilience as top priority, combined with the essential industry-related technical capabilities.
Up Skilling and Empathic Leadership
Defining upskilling and reskilling of people and how to approach them will be a strategic task for organizations. Those being groomed for leadership roles will focus more on empathic leadership and trust, as this will affect the future state of how people and productivity will be managed.
Data and Digitalization
The new normal is going to rely more than ever on data and organizations need to set the key foundation for digitalization by focusing on both efficiency and growth as well as reskilling employees to develop an effective digital workforce. Organizations must consider how quickly they can start to capture data, create useful and meaningful data sets in order to digitize entire workflows.
Many large and long standing organizations face technical challenges to adapt to new digitalization initiatives as they are required to first lay down a data foundation. However, technology first companies reap the advantages as their entire workflows are digitized right from inception. The COVID 19 scenario has resulted in large organizations now learning from tech startups on how to quickly adapt and digitalize to remain competitive. Building the foundational element around data allows organizations to leverage advanced technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence and data analytics.
Digitalization is fast emerging as an enabler for employees in their current roles with the pandemic eliminating face to face interactions. There is a substantial need for people to use digital tools to work, socialize and stay connected. Organizations need to start looking at end to end solutions to automate and build analytical tools, despite the potential challenges of staff reskilling and committing to investments. It is time to foster a culture of innovation by creating a safe space to explore untapped opportunities and then carefully evaluate what to scale throughout the whole organization.
According to the poll conducted during the session, less than 30% of the forum participants believed that their organizations were using analytics to gain insights into people related practices and decision making. The rest of the participants were equally split between the continued use of spreadsheets to analyze data and finding it difficult to use data in a meaningful way because the data was scattered across different systems.
Nurturing Organizational Culture for Innovation
It is hard to define culture within organizations as it includes unwritten norms and rules, and when moving to a remote workforce these unwritten rules tend to change. As decisions are made quickly, the first thing that suffers is the culture. Since many of the decisions taken at the time may not always be closely aligned with the culture as leaders need to balance between the expectations of the workforce and the financial realities.
Organizations need to nurture a culture of transparency at all times. Leaders should have daily check-ins with their employees on work related matters and equally important, their wellbeing. Traditionally or pre COVID-19, leaders would share the financial performance with middle management only, but now we have leaders taking the lead in heightening transparency with the workforce by sharing critical financial performance to create a sense of community and connection that we are all in this together.
Several organizations continue to hold e-town hall meetings to engage employees with the leadership team and provide them with a platform to ask questions. These can serve as employee feedback sessions, which allows leadership to quickly put solutions in place to address any concerning issues before they get aggravated.
Managing culture and engaging people without frequent face to face interaction can be challenging, however, by embracing cross functional knowledge sharing, increasing online trainings, recreational sessions and introducing wellbeing initiatives, organizations can use these activities as cultural catalysts, resulting in higher employee engagement.
Many organizations are now launching innovation hubs that serve as a platform with a robust framework for teaming and complex problem solving. This is also an advantage to promote inclusion as that would stimulate and facilitate innovative ideas from all employees to solve real business problems. Leaders will need to play an active role in supporting valuable initiatives from ideation through effective implementation. The pre-pandemic ways of working may be history as organizations are forced to adapt to a New Normal where striving to continuously innovate and adapt is key, and it can only be achieved through an inclusive cultural mindset shift.
This also resonated with the audience as the poll indicated that People Mindset Shift & Adaptability was the biggest challenge their organization is facing during the transition to the new normal, followed by effective change management and having the right infrastructure and collaborative tools in place.
Organizations need their people more than ever to be motivated and engaged to perform well, however they also need to be mindful about their mental wellbeing and the impact that this disruption is having on them and their families. As businesses worry about the possible decline in productivity due to remote working environment and changing scenarios around talent selection, the role of people management will be more critical than before. Now is the time to demonstrate strong leadership, an inclusive and innovative workplace culture that enables a collective mindset shift.
- COVID-19 has forced a global social experiment on remote working, and various studies indicated that it led to greater productivity for many organizations, especially those that had the infrastructure and technology tools in place. Other organizations will now have to explore better ways to work more efficiently.
- Virtual trainings increased exponentially in the past few months to keep employees engaged, and leverage their downtime by tackling essential learning needs. Going forward, organizations may have to consider adopting AI enabled learning platforms with high quality learning content with the capabilities to assign and track learning needs across any device. Also to be accessed anywhere from home or on-the-go. This will demonstrate the value of inclusion as it can be catered to different learners with varied needs, and always accessible to them, as per their convenience.
- Business leaders will need to revisit and establish realistic goals, update action plans, set accountability for results, and implement ongoing changes in the business models and processes. Embracing coaching practices regardless of levels will be crucial to drive better performance.
- Organizations will need to consider moving away from the management style of ‘command and control’ to ‘engage and empower’ as strong and mutual trust will enable them to shift from survival mode to thriving mode.
- Organizations must focus on skills around complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and people Management to enable the workforce to effectively grow, adapt to uncertain times, and cater to future business needs.