Leading Forward: Nine Emerging Trends in a Post-Pandemic World – July 2020

There have been many articles, blogs, and whitepapers written the last four months on navigating the current crisis (my March, April and May articles among them).  By no means are we finished with the current crisis; in fact, unfortunately, we may have to survive many more months of health-related, economic-related, and social-related challenges.

But I’ve sensed a subtle shift recently in everyone’s desire to look forward – to envision a professional and personal post-COVID world.  Maybe it’s because of the recent good news regarding vaccines that gives us a sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Or maybe it’s because we all just need more optimism – more hope – of an eventual better future.  I guess it doesn’t matter why, necessarily, but I do think it’s healthy to start thinking, start envisioning, and start planning for a better tomorrow.  I’ve always thought that this is not our “new normal,” but a transition period to whatever’s next.  And leaders and professionals at all levels would be well served to proactively create that future rather than waiting for it to emerge or just happen to them.

As the saying goes: “never waste a good crisis.”  The recent and ongoing challenges we all face do present many opportunities – opportunities for positive change, for better leadership, for new approaches, for innovative products, services, and business models.  One thing is certain: we won’t “go back” to a pre-pandemic economy.  There will be permanent change.  Peering into the proverbial crystal ball, what might they be?  And how can organizations proactively anticipate, shape – even leverage – those shifts?  Here are what some of the experts think might happen…

I read several articles last week, published from reputable leadership sources – Harvard Business Review, McKinsey & Company, Forbes, Gartner, and others.  Experts and futurists are beginning to see several shifts because of COVID-19, some of which are probably obvious, but others pretty subtle.  All of them will impact our organizations – our businesses, healthcare systems, schools, nonprofits, and governmental agencies.  And all of them present opportunities for improvement, learning, and innovation. 

Here are nine that I find most compelling:

Technology is accelerating.  Information technology has fueled gains in productivity at least the last 20-25 years (some would argue longer), but according to Rich Karlgaard in a Forbes article a few weeks ago, the pandemic has put an increased premium on organizational agility, and agility is facilitated in part by rapid access to information.  Organizations that invest in new digital platforms today – CRMs, ERPs, and other technical infrastructure – will emerge having a competitive advantage over those who do not.  Technology was important before; it’s critical now.

Innovation is no longer a luxury.  PEN just hosted a three-part series with our Israeli-based partners, Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), focused on a process and toolkit that facilitates problem solving and innovation.  SIT’s premise is “think inside the box” by rearranging, subtracting, adding, and otherwise manipulating components of a system, process, or product to create new value, new processes, new products.  Innovation has always been important (it’s what separates the Apples, Googles, and 3Ms from their competitors), but in a world post-pandemic, it becomes essential.  Organizations’ ability to adapt, shift, and create breakthrough change is what will transform industries and create competitive advantage.  So think about today what you can/should change to better position yourself for tomorrow.  More information on SIT’s methods are here, by the way.

Collaboration will increase.  During this crisis, organizations have had to pull together in different ways to solve problems, sustain operations, and quite frankly, survive.  Within organizations (and even across them), teams today benefit from diverse perspectives to more rapidly solve problems.  According to a Harvard Business Review article a few weeks ago, organizations “need to pull together experts with unique, cross-functional perspectives to solve rapidly changing, complex problems that have long-term implications. The diversity of experience allows a group to see risks and opportunities from different angles so that it can generate new solutions and adapt dynamically to changing situations.”

But research shows that anxiety and crisis tend to make people more risk averse (a concept called “threat rigidity”) at a time they need to work together more and try new things.  The HBR article showed that more collaborative organizations enjoy financial results 30-40% better than non-collaborative.  How do you create a culture that’s more collaborative? The article suggests:

  • Encourage naïve questions and a culture of innovation and risk taking (see innovation above!)
  • Avoid hoarding behaviors and instead focus on teamwork and collaborative problem solving
  • Champion and reward collaboration
  • Continue to reinforce the organization’s mission, purpose, and goals – employees need to keep in mind what’s truly important, what’s absolute
  • Play to team member’s strengths – build teams that are collectively stronger than the individuals
  • And this last one is mine, given the current climate: promote more diversity, inclusion, and equity

Supply chains are changing.  We’ve all witnessed (or directly experienced) the importance of a reliable supply chain (on a personal level, who didn’t struggle to find toilet paper a few months ago?).  Supply chains are critical for most industries: we’ve always known the importance for manufacturers, but the pandemic has demonstrated just how essential they are for healthcare, governmental agencies, service businesses, and even nonprofits and educational institutions (many of which are struggling to find PPE and cleaning supplies for a possible return to classrooms).  When China all but went offline last February/March, many industries locked up due to the lack of available products and components.  The same thing happened two years ago when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, taking out 90% of the US’s saline supply.  Organizations need to rethink their supply networks, focusing on faster, more reliable sources of materials.  In the Forbes article, Karlgaard predicts shorter supply chains and more of a local or regional network, with less reliance on international trade partners.

Prepare for mobility in talent.  Remember when the biggest challenge most organizations faced was a staffing shortage – a lack of good talent in key positions?!  Yeah, that was so four months ago.  Today, if anything, organizations are benefiting from excess talent (as demand for many/most things has decreased) and a general tendency for workers wanting to stay put through the economic uncertainty.  But that will change.  In fact, one of Karlgaard’s other anticipated shifts is captured in the “Law of Capital Flow,” a concept that Walter Wriston described in his 1992 book The Twilight of Sovereignty.  Wriston described that, if mobile, capital – both financial and human – will “go where they are welcome and stay where they are well-treated.”  Well, no one’s really going anywhere right now, but as things really start to open up, recovery will be uneven – some communities, regions, and markets will emerge faster than others, and some organizations will emerge faster than others.  As the workforce becomes mobile again, there will be winners and losers, and organizations today need to be preparing for the next staffing shortage, which is sure to be as bad or worse than what were we experiencing pre-pandemic.  Focus on your people, creating the best environment you can that facilitates engagement, development, upward mobility and advancement.  Once the talent musical chairs starts up again, you don’t want to be the organization left with open seats – literally and figuratively.

How (and where) work gets done will permanently change.  When COVID-19 forced most of us to shelter in place (some estimate 90%+ of employees worked from home last spring), organizations scrambled to convert traditional office-based workplaces into remote, work-at-home arrangements.  The new virtual workplace required upgrades in technology, accessibility, and in some instances work policies, processes, and protocols.  Perhaps awkward at first, many professionals are finding they like the arrangement better, and many organizations are finding that their teams are just as productive at home, if not more so.  Some experts don’t see that changing, even as post-pandemic work-at-home requirements are eased; in fact, Gartner estimates that nearly 50% of American workers may remain working from home after COVID.  There is the need for socialization, and there is a lot to be said for the power of face-to-face work, as it stimulates innovation, collaboration, and relationship building. But in many ways, the remote workforce is more efficient, solves all sorts of real estate and facilities challenges, is environmentally friendly, and provides more flexibility and empowerment of your team, possibly leading to more work-life balance, satisfaction, engagement, and retention.  My prediction is organizations will find creative ways to get work done, with some maintaining a fully virtual workforce and others keeping some combination of work-at-home and work-in-a-place.  With the anticipated mobility in talent – and ensuing competition for the best workers – flexible work arrangements may become the rule rather than the exception.

Organizations themselves will look different.  A 2019 Gartner survey found that 55% of organizational redesigns pre-pandemic focused on streamlining roles, supply chains and workflows to increase efficiency. According to Gartner: “While this approach captured efficiencies, it also created fragilities, as systems have no flexibility to respond to disruptions. Resilient organizations were better able to respond — correct course quickly with change.”  Obviously, COVID-19 has forced leaders to rethink how their organizations are designed, and Gartner predicts that organizations will look more responsive in the future: roles and structures will be designed to increase agility and flexibility.  Processes will be more flexible; worker roles more adaptive.  This should lead to move resilient organizations (and employees).

Small businesses will emerge.  Everyone knows that small businesses fuel the US economy (according to JP Morgan Chase, there are roughly 28 million small businesses that produce about half of the US’s GDP).  Undeniably, small businesses may be hit the hardest during the pandemic: due to shutdowns, forced reduction in capacity, consumer confidence, and all sort of other reasons, many are struggling just to survive.  But economic crisis has a way of facilitating the creation of new businesses (maybe because of the innovation imperative, as I mention above).  According to Business Insider, the Great Depression gave rise to Hewlett Packard; recessions in the 50s produced Burger King and Hyatt Hotels; the rocky 70s produced Apple and Microsoft; the recession in the early 80s produced CNN and EA Sports; and the Great Recession in 2008-09 gave rise to Uber, Venmo, Airbnb, and Groupon.  These companies didn’t start big: they were created when economic conditions forced entrepreneurs to solve problems, create new products and services, and move quickly in the marketplace.  A combination of the need for speed and marketplace changes will produce a new crop of small businesses post-pandemic.  The hint for existing organizations is to think like an entrepreneur, focusing on innovation, agility, and rapid decision making and time-to-market.

Leadership strategies will change.  This is an interesting one, as I really don’t think modern leadership techniques have changed all that much in 50+ years: good leaders usually are good communicators, focus on their people, are authentic, are ethical, are collaborative, and so forth.  Those concepts go back at least to the 1950s (rooted in McGregor’s Theory Y leadership, Deming’s philosophies, among others).  They’re all still valid, of course, but researchers at McKinsey are beginning to see four shifts in how leaders are leading through this crisis, most of which may foreshadow post-pandemic best practices:

  • Unlocking bolder (10X) aspirations – leaders are now thinking bigger, faster, bolder.  They are setting incredible stretch goals (10X improvement is no longer outrageous), and they are questioning current operating models in favor of more innovation and creative solutions.
  • Elevating their “to be” list to the same level as their “to do” in their operating models – they are focusing more diligently on how they (and their teams) “show up.”  They are focused more on listening, showing more empathy, more authenticity.  In many ways, they are focused as much or more on how things are done, not what gets done.
  • Fully embracing stakeholder capitalism – they are balancing the needs of a variety of stakeholders, not just stockholders and owners but customers, employees, partners, and the community.  They are focused more on purpose, cause, and core values.
  • Harnessing the full power of their leadership networks – they are intentionally building relationships with other leaders, seeking to learn, share, and explore at a different level.  The challenges we’re all facing today require a different level of peer engagement and personal learning – there really is no blueprint to navigate today’s challenges.  In a post-pandemic world, these connections – and the emerging tendency to rely more on learning from each other – will accelerate personal and organizational growth.

According to the authors of the McKinsey study: “…if they become permanent, these shifts hold the potential to thoroughly recalibrate the organization and how it operates, the company’s performance potential, and its relationship to critical constituents.”

Today’s environment has created layers of challenges for leaders, professionals, and organizations.  But it also creates opportunities for change, growth, improvement, and innovation.  No one really knows when this crisis will end, but I do think most people are realizing that we’re not “going back” to the way things once were.  Embrace that reality.  And forge a pathway to an exciting and new normal.  Lead forward and leverage the emerging trends in our eventual post-pandemic world.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding the future shifts of work?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

www.performanceexcellencenetwork.org

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