Organisations have had to deal with many uncertainties as a result of restrictions associated with coronavirus and government regulation, and this has challenged businesses to make decisions with a high degree of uncertainty, explained Karin Sanders, a Professor in the School of Management at UNSW Business School.

Some organisations can handle this more capably than others. For example, many professional organisations such as law firms, consultancies and universities are used to staff working from home and more flexible ways of working.

These organisations base staff productivity on outputs (such as number of projects, clients or number of articles) and not on inputs (such as when staff start or finish their day).

“Organisations which are more control-oriented and check the productivity of their employees based on inputs will find it more difficult to trust their people when working from home,” said Sanders.

Common gaps and challenges

The pandemic has forced many organisations to change in ways that would have been unthinkable six months ago.

If organisations have always managed employees from a control perspective, Sanders observed that it will be very difficult for them to change. “They probably should have made this transition many years ago,” she said.

Will Felps, an Associate Professor in the School of Management at UNSW Business School, also observed that the pandemic has presented a unique array of leadership challenges. While leadership always matters, he observed that there are many constraints on leaders in organisations with strong policies, long histories and which operate in stable industries.

“This means that even mediocre leaders can head effective organisations, and also that great leaders are constrained in what they can do,” he said. “But this crisis situation, the quality of leadership matters much more right now.”

How workforces will change post-coronavirus

The pandemic will likely have a lasting impact on organisations in a number of ways.

“What will be permanent, in my opinion, is that organisations will understand that they can continue if their workforce is working from home,” said Sanders.

“Technology is very helpful in this way. For universities, they will rely more on the importance of digital teaching as a plan B for every course,” she said.

“What will also change, at least for some time, is the awareness that health, family and friends are more important than money or making profit. It is difficult to say if this will be permanent.”

Felps also said that there are some potentially workplace-related silver-linings that might eventually come out of the coronavirus – which fortunately has not led to as many deaths in Australia as there have been in other parts of the world.

Many workplaces have been using face-to-face meetings and emails as crutches for everything, and failing to fully use superior technologies, he said.

“This coronavirus is likely to cause an operational ‘phase-shift’ in many organisations. Interdependence makes change difficult, but everyone in the world is taking crash-course in doing things online.”

Face-to-face meetings are not the best way to accomplish many tasks. Brainstorming, for example, can be an asynchronous and independent activity, while polls can be online and anonymous – rather than being dominated by the loudest person in the room.

Speeding up change

Getting people to change is usually the hardest element in any change management initiative. The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a potential catalyst for organisations to change in many ways – and ideally for the better, in a way that potentially improves collaboration, productivity and engagement.

Getting people to change is hard, acknowledges Sanders – however, employees are more willing to change when initiatives (and the need) for the change come from outside the organisation.

In the case of the current pandemic, they cannot blame their management for this change initiative. “So following government regulation is a better way to sell a change to employees in comparison to implementation of change initiated from management,” she said. “However, the way organisations communicate the change is crucial.”

Practical advice for HR and business leaders

Given its unprecedented nature, Felps said the coronavirus pandemic is somewhat like a Rorschach test for organisations and workforces. “Different people will perceive very different problems and solutions depending on their own frames/paradigms,” he said.

“Personally, I see the COVID-19 challenge as especially related to the topic of leading through respectful inquiry, which involves the combination of asking open questions and engaged listening. Respectful inquiry is especially valuable in uncertain and stressful times (both for making smart decisions and employee welfare) but is also typically neglected in times of crisis,” he said.

Sanders echoed Felps’ sentiment and agreed on the importance of being transparent, clear, open and honest. “If management makes a choice in this difficult situation, explain what the different scenarios are, and explain why management is making a choice for a specific scenario and options,” she said.

“It is okay to let employees know that there is uncertainty and that if needed you will change your strategy. And again: be distinctive, consistent and consensual in the communications.”

For the full article on leading your business out of coronavirus – for the better, visit BusinessThink which shares the latest UNSW Business School research stories, analysis, evidence-based opinion and insights.