Now more than ever, leaders have a chance to learn more about their employees and drive greater focus on culture to help their organizations emerge from Covid-19 to set the stage for the future.

As we finished 2019 and thought about our 2020 plans, everything on the horizon looked promising for a great year for our organizations. The economy was expanding, unemployment was at the lowest rate in decades, and people were spending money. It looked fantastic.

By the end of February, however, we became concerned with the potential impacts of the coronavirus. By mid to late March, leaders were sending employees home to work, with little or no time to prepare as governments worked feverishly to shut down the economy. Not only did we have insufficient time to prepare our organizations, but we also had no idea what the impact of this might be on our customers, our bottom line, and our organizations beyond the pandemic.

Even before this, our job as leaders was to navigate uncertainty. Uncertainty now has increased by a step-function. Never have we been faced with so much.

Our primary concern now is how we successfully emerge from COVID-19. Leaders are faced with a multitude of questions. What will our organizations look like? How will employees adjust to coming back to the office now that they’ve had a chance to work from home? Will we be able to adapt our organizational cultures due to the crisis that we’ve been through? How does this impact our ability to attract and retain customers? Will our business expand back to what it was before the pandemic, or will we gain or lose customers? Will we even be able to stay in business?

When I work with my executive clients, we look at several cultural factors including risk adaptability, emotional intelligence, and hierarchical adherence. We’ve come to understand that each of these dimensions of culture will change as we emerge from COVID-19.

Risk adaptation: how well the organization deals with risk.

Risk adaptation evaluates how aggressively an organization deals with risk. Before COVID-19, most organizations focused on having stable processes, good risk management tools, and standards of performance to help identify and address risk.

As a result of COVID-19, we learned to become more flexible and more adaptable. We had no time to prepare to go into this pandemic. Successful leaders learned to mobilize around this crisis and did it quickly. They discovered that it was not necessary to work out every detail ahead of time, and that people were resilient to the situation at hand. They learned to be more aggressive adapting to risk. They learned to be more willing to try things, do it faster, be less cautious, and apply less bureaucracy.

One client determined they needed additional technology to reach employees differently and more quickly. The pandemic forced them to add these technologies more quickly. In the past they would have spent more time evaluating different tools based on a set of criteria, and then making a well thought out selection. With the pandemic upon us, they had to make decisions more quickly. They learned that they did not need to be so methodical.

Emotional intelligence: the ability to recognize and act on body language, tone, or other non-verbal cues.

Organizations that are low in emotional intelligence tend to be internally focused, isolated,  and self-centered. Highly emotional intelligent organizations are other-focused and sensitive to behaviors of others. The degree of self-awareness predicts the degree to which they will be successful in their interactions.

As a result of the pandemic, employees are better equipped to recognize individual challenges. Never did we have access like this to people’s personal lives. Therefore, we have had the opportunity to gain perspective and have greater sensitivity to personal challenges.

Healthy organizations will become more emotionally intelligent. Leaders will become more human and take this opportunity to learn more about their employees. The there is a risk that we might put too much emphasis on individual issues, so it’s important to keep this in check.

One client discovered they are spending more time teaching each other how to work in this new technologically connected environment. They also learned to take time to look in the background in Zoom meetings. They might see a child, a pet or a piece of artwork that gives them an opportunity to connect on a more personal level.

Hierarchical adherence: Reliance on structure versus collaboration

Hierarchical adherence is the difference between structural adherence and cross-functional collaboration. Structural adherence defers to chain of command, relies on top down decisions, tends to be command and control oriented, all of which induces cross functional dysfunction.

Collaboration is about working across functions, self-directed work teams, having greater distributed decision making and greater autonomy, and works to resolve cross-functional dysfunction with greater focus on shared metrics.

Before the pandemic organizations were gradually moving toward becoming more collaborative as they understood more about productive workplace culture and the need to speed innovation and customer service. As a result of COVID-19, leaders learned they can remove proximate layers and physical barriers. This is giving employees an opportunity to reach out differently and make more decisions on their own. They didn’t have the physical access that they were accustomed to. Leaders were nearly forced to depend more on employees to make decisions.

Structure is useful to define standards of performance, but to get the work done we’ve learned to be more collaborative. Employees are now more independent yet have learned to work with others they may not have previously. They have faster access to each other because they’re not stifled by structure or office configuration.

One simple example comes from a client who has asked her employees to stop copying her on every email. She espouses the idea that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission to speed up the workflow process.

What is this all mean, and what do we do?

As a result of the pandemic, leaders can help their organizations move faster, learn faster, and be more adaptable and flexible. They will take more seriously the need to access the lessons learned during this critical time and focus on incorporating these factors into their day-to-day operations.

Across my client base, it’s clear that faster innovation is essential to vastly improve customer relationships, which in turn is vital for organizational survival. Don’t be left behind, focus on cultural factors that impact your business. Especially now.

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