What's new in the New Normal?

After a few months of returning to a fragile "new normal", a lot has changed in Germany. The economy as a whole is experiencing a sustained boom in tech companies such as Amazon and HelloFresh - while traditional businesses continue to struggle to survive. On a smaller scale, hobby basements and table tennis tables have been converted into video conference rooms or have given way to almost professionally equipped TV studio set-ups. And many employees are realising that the bottom line is that the work remains the same, regardless of whether they are working from home or in the office.

Even if experts still disagree about recovery or a renewed downturn with rising case numbers, we are seeing our clients meticulously preparing for the autumn - and attempting to stabilise the last few months. HR continues to be under particular pressure, because both in the areas of organisation and leadership, but also in the core area of HR, far too much is changing at once to really keep pace, measured against previous implementation speeds.

Organisation

Agile at last?

Many companies have shown adaptability, alignment in the top team and real drive during the crisis. Where previously months of change campaigns were necessary for a new ERP solution or a SharePoint update, things suddenly happened very quickly. However, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with these changes: By working from home, many companies have turned their departments into small, efficient digital factories - but existing silos have remained or been reinforced due to the loss of chance encounters.

From discussions with several of our clients, we know that companies are willing to see an opportunity in this situation. This is because good foundations have been laid for a transformation towards more agile working. On the one hand, the physical barrier has been removed: your own department and your colleague from IT at the other location are both just a Zoom call away. The drastic reduction in travelling time (or walking distances) means that cross-functional meetings (e.g. dailies or monthly retros) can also find a place in the calendar more easily. Cross-functional teams can then almost automatically ensure dialogue across specialist boundaries.

The use of digital collaboration tools has also quickly become part of everyday life. IT departments have become more flexible in this area and have been given more budget, meaning that a large number of useful tools are available and being implemented. For example, virtual Kanban boards such as "Trello" can be used to create transparency about who is currently working on what. Tools such as Miro/Mural or MS Teams make it possible to work together effectively and collaboratively regardless of physical distance.

Last but not least, there is a real willingness among employees to break new ground as a result of the past disruption. Through agile enablement, this potential can now be channelled much more easily into productive collaboration. However, it is clear that this new collaboration does not automatically lead to success, but requires work and support.

However, our experience also shows that this work is worthwhile. Clients who were already more agile before coronavirus were able to adapt to new circumstances much more easily. Accepting uncertainty (instead of trying to "plan it away") helps employees to be productive during major changes - after all, agile processes and methods that have been learnt continue to work and do not have to give way to hectic actionism.

Leadership

Letting go at the push of a button?

Since the lockdown, management teams have regularly been confronted with new uncertainties and responsibilities. As a result, many of our clients have gone into task force mode in recent months in order to cope with short-term challenges. Time for strategic considerations and alignment has often fallen by the wayside in favour of acute problem solving.

At the same time, managers are confronted with the much-discussed challenge of leading their teams remotely and having to let go completely, almost at the push of a button. Ambiguities and inefficiencies due to a lack of strategic guidelines for middle management and employees are an additional challenge.

Of course, there are some simple-sounding answers to this situation. "Ambidextrous leadership", i.e. the ambidexterity between optimisation and innovation in leadership, is an often-heard buzzword, for example. The call for targeted enablement for remote leadership is also quite justified. But how often is this easier said than done? Leadership developers rightly ask themselves how it is possible to bring such topics to managers quickly - in a way that actually advances leadership and not just imparts theoretical knowledge.

In the end, there is certainly a lot that can be done right here - for example, providing managers with exactly the topics they need via online platforms. The answer is often to simply make better use of existing knowledge within the company. Virtualisation also offers the opportunity to connect managers in peer-to-peer formats, even across locations. Internal expert presentations are also possible in such a setting and are frequently used.

However, managers' time for these topics remains limited due to (presumably ongoing) pressure. In this respect, it is not surprising that many of our clients prioritise which formats and opportunities are created in very different ways.

Personnel

Too many topics?

The crisis has put a strong focus on original HR topics. Health management in particular, which previously tended to be ridiculed, has catapulted HR into many coronavirus task forces.

HR is now facing a number of other challenges, such as adapting policies on working from home or documenting working hours. In addition, new digital recruitment, onboarding and training processes need to be introduced quickly. HR departments (and works councils) are struggling with the speed required and the sheer volume of issues, which means that the business has often had to take a pragmatic approach.

The core of the solution here is customer orientation: HR departments close to the business are able to provide the required solutions more quickly and manage to set the right priorities by involving employees from the line. Employee experience processes that have been practised in the past also help here.

However, many smaller HR departments are initially overwhelmed by this task, especially if a lack of resources was already a problem beforehand. But here too, it is worth taking the first steps in the right direction, even if time is short. A focus group of target users to discuss new policies or onboarding processes often provides a great deal of insight. Simple surveys or built-in instant feedback mechanisms (e.g. thumbs up/thumbs down as the last question in the IT tool) also help to develop a better feeling for pain points in the organisation. Based on such measurements, it is then much easier to decide whether, for example, new processes represent an improvement from the employees' point of view.

Last but not least, HR departments must also ask themselves what they want to achieve strategically. Only once this question has been answered can the topics for the coming year be finally prioritised. Is it about efficiency? How and what can be achieved in terms of cost savings on office space, for example? Or should employees be better prepared for the coming months? What will be missing? IT equipment, tools, processes?

What now?

The overview shows that there are many good approaches that are often also known in the HR departments and are actively requested. In many places, implementation started months ago - more or less successfully.

However, it is also clear that not everything is possible at the same time with such a large number of topics. The HR department, leadership developers and organisational developers themselves are not the only bottleneck - the organisation must also be able to keep up. In view of the high workload in the operational areas, this is also an additional challenge that must be taken into account.

Accordingly, every company must now urgently prioritise: What is really crucial at the moment? This sorting is definitely necessary in every HR department, also in order to then carry the topics with impact into the organisation while the momentum for change is still there.

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Dr. Jens Müller-Oerlinghausen
Dr. Jens Müller-Oerlinghausen
Partner

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