What’s new in the New Normal?

Several months after returning to a fragile “New Normal”, much has changed in Germany. The economy as a whole is experiencing a sustained boom of tech companies such as Amazon and HelloFresh, while traditional companies continue to struggle for survival. On a small scale, hobby cellars and ping pong tables have given way to video conferencing and almost professionally equipped TV studio setups. Yet, many employees realize that at the end of the day, work has not really changed, whether it is home office or office.

Even if experts still disagree about a recovery or a renewed downturn with increasing case numbers, we are experiencing meticulous preparation for autumn by our clients. HR in particular is still under a lot of pressure because measured against previous implementation cycles, there are still far too many widespread changes in the areas of organization, leadership and the core business of HR to be able to keep up with the pace.

1. Organizations
Finally agile?

Many companies have shown adaptability, alignment in the top team and real drive during the crisis. Where months of change campaigns for a new ERP solution or a SharePoint update were previously necessary, things suddenly happened very quickly. But the change-over has both advantages and disadvantages: Through home office, many companies have turned their departments into small, efficient digital factories – but existing silos have been retained or even strengthened due to the elimination of chance encounters.

From discussions with several of our clients, we know that companies are prepared to see an opportunity in this situation. After all, good basic conditions for an adjustment towards a more agile way of working have been laid down. On the one hand, the spatial barrier is eliminated: one’s own department, but also the colleague from IT at the other office location are both exactly one zoom call away. By drastically reducing travel time (or walking distances), cross-functional meetings (e.g. dailies or monthly retros) can find a place in the calendars more easily. Cross-functional teams can then almost automatically ensure the exchange of information across specialist boundaries.

The use of digital collaboration tools has also quickly become part of everyday life. IT departments have become more flexible and have been given more budget so that a large number of tools are now available and can be implemented. For example, virtual kanban boards such as “Trello” can be used to create transparency about who is currently working on which task. Digital whiteboards like Miro/Mural or MS Teams make it possible to work together effectively and collaboratively regardless of distance.

And last but not least, there is a real willingness among employees to break new ground due to the past disruption. Through agile enablement these potentials can now be directed much more easily towards productive collaboration. It is clear, however, that this new way of collaboration does not automatically lead to success but requires work and support.

But our experience also shows that this work is worthwhile. Clients who were already more agile before Corona were able to adapt to the changed circumstances a lot easier. Accepting uncertainty (instead of “planning it away”) helps employees to be productive during major changes – after all, previously learned agile processes and methods continue to function and do not have to give way to hectic actionism.

2. Leadership
Letting go at the push of a button?

Since the lockdown, management teams are regularly confronted with new uncertainties and responsibilities. Many of our clients have thus entered a task force mode in recent months to be able to cope with the short-term challenges. Time for strategic considerations and alignment often fell by the wayside, due to acute problem-solving.

At the same time, managers are confronted with the frequently discussed challenge of leading their teams remotely and accordingly having to let go completely, almost at the push of a button. Ambiguities and inefficiencies due to the 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”, for example, the right balance between optimization and innovation of leadership is an often-heard buzzword. The call for targeted enablement of remote leadership is also quite justified. But how often is that easier said than done? Leadership developers rightly ask themselves, how such topics can be brought to the attention of managers – in a way that will actually advance leadership and not just remain theoretical knowledge.

In the end, there is certainly a lot that can be done right, like providing managers with exactly the topics and input they need via online platforms. Often the answer is to simply make better use of existing knowledge within the company. Virtualization also offers the opportunity to connect managers to peer-to-peer formats and hold internal expert presentations across different locations.

However, managers’ time for these topics remains limited due to (presumably ongoing) high pressure. In this respect, it is not surprising that many of our clients make very different prioritization decisions regarding which formats and initiatives are implemented.

3. People
Too many topics?

The crisis has brought original personnel topics into focus. Health management in particular, which was previously often smiled at, has catapulted HR into many corona task forces.

Now, HR is facing several other challenges, such as adopting policies for home office or measuring working hours. In addition, new digital recruitment, onboarding and training processes must be implemented quickly. HR departments themselves (as well as the works councils) have difficulties with the required speed and the sheer volume of topics so that in the business itself pragmatic action has often been necessary.

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

However, many smaller HR departments are initially overwhelmed by this task, especially when a lack of resources was already a problem before. But again, it is worth taking the first steps in the right direction, even if time is short. With a focus group of target users to discuss new policies or onboarding processes, there often is already a great gain in knowledge. Additionally, simple surveys or built-in instant feedback mechanisms (e.g. thumbs up/thumbs down, as the last question in the IT tool) help to develop a better feeling for pain points in the organization. Based on such measurements, it can then be decided a lot better, whether new processes represent an improvement from the employee’s point of view.

Finally, HR departments must also ask themselves what they want to achieve strategically. Only by answering this question can final priorities be set for the next year. Is it about efficiency? How much cost savings in office space can be achieved? Or should employees be prepared for the coming months more diligently? What is missing then? IT equipment, tools, processes?

What Now?

The overview shows: There are a lot of good approaches, which are often known and actively requested by HR departments. In many places, implementation also started months ago – more or less successfully.

But it remains clear that with such a variety of topics not everything can be achieved at once. Here, the HR department, Leadership Developers and Organizational Developers themselves are not the only bottlenecks – the organization must also be able to keep up. Given the high workload on the operative levels, this is an additional challenge that must be taken into account.

Accordingly, every company must now urgently define its priorities: What is decisive at this point in time? And this process is definitely necessary in every HR department, also in order to carry the topics into the organization with impact, as long as the momentum for change is still there.

Jens Müller-Oerlinghausen
Jens Müller-Oerlinghausen
Partner, Head of Leadership Practice

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