Originally published in INSIDE Public Accounting
Difficult times bring out the best in people. Necessity is the mother of invention. There is no education like adversity.
While these maxims might be cliché, their insights ring true. There is no going back to how companies operated pre-pandemic: long commutes, a typical 9-to-5 workday, daily face-to-face interaction and more are things of the past. COVID-19 sent shockwaves around the world overnight and forced business leaders to rethink how they operate, how to institutionalize change and how to prepare for future unforeseen events.
The biggest pitfall for today’s leaders is assuming things will return to business as usual. To successfully navigate a company through a post-pandemic world, even the most progressive organizations will need to adapt to new realities.
A NEW HYBRID REALITY
The pandemic disproved the notion that employees needed to physically be in an office to work. The post-pandemic “new world” will neither be fully remote nor fully in-person. Instead, it will likely be a hybrid environment where people will come together to team-build and strengthen relationships.
According to the results of a recent “2020 Anytime, Anywhere Work Survey” from management consulting firm Convergence Coaching, 81% of firms expect to have an increase, or significant increase, in the number of people working from home post-pandemic. As the world cautiously opens back up and vaccines continue to roll out, some employees are now choosing to come back to an office space but more so for social interaction, personal needs or to get back into a routine. Employers should understand they do not have to be in the office to “put their head down” and work.
Leadership should look beyond the immediate post-pandemic lens to integrate insights from remote work into a hybrid, sustainable strategy that supports employees regardless of where they are. According to the Center for Association Leadership, an important step in nurturing this new environment is to develop a workforce strategy that incorporates remote work as a key component. The five most important elements of executing this are addressing:
- Whether job roles are convertible to remote work
- Personal aptitude for remote work
- Physical space needs
Considering tactics in each of these categories will help companies create an environment that can improve employee engagement, productivity and the bottom line.
DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION AND ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT
A hybrid environment will bring with it a continued wave of innovation, a new generation of entrepreneurs and the acceleration of technology. As new research on global consumer sentiment during the pandemic from McKinsey & Company demonstrates, society advanced five years in both consumer and business adoption in just eight weeks, and the recovery from the pandemic will be done digitally. If they have not already, businesses will need to increase their digital presence to be on par with – or better than – their competitors to succeed.
This also brings about a new wave of entrepreneurship, from individuals and businesses. Drexel University agrees that an entrepreneurial mindset is critical to the future. The pandemic forced companies to become agile problem-solvers to stay afloat. Innovators and entrepreneurs who think outside the box and develop technologies and solutions will have a lasting and positive impact in the post-pandemic world. According to the Drexel research, this has already had a positive impact on long-term business success. By embracing an entrepreneurial mindset, companies have seen an increase in revenue, a boost in employee morale and the knowledge to grow in new capacities.
FOSTER AND ATTRACT TALENT
Employee turnover is expensive. According to Gallup, the cost to replace an employee can range from one-half to twice the employee’s annual salary. Upskilling or reskilling employees will become essential to improve engagement and retention. As workers grow their skill set, companies will have a more well-rounded, cross-trained workforce and will increase their overall effectiveness.
According to ITA Group, this is a significant advantage in an increasingly technology-driven world. It not only boosts the company’s bottom line but also improves employee retention and morale, increases customer satisfaction and attracts new talent. Reskilling helps employees get excited for the future and see paths for career advancement — and happy employees lead to happy clients. Similarly, clients want to work with a knowledgeable, proactive team and will become stronger brand advocates when they are given the best recommendations and insights.
RELATIONSHIPS REQUIRE NURTURING
While it might be safe to assume that most organizations will not be 100% face-to-face in the future, there is still a need for interpersonal relationships – both among colleagues and clients. Leadership will need to develop ways in which employees can come together to collaborate, build trust, complete trainings and share insights.
On the surface, a recent Fast Company study suggested workers who communicate with their colleagues primarily through videoconferencing are far less effective at building relationships. However, after closer examination, the study found those who focused on nonverbal communication cues or tried harder to listen attentively were less likely to see any change in the quality of their work relationships. Instead, video calls proved to be just as efficient and even more effective in coordinating team activities.
In the future, businesses with an all-remote or hybrid workplace will need to adopt new technologies to create an inclusive environment that helps foster relationships. McKinsey & Company states that the new hybrid model promises greater access to talent, increased productivity for individuals and small teams, lower costs, more flexibility and improved employee experiences. Relationships remain foundational to success in a hybrid environment. Ultimately, businesses should decide where on the hybrid spectrum they fall and, from there, how to optimize environments needed to support their desired outcomes.
LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION TO TRANSITION
The transition to remote work was abrupt and dramatic. However, the evolution to a hybrid environment will be more complicated, and much of its success will be determined by technology and innovation. This can vary for different teams and individuals, but organizations must work to find the right arrangement for the long-term health of the company’s culture to be successful.
Investing in the right tools and technology play a key role in innovation. In the past, this meant creating efficiencies, improving speed of service or leveraging resources. Today, investments will be needed for remote access to proprietary data, communication and collaboration. Companies should think strategically about what can be done today that will have a lasting impact and set them up for future success.
Forbes reports that the massive wave of tech adoption that occurred because of the pandemic was not a short-term trend. This technology also demonstrated the ability to help companies operate with more flexibility while still driving business growth.
Research from McKinsey & Company also supports the concept that technology should be seen as a component of every business – not just a tool to achieve cost efficiencies.
This holds true for client relationships as well. Companies should also adjust to meet the workplace expectations of those clients. Another recent Forbes article offered five tips on developing new strategies for attracting clients in these volatile times:
- Explore offline opportunities
- Share your story, but do not make it about you
- Bring back old-school strategies like direct mail
- Find ways to work together and leverage new partnerships
- Determine the new needs of your clients
Equally important is the employee experience. Happy employees are more productive. A 2019 study by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School found that employees are 13% more productive when happy. These employees do not necessarily work more hours but are more productive during their time at work.
For some firms, addressing challenges with remote work or remote training could require the acceleration of digital learning with investments in learning platforms or the adoption of technologies like AR, VR or mixed reality. The pandemic also placed enormous weight on the health and safety of employees. Companies will need to strike a balance between mental health and productivity.
THE 'NEW' NETWORKING
Before the pandemic, a strong digital presence was “nice to have.” Now, it is a “need to have.” It is essential for organizations to have an online presence, through a combination of websites, social media and/or thought leadership content. This helps businesses connect with customers and, even more importantly, can help earn their trust when executed correctly. More than ever, consumers see and relate to companies in a digital world.
According to Midnet Media, the average time a person spent online before COVID-19 was roughly four hours a day. Eight months into the pandemic, it was up to nearly seven hours a day. Consumers are now more likely now to go online to address their needs. Companies should leverage their online presence to build relationships as a key part of their business development strategy.
However, more accesses to clients does not necessarily correlate to more engagement. It is vital for organizations to invest time and energy in new ways to connect with their clients outside of simply nurturing an online presence. Inc. suggests three starting points for companies to form lasting customer relationships:
- Earn loyalty by working for your customers: What do they need in today’s world?
- Learn lessons from customer data: This can lead to more sales and referrals.
- Take a stance on core values: Does the brand align with its customers’ values?
A NEW FRONTIER
Continuity plans, scenario-based planning, investing and implementing new technology, data and analytics – these are all must-haves for businesses to be successful in a post-pandemic world. Every organization will need to identify its specific needs and create a strategy to address them, as well as strategies to fine-tune them to determine what works. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
The pandemic shifted reality overnight, but it has also created immense opportunities for growth and innovation. An organization’s resilience and ability to pivot will have a dramatic impact on its future success. Moving forward, those that are open to finding innovative solutions to challenges – and to make lemonade out of lemons – will likely be even stronger than before.