The best COVID-19 lesson: Blowing up the status quo

For many businesses, the silver lining of the global pandemic was realizing they can dramatically change how they work.

Working from home

Image: iStock/undefined undefined

A year ago, suggesting that companies that were absolutely against remote working would experiment with, deploy, and ultimately be productive in a remote or hybrid working model, all in a matter of days, would be unthinkable. Perhaps even more dramatically, companies that made everything from helicopters to automobiles, that historically would take years to design and launch new products in their core business, retooled their factories to make medical equipment and PPE in a matter of weeks. Even in government, where straightforward changes often involve months of planning and additional months of union negotiations, stakeholders agreed to dramatic changes and then collaboratively executed them in record time.

SEE: TechRepublic Premium editorial calendar: IT policies, checklists, toolkits, and research for download (TechRepublic Premium)

What's most surprising is that these efforts broke through what once seemed like immovable and insurmountable obstacles, both real and perceived. "That would never work here" and its fellow traveler "But we've always done it this way" protestations that could once stop the best intentions of powerful executives, were neutered overnight, and companies moved at speeds that surprised even their own employees and executives. It seems two critical organizational shifts occurred due to the pandemic.

Zero tolerance for "no"

While technology was an oft-cited reason that remote working was never widely adopted, the primary challenge to remote work has long been one of scale. Even on a team of dozens or hundreds of people, all it takes is for one critical person to opt out of the tools to render them ineffective. Before 2020, most of us had worked with that willing curmudgeon who never was actually willing to figure out how to unmute him or herself, and insisted on emailed documents rather than collaborative editing of the Google Doc or file in Teams. This willing curmudgeon also existed at the leadership and executive levels, accepting the current status quo and being allowed to opt out of anything new due to seniority, position, or merely providing a convenient excuse for others who were happy to avoid change.

SEE: How to eliminate the Sunday Scaries and be more productive (TechRepublic)

Once the pandemic hit, seemingly overnight there were no more gentle laughs and patient acceptance of the person who "just can't figure out Slack." In most cases teams went out of their way to help their fellow colleagues adapt, but "no" simply was not an option.

Starting, and staying focused on, the end goal

The other dramatic shift was that organizations suddenly started focusing relentlessly on the end goal, whether that was building ventilators, selling cars online, providing curbside meal pickup, or moving sales meetings to virtual versions. Most of these end goals had been explored, and in many cases attempted by various organizations before the pandemic. The automotive industry, for example, spent years experimenting with online sales, with complex negotiations with dealers and convoluted transaction processing causing many players in the space to simply throw up their hands in despair.

SEE: 5 things leaders should never say to their teams (TechRepublic)

In most cases, projects like this stalled or failed because rather than focusing on the end objective and making decisions that advanced toward that objective, companies became bogged down in nuanced debates about technology, organization design, or politicking, all areas that allowed the various parties to essentially debate rather than do.

COVID-19 made these arguments trivial, and organizations suddenly didn't have time for trivialities and were willing to compromise, experiment, and march forward, even with imperfect solutions.

Carrying forward the COVID work mentality

There are likely very few individuals who do not yearn for the day when we can put COVID behind us and return to something that resembles normal. However, losing sight of the fact that your organization was able to perform feats that were previously deemed impossible is not something to be taken lightly. Take some time to find a few case studies where your organization was able to rapidly execute initiatives that were previously mired in a years-long morass, or achieve a near-overnight shift in how employees work together.

SEE: 5 things leaders should never say to their teams (TechRepublic)

If nothing else, merely accepting and embracing the realization that your organization and its people can perform feats that were once seemingly impossible should instill a feeling of confidence. Ideally, you can identify some specific behaviors and actions that can be replicated, whether it was streamlining approvals, acting differently with partners, or not accepting "no" without legitimate objection. These behaviors need not be reserved solely for times of peril. Next time you hear, "We've always done it that way" or a similar request to maintain the status quo, don't be afraid to remind your organization of its demonstrated ability to not always do things the same way, and perhaps even suggest that those same behaviors can be activated without requiring a global pandemic.

Also see