Most residents of the three Nigerian states of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja currently on socio-economic lockdown are already fatigued. With obviously low levels of savings, many are already existing on the margins of survival and may not yield to prolonged activity lockdown. Worse still, both the federal and state governments have also substantially failed to provide them with any noticeable social safety support. However, regardless of the effectiveness of the extended stay-at-home in slowing down the virus spread, it nevertheless cannot put it out. As we learnt, acceptable levels of slowdown and extinction will occur only when the human body successfully learns to suppress the virus. Until then, we require the combinations of social distancing, regular washing of hands, the use of facemasks and hand gloves, as well as other preventive measures such as the timely isolation of infected persons, to survive the plague. The sum of it all is the need for immediate restoration of economic activities without putting many lives at risk of starvation. Big enterprises need this resumption as much as small and micro businesses do. In other words, the concern now is how to reboot enterprises and the economy while maximally complying with the ‘stay safe at home’ requirements of COVID-19? How will the corporate sector respond to this?
Organizations are always evolving in response to environmental stimuli such as the coronavirus epidemic and the resultant lockdown. In this case, two possibilities exist, namely, the extension of the lockdown period or its lifting altogether. Whatever the option is, there are five possible perspectives through which we can conjecture the corporate behavioural changes that would attend to the post-COVID-19 lockdown business resumption. These include the modifications to the ‘organizing’ arrangement, changes in the levels of technology acceptance and adaptation by most corporate leadership, elevated levels of acceptance of digital marketing and e-payments, enhanced focus on onboarding skill-specific tasks and shifts in mental models.
Unarguably, the first challenge is to get the workforce to appreciate the new regime of remote and dispersed offices. Working from home must be recognized as the new reality of work regardless of whether the lockdown is called-off or extended. Even if the lockdown is called-off, working together will still be challenging as members of staff must observe the minimum safety standards. Keeping an adequate social distance, regularly washing hands and the use of hand sanitizers are the very minimal hygiene standards expected of all persons and organizations. However, organizations with inadequate spaces to put in place these minimum safety standards are likely to right-size appropriately. It is also probable that some cadre of staff such as drivers, office assistants may fall in the first group of those to be affected. Many of these persons live in densely populated areas where social distancing may be challenging. The skills of some of them, such as the drivers, are also not too specific. Again, if there is an extension of the lockdown period, organizations are likely to reboot their operations remotely. That also demands that members of staff realize the need for them to interact effectively using varieties of digital applications and devices from home. Therefore, highly effective mental preparation of company members on how it expects them to work, confidentiality requirements, devotion to work even while at home, understanding of the new tools for collaboration becomes critical.
Organizing the execution of tasks must also recognize the need for effective social interactions, albeit remotely. Being dispersed must not whittle down the promotion of active social communication among members; otherwise, the cohesion required for them to produce as a team will weaken. This vital requirement may, therefore, inform the choice of technologies to use in team collaborations. Secondly, since working from home is replacing the traditional work-from-office approach, there must be thoroughly articulated and communicated performance measurement systems. As a fact, under the new regime of work-from-home, it appears that performance management will be considerably quantitative and dependent on ultimate results. This unique performance management and feedback requirement will again demand appropriate technologies that will quantitatively capture the work activities of team members as well as the results. Thirdly, human resource managers must, therefore, learn how to identify, recruit and onboard persons who can effectively work remotely, collaborate socially and at-work as well as deliver results based on these digital technologies. While these new ways of organizing may not necessarily break down hierarchical structures of organization, it nevertheless considerably flattens it.
Here is the most challenging part. Many CEOs still struggle with the acceptance and adaptation of technology as a business enabler. CEOs should ideally prioritize the use of technology for sustained growth and high performance. COVID-19 accentuates that importance. CEOs and business leaders can no longer merely possess the latest digital technologies as status symbols without understanding how to deploy them in performance optimization. Their latest iPhones and trendy Apple notebooks should no longer send false messages of technology acceptance. However, to effectively lead the workforce at this time, every good CEO and senior management should be steeped in the use and application of essential productivity tools for executing most of the typical task-demands of the business. The minimum expectation in this regard include competencies in the use of cloud-based technologies, digital applications for team collaboration and videoconferencing as well as word/text processing. CEOs and managers that ordinarily prefer to manage teams when they are physically present should start unlearning that. In place of that, they should begin to learn how to manage teams when they are working remotely.
Similarly, many organizations will equally face the challenge of the digitalization of their sales, marketing and payment functions. While this may sound obvious, acceptance, and competing in the digital space for market share is an uphill task for many companies. Some businesses are corporate shy in the area of digital marketing. And that is why some high performing businesses live with websites that were last updated five years ago or earlier. Organizations that also seem to have a predetermined and close-knit universe of clients may not necessarily manifest so much excitement over digital marketing. However, the sales function must continue to take place. And in a lockdown situation, digital presence appears to be the most feasible. The implication is the transformation of virtually every activity into e-commerce operation. Over the years, the Nigerian banking sector overcame that challenge with the digitalization of substantial aspects of its processes. Factually, physical presence in banking halls are no longer in vogue and even discouraged. This transformation is to be the norm in virtually every other business area. CEOs and business managers must find ways of converting every aspect of their operation as digitally operable.
On the communication side of things, working from home comes with substantial challenges. It is not debatable that working together from remote locations will ordinarily require a lot of interactions and discussions. The problem, however, is with regards to communication channels and platforms that are consistent with the choices of members of staff. For instance, while some members of the team may like to communicate over voice-based tools and avoid video communications, the reverse is the case for many others. Similarly, writing tones and patterns sometimes also create substantial misunderstanding due to their manner of construction as well as the interpretations given to them. Consider, reliance on email as a channel for communication. This channel will create lags in the time in which new assignments will be discovered and carried out by individual team members. One way to minimize these would be to define the time boundaries when team members should compulsorily check for new emails. Such email check-in time can be as many as four times in a day such that members can play with longer communication latitudes. Yet, the use of emails and chats can trigger high possibilities of misunderstanding. Accordingly, it may be encouraged that those who rely on the email channel should likewise accompany it with telephone conversations in circumstances where the number of team members is small and manageable. A much better channel should be video-based. Videoconferencing substantially minimizes the concern of misunderstanding because it offers communication opportunity that practically equates the physical one except the touching of each other. It is easy to read countenances which is essential in communication. The challenge here is about the cost of data and who bears it.
How do organizations recruit and onboard new members in this new era with minimal error? This work-from-home period no longer supports the watering down of the rigour required in identifying, evaluating and hiring new members of staff. Matter-of-factly, forward-looking organizations should by now be developing or modifying the onboarding procedures to reflect the emerging order. Let us imagine for instance, that hypothetically an organization successfully identifies and onboards a new team member but later discovers that the new member’s physical profile is not consistent with the overall profile required by the organization. The point here is that HR managers should find a way of screening all candidates in those areas that are of great importance to them. Again, members who frequently participate in the recruitment process should also be conversant with the software and digital applications that support remote interviewing and candidate assessment. Secondly, organizations should now more than ever before pay more attention to skill-specific functions as well as do more to retain persons that possess them. The scarcity or possibility of the sudden loss of persons with more general skills may not constitute much of the human resource management challenges at this period relative to those persons whose skills are hard to achieve and find.
Finally, response to the COVID-19 outbreak necessitates another round of the continuous adjustments that typically define the firm. Organizations that prioritize the use of technology at this time will do much better than those who failed to accord it the deserving attention. Business leaders must make the right investments in productivity infrastructure as well as devote enough time to mastering their deployment in creating more output. No one can correctly predict when this lockdown will be entirely over. There is also every likelihood that a new culture of maintaining some distancing and working from home might have come to stay. This unfolding culture, therefore, requires adjustments in work organization, as well as team collaborations and communication. It also demands that human resource managers must revise the existing recruitment and onboarding manuals to reflect the emerging order of work.
Frontpage January 16, 2019