There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune.
On such a full sea we are now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures. – Shakespeare
Ripples of COVID-19
The world, according to the World Health Organization, is confronted with a global epidemic that has totally changed our lives. There is now what we call the ‘new normal’ with implications for every fabric of social life.
The ‘Okada’ (motor bike used for commercial transport business) rider in Ghana is banned from business as it breaches social distancing rules; the couple who hardly spent time together are compelled by an invincible virus to coexist like cat and mouse with petty quarrels; the pastor of a small congregation in a remote area is greatly impacted as offerings are drastically reduced; a president in a developing economy is trying to walk the fine balance of fighting the spread of the virus using World Health Organization approved protocols as well as not destroying citizen’s livelihood and the economy and the dread of putting their electoral fortunes on the line.
Not to mention the obvious display of ignorance and absurdity by some so-called first world leaders as they propose new medications in their quest to battle surging infection rates. No matter how one views this pandemic attack on the human race, there is one common conclusion: there is now a new normal in almost every sphere of our social lives.
Dying management 1.0
So, the question which confronts every business leader is how to adapt to this new normal. The late Jack Welch stated, ‘If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near’. There is massive change in the global business environment on the rules of engagement with various stakeholders. This change requires a change of organizational leaders’ mindset. There is a tidal wave that you can choose to swim with to lead to business fortune, as put by Shakespeare in the opening quote, or risk being overwhelmed by the surging force of the wave.
I have witnessed in my little consulting life how organizations, especially public institutions, have operated on systems and policies that measure work effort by physical presence. Essentially, there is no effective mechanism for defining work and assessing individual performance. I was once told the story of how in the civil service some staff (ladies in this particular case) operate with two handbags. One of the bags is permanently placed on their desk as they abandon work after reporting in the morning and head to town for their personal business.
When supervisors come around, colleagues confirm that the staff member in question has just left to visit the washroom or is around. By this explanation the supervisor is satisfied that the staff is present, hence, is working. What a shame. Performance management is not along the lines of productivity but instead physical presence. Does physical presence guarantee productivity always? No wonder some managers are so fixated on log ins and log outs, signing of attendance books, etc., as an administrative means of assessing and managing performance.
Surely, this administrative process can serve other ends, but is definitely not indicative of performance in this 21st century. Indeed, performance management premised on this thinking stems from a colloquial 19th century management thinking that related with semiskilled employees and efficiency.
As captured by Gary Hamel, the problem then was efficiency and scale, and the solution was bureaucracy, with its hierarchical structure, cascading goals, precise role definitions, and elaborate rules and procedures. This approach, with the coming into force of the internet, technology and the knowledge economy, has become redundant, and COVID-19 has made it even more obvious.
Virtual space is now new reality
Certainly, some industries like hospitality, aviation, and tourism have been rendered non-operational. However, in other industries, business leaders, now confronted with the new normal environment created by COVID-19, are struggling to remain relevant even as their workforce have had to operate away from office buildings on virtual platforms.
Are you prepared to accept this as the new norm going forward? Managers and business leaders are faced with new phenomena of communicating and managing a dispersed work force that necessarily must work together simultaneously in a hyperactive competitive 24-hour global economy. Competition has to do with how organizations that are compelled to transition wholly or partly unto the virtual platform can continue to stay competitive.
The traditional setup of physical collocation of employees has been disrupted by COVID-19 and has thrust on organizations the need to operate with teams, individuals, third parties, and customers on virtual platforms.
The question is whether technology, with all its benefits, can promote effective and efficient communications on the virtual platforms. It has become imperative for managers to themselves become savvy in technology-based communications and for companies to train not only employees but equally importantly, their customers.
Definitely, the acceptance and adaptation of the ‘virtualization’ of an organization’s operations and its Knowledge Management will be highly influenced by leaders and managers in terms of their beliefs, attitudes and culture. This requires leadership rethinking and, for some businesses, process reengineering.
Measuring and managing performance
An emerging twist from this development is a business culture that accepts and designs new and effective ways of performance management. It is a widely accepted fact that one cannot manage what cannot be measured.
Thus, the critical issue confronting every progressive business leader, going forward, is the leader’s ability to measure work objectively in these heightened virtual environments. Every employer engages an employee with some minimum expectations. The minimum expectation is a means to an end goal of performance at the individual, departmental, and organizational level.
There must be clear ‘key result areas’ (KRAs), with their corresponding ‘key performance indicators’ (KPIs) and goals that are set out throughout the hierarchy of the organization. The development of KRAs, KPIs, and goals are informed by strategic sessions that are built from the ground up. Hence, there is sufficient input from staff. In building the KRA, KPIS, and related goals, management needs a performance review system that will allow the organization meet set goals and that must be valid, reliable, cost-effective, fair.
The Millennium challenges
Leadership in most industries must evolve to meet the environmental changes. These include the growing number of millennials in the workplace, the globalization of both customers and competitors, and increased demands for flexibility that jointly conspire to make a leader’s job more challenging. There is a persistent ‘war on talents’ with businesses poaching each other’s high-flyer employees. In most industries, these high-performing employees are hard to retain as they tend to be more loyal to their personal career vision than to most organizations that over the years have not proven themselves loyal to their staff especially in times of takeovers, restructuring, mergers, etc.
This perceived or real disloyalty of corporate organizations to employees has made even more critical the need for talent management in retaining ‘highflyers’ or highly talented employees. COVID-19 has already brought about layoffs and the lesson for employees is to strive for career independence. Meaning, talented employees will attempt to break free from the 19th Century model of 9am-5pm ‘lockdown’ job schedules. They will want to earn a living but still remain independent and build an individually customized work-life balance.
Tomorrow’s organizations, according to Hamel, must be adaptable, innovative, inspiring, and socially responsible to this change. A potential solution is affording employees opportunities for telecommuting and flextime work on virtual platforms. Leaders must reduce fear and increase employee trust whiles reinventing the means of control.
Controls through physical confinement may ensure some level of compliance but with an opportunity cost of employee creativity, entrepreneurship, and engagement.
There seems to be no option for organizations and leaders than to accept and adapt ‘virtualization’, a byproduct of globalization and COVID-19, as the way forward for individual and team operations. The challenge for leaders will be to adapt first at the personal level; second, empower employees, and third, empower customers. In more profound and egalitarian terms, management must serve a higher purpose to the achievement of noble, socially significant goals. Mr. / Madam CEO, take the current when it serves or lose your ventures.
The writer is a Business and Organizational Development Consultant