Peter Law, HR & OD strategist, and Chew Ann Jee, HR Specialist, Learning & Talent Management, Payments Network Malaysia (PayNet), lay out a plan of action for business leaders and business owners to not only manage the organisation, but also themselves and their teams in the 'Age of Wisdom'.

Just as Steve Jobs used to say, we can’t connect the dots looking forward; we can only connect the dots looking backwards. So we have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has impacted the way of life of people, communities and businesses in an unprecedented manner across the globe. 

In Malaysia, the real battle to the COVID-19 war began on 16 March 2020 when the Malaysian government announced the Movement Control Order (MCO) from 18 March 2020 to 31 March 2020. The announcement resulted in two distinct behaviours of panic among the communities. On one end, people were in buying-panic, clearing out grocery stores and stocking up to stay at home. On the other end, people were in packing-panic, purchasing tickets to go back to their hometown.

Clearly, the main emphasis was on containing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Unexpectedly or expectedly, the government soon announced further extensions of MCO to curb the continued rise in cases. One Malaysia started to realise the seriousness of the disease and eventually put their foot down to lead the fight together.

Business Leaders have been feeling their way towards being understanding, from reacting to responding, and eventually learning lessons from the rapidly unfolding events. COVID-19 instantly turned our world upside down, putting us through the largest work-from-home (WFH) experiment, and accelerating digital transformation at scale.

In just a short period of time, thousands of businesses of all sizes were figuring the new way of work in the virtual world. Today, working from home is no longer a privilege, it is a necessity for business continuity. This is definitely not how we would envisioned Vision 2020, but thanks to COVID-19, we have been reminded that the future is predictably unpredictable and we should expect the unexpected as a way of life.

Stay at home, work from home

The fact is, even before COVID-19 became the catalyst, there were quite a number of employers already embracing the ever-evolving technologies that make WFH an option for their employees. They recognised that it’s no longer necessary to have employees to be in an office full-time to be a productive contributor of a team. Indeed, many kinds of work can be done just as effectively, if not more so, from home or anywhere.

But this time, WFH was not an option but mandatory. Were employers and employees ready for the workplace changes?

We have recently concluded a survey on the impact of MCO due to the COVID-19 pandemic to the personal life, professional life and organisation for a holistic insight from both the perspectives of employees and business leaders/business owners. We collected 145 responses during the first few days of MCO with 93% of the respondents being Malaysians working in Malaysia and abroad. 

The results indicated that whilst 57% of the management team (business leaders/business owners) said their organisations were unprepared for the massive scale of workplace changes; on a contrary, 63% of employees responded that their organisation prepared well for them to work-from-home. 

Let’s take a quick look at the top challenges faced by employees versus business leaders/owners working from home:

barriers working from home

Barriers to effective communication top the challenges faced by both employees and business leaders/owners. Both groups also pointed out insufficient facilities, tools and devices; and that the home environment is not conducive to work as the other top challenges faced.

Surprisingly, lack of trust came up last in the challenges faced by employees and business leaders/owners. With that in mind, we predict there will be a significant surge in WFH post the COVID-19 crisis, as more investment is poured into digitalisation of business processes, infrastructure and tools.

Leading yourself

Working from home can be overwhelming, especially when you have family to take care of. Here are the 3Ps on how you can regain your focus in leading yourself in navigating through the uncertainties.

Take proactive action

Be proactive in responding to challenges and that include self-learning and upskilling. First, focus on your circle of influence and within your circle of influence, consciously and constantly create and deliver values. How can you perform better, faster, smarter to deliver on the promise of excellent service? Be good, do good and you will put the company in the best possible position to navigate new strategic choices.

Take pragmatic action

Take pragmatic actions in dealing with uncertainty. Do something practical in support of your company’s success. With all the time saved in commuting, the one or two hours could be used for planning and thinking to possibly come up with a better and more innovative way to get your work done.

Take prioritisation seriously

Work-life balance is a state of mind and emotion and it can only be achieved when we prioritise. It’s when you are emotionally balanced, that you are at your best to deliver value to both work and life.

Leading your team

Leaders, especially those who are not used to managing virtual teams, may feel stressed about keeping the team on track. Under these circumstances it is tempting to become exclusively task-focused. By addressing the following 3Ps, it will help to keep your team morale in check and sustain productivity.

Purpose

The research showed that 37% of employees and 46% of business leaders/business owners indicated that their home environment was not conducive to work and there were way too many distractions at home that hinder them to work effectively.

Therefore, it’s important for a team to revisit purpose, re-clarify goals and roles to help team members to regain focus on business priorities (urgency/importance). This reaffirmation helps individuals to independently understand the purpose and in turn, they will make more informed decisions to prioritise and take pragmatic actions to achieve a common goal.

People

Your people are your greatest asset in navigating through the adversity. But based on the research, barriers to effective communication top the list of challenges for both employees and business leaders/owners. So, it is pivotal to establish team rituals to re-create team culture as to many, it is their first time working remotely.

One simple yet powerful team ritual is to schedule a weekly team meeting, to have meaningful conversations and keep your team members engaged. Set times for the team to come together virtually; it is easier to cancel if the meeting isn’t needed than it is to pull together last-minute conversations without creating additional disruption.

It is also encouraged that business leaders to do a daily 10-15 minute huddle to bring the team together and get a quick update on the crucial daily updates, on top of the scheduled weekly meeting.

Process

With the change of work environment, it’s vital for teams to re-examine existing work processes, and re-design and establish new processes that complement working remotely while not compromising the quality of deliverables. 

Leading your organisation

Let’s face it, COVID-19 is not a one-off challenge. Business leaders and owners should expect additional phases to the current epidemic and additional epidemics in the future.

Interestingly, both employees and business leaders/owners indicate that their preference in opting for WFH in the future at 47% and 51% respectively. This is a strong indicator that more business leaders and owners are finally doing away with the myth of “productivity suffers when employees WFH”.

At the same time, the time saved on commuting to and fro work, both groups could use it for something beneficial to their personal or professional life, be it spending quality time with love ones, meditation or prayer to enhance our spiritual wellbeing, learn a new skill or simply spend some quality time to think and crystalise our strategic plans to help the organisation implement something better.

How do you prepare your organisation to not only flexibly respond to the COVID-19 disruption, but also to use it as an opportunity to reimagine work? It is high time for organisations to look at the 3Ps as follows to carve out a holistic business continuity framework.

Plan

As we all learn from this crisis, business leaders/owners should take this opportunity to strategically plan and mitigate the risks to face a VUCA future. This is the time to establish a Business Continuity Planning (BCP) committee within the available resources if your organisation do not already have one or to elevate the BCP with more stringent stress tests.

Preparation

Business leaders/owners should expect that the COVID-19 crisis will change our businesses and society in important ways. It’s time to let go of the old paradigms and embrace the plausible new ways of work through empowering our people, enabling new processes, and establishing a system for business sustainability from good to great and built to last.

Paradigm shift

For all business leaders/owners, it is time to live up to the advocacy of 'people are my greatest asset'. If you would like to design an outcome for long-term gain, short-term sacrifices to keep talent are key. If you are to resort to layoffs now, it will take you much more efforts to rebuild the team, and probably at a significantly higher cost.  

Post COVID-19 war: What will life be like?

COVID-19 has shaken the world and awakened many of us to face a new reality, even a new age of civilisation called the emerging Age of Wisdom. We have passed through first, the Hunter and Gatherer Age; second, the Agriculture Age; third, the Industrial Age; fourth, the Information/Knowledge Worker Age; and finally arriving at the Age of Wisdom.

To survive, thrive, innovate, excel and lead in this reality, we will need to embrace a new mindset, skillset and toolset - in other words, a new way of life.

The choices you make today dictate the life you live tomorrow. To all of you out there, be it business leaders, business owners, or employees, we are living in the Age of Wisdom, make your choice wisely!