We often hear these days that the world will move into a new norm post Covid-19. “As Covid-19 impacts every aspect of our work and life, we have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”, Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft. In the shortest time, we have seen a significant transformation in the workplace and perhaps even society.

From an HR leader’s perspective, the HR function has been combating this pandemic by managing issues ranging from massive scale remote working, large scale job losses, supporting the mental wellbeing of the employees, coaching managers to avoid micromanaging their teams in these exceptionally challenging environments. The list is endless.

During these times, of all the learnings, one thing is very clear, we are more capable of adapting than organizations and employees give themselves credit for! What might be some of the other lessons for the HR leaders as we move to the new norm? As an HR practitioner, I would like to share my learnings from managing the workplace during the pandemic.

Lesson One: Wake up, it’s a new world on the other side of this pandemic

Don’t compare this to the Global Financial Crisis or any other economic crisis, for that matter. Covid-19 is a global pandemic that is leading to a social and economic crisis due to:

1. Need Social Distancing, leading to lockdowns, travel bans, etc.

2. Stress on our health care systems

3. Disruptions in the work &education systems

And unlike a financial or institutional crisis, it’s abundantly clear that V-shaped recovery is not happening. Airlines, probably the worst impacted, are likely to go back to 2019 levels only by 2024! There are industries that will change forever, disappear, and new ones are likely to emerge or already emerging. Look all around us; while some industries have struggled (e.g., Aviation), there are others (e.g., Zoom) who have had the best run during this pandemic.

This pandemic is leading to behavioral changes, political changes, economic changes that are not just impacting how we work but how we live and how we interact.

"During these times, of all the learnings, one thing is very clear, we are more capable of adapting than organizations and employees give themselves credit for!” "

However, I still hear few leaders almost waiting for a day when everything will be back to normal. It’s not happening; wake up!

For example A lot of debate is focused on the pros and cons of the current Work from Home (WFH) situation. And many leaders are still expecting 100% back to the office at some point in the future.

What we are witnessing during lockdowns is an extreme situation in response to the pandemic, and this will definitely not be a new normal. This extreme WFH has helped ensure business continuity, which has probably resulted in fewer job losses. It will be naïve to write off the WFH experience altogether. Employees and leaders alike have experienced a new way of conducting business. It will be an opportunity lost if we go back to pre-covid-19normal. As they say, don’t let a crisis go to waste. Use this to push the transformation agenda. Take this as a learning at an unprecedented scale, that can guide us in designing a hybrid working environment for the future, as several organizations, like Google, have already started announcing.

Lesson Two: Digital adoption is less about technology and more about the leader’s mindset

Covid-19 is not just the largest social experiment on working from home, I believe, it’s also the biggest experiment on managing change, and we simply cannot ignore the lessons learnt from this.

Digital disruption is not new; Uber, Airbnb are now over 10 years old! Future of work, the rise of the gig economy is being talked about for over a decade now. So, it seems that there was enough time to adopt the digital lifestyle. However, when the pandemic struck us and businesses were forced to go digital overnight, we saw how many were found struggling!

Again let’s see this from adoption from a working from a home perspective. Figure 1 above plots the ability of jobs to be done remotely vs. the job actually being performed remotely. There are two takeaways from the figure above. One, there were businesses where remote working was just not possible, examples would Spa, bars, dentists, pilots. These businesses suffered closure and job losses due to the nature of their business, and it is shown in Red (Bottom left). However, there are businesses where jobs could have been done remotely, but they failed to adapt. What these businesses suffered was their own making. The second example begs the questions; why did these businesses not adapt. Why did they need a pandemic as a wake-up call?

My take is that there has been far more focus on technology, as we assume technology as the barrier to digital pivot. However, as we invest in technology, there are companies that have underinvested in leadership mindset and employee reskilling. Like many others, I have been saying for several years now that Digital adoption is less about technology and more about mindset. But it seems that as leaders, it easier to blame the technology than to blame ourselves!

As restaurants moved to delivery or organizations moved to Zoom, they were not using technologies there were invented during the pandemic!

And, if we look at employees, most surveys agree on the general trend that most employees adapted well to remote working, and they did not report any significant drop in productivity. It does not seem to be an issue related to reskilling. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against reskilling. My only point is that there is a bigger problem that the leadership is overlooking.

And this problem is the leadership itself! When leaders were forced to work remotely, suddenly everything fell in place. There was enabling technology, and there were willing employees. What was lacking was sponsorship from the top leaders.

There is enough research to suggest that not all leaders appreciate technology/digital equally. There are leaders who can be considered digital migrants. They look at technology as an automation tool that can only be used to do the same thing better, faster, cheaper.

And then there are leaders who are digital natives. They look at technology to question the current way of doing things. They are willing to start from first principles when looking at a problem. They will look at technology to design new products or a new experience. They won’t be satisfied with digitizing an existing product or service. They won’t be making a business case to automate the bank branch but would be questioning the need for a branch in the first place.

So,what’s the key takeaway: Disruptions are likely going to be the new normal, pace can be debated. Not all will be as severe as Covid-19, but organizations need to look beyond technology and reskilling. They need to look at leadership diversity beyond gender; we need to have a healthy mix of digital migrants and digital natives to drive change.