Post-Covid transformation: has the pandemic forced us to change how we change?

Covid-19 laid bare the inadequacy of organisations’ strategies for managing crisis-driven change overnight. In some cases, incompetence rather than readiness was uncovered. Once the immediate battle for survival was over, however, the critical need for businesses to change the way they change became apparent. What does this transformation involve? Will there be a business-as-usual after Covid and what will it look like?

A crisis-management strategy? Of course. Business continuity planning? Absolutely. However you phrase it, before the pandemic any company owner, director or senior officer worthy of the title would have nodded sagely, even smugly, when questioned about their disaster-recovery procedures. In companies globally, financial services or otherwise, collaborative teams would have been confident they’d agreed and adopted effective plans to mitigate against endless challenging scenarios.

Then Covid happened. Despite setting definite policies, even stringently testing their efficiency, in 2020 companies were quickly confronted with their plans’ limitations. As the pandemic broke and its effect spread, the best laid plans showed up their weaknesses. Businesses closed abruptly, employees forced to work from homes which were often ill-equipped or furnished to cater for business use. Face-to-face client interactions were impossible. Processes and business operations that didn’t translate well to homeworking were quickly exposed and many specific issues became apparent that no amount of contingency planning would ever have identified.

To survive, companies had to accelerate the innovation and digital transformation initiatives they’d started pre-Covid by rates unimaginable beforehand. According to IBM, 59% of organisations they surveyed had fast-tracked their digital change programmes. The changes demanded were far from fine-tuning, they were about existing, and they had to be fast, decisive, clearly communicated and, for the most part, virtual. Incremental adjustments gave way to sweeping, disruptive change. Brave decisions were necessary, sometimes based on imperfect information. As Sarah Jensen Clayton, senior client partner with Korn Ferry, put it in the Harvard Business Review, “traditional change management – often characterised by heavy process, lengthy timelines, and clunky rollouts – won’t cut it right now.”

More has been accomplished in the last 12 months than in the previous five years. The pandemic’s scope, severity and duration prompted swift action to drive organisations through the immediate danger. The disruption also triggered forward-thinking solutions. What would future proof the business? What will become mainstream or even obsolete tomorrow? The crisis uncovered a critical need to understand corporate activities entirely, from top to bottom, and including every employee. Wholesale, permanent, responsive modifications were needed, the key aspects of which are appropriate for businesses everywhere:

  • In the midst of turmoil and uncertainty, the timing, tone and clarity of leadership communications are With people working separately, leaders must seize control of the narrative, be open, clear and honest about the things they don’t know. They should encourage engagement and interaction.
  • In a similar vein, collaborative, cross-functional input into operational practices and long-term strategy is crucial if a disparate workforce and its processes are be effective. Who performs what and interacts with whom? Who blocks who and are there silos to be broken down? Where are the gaps?
  • Maintaining balance between leadership control and micromanagement is fundamental for morale and an inclusive environment. Fulfilling regulatory and legal obligations in the virtual environment can’t be compromised in any circumstance. Remote working need not signal the end of informal desk-side coaching or performance conversations though. By having more discussions more often, managers can communicate what’s most needed when and drive rapid behaviour change.
  • The ‘new normal’ will resemble the old one, but not much. Even when it’s possible, a backwards shift to lengthy, daily commutes and full time, office-based working is unlikely now we’ve experienced flexible working possibilities. Agile IT, swift decision-making, on-demand learning, online meetings and all manner of virtual environment enablement measures are here to stay.

Covid has shown global business leaders that adaptability, enterprise, resilience and innovation will be vital for success in the post-pandemic landscape. The world is fast-paced and unpredictable; the unexpected and unlikely are more plausible than we could ever have imagined, and tomorrow’s winners will be those who can anticipate change, swiftly identify and fill capability gaps and rapidly deploy resource to address challenges as they emerge. Leaders who tailor the pandemic-induced changes they’ve implemented in strategy, management, operational processes and priorities to navigate future difficulties will leave those waiting for the world to go back to ‘normal’ behind.

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