Visceral Learnings from Covid-19

The world is inexorably changing, generally driven by technological, social and economic forces. But this process is rarely smooth and is typically punctuated by sharp intermittent shocks which catalyse existing slow-moving trends to force irreversible change. Covid-19 has catalysed quite a few of these underlying forces, with more likely to come. As we see it, some of the most visceral of these shifts are as follows:

  • From traveling to meet, to virtually connecting to meet

We recently ran a series of engagement workshops with nearly 50 people from around Australia, and some globally, over 2 weeks. Six months ago, the client expectation was for this to be a two-day in-person gathering. The unavoidable virtualisation of the process allowed more people to be involved; shorter lead time to organise; more complete information gathering; faster synthesis; an experience where people who could not typically get their message through feeling validated, and all at a massively lower total cost and interruption to peoples working and personal lives. It’s hard to imagine a world where this shift is not permanent.

  • From stationing people at operations if uncertain, to installing sensors if uncertain

During the early weeks of the pandemic, most of the major miners in our region removed everyone from site unless they absolutely had to interact with equipment. Businesses were surprised by how well they adapted to this new reality when they properly understood the capability of enabling technology to gain sensory access to information at site. The flow-on benefits of cost, attracting talent, mental health, and speed of task execution are all self-evident. In fact, many businesses reported greater operating productivity. Consequently, several CEOs have explicitly moved to accelerate and lock-in operating model transformation on the back of this trend.

  • From managers dispensing flexibility, to employees expecting flexibility

Most businesses abruptly experienced a crash course in working from home and businesses have generally kept operating. Reduced commute, optimisation of personal agendas, the ability to focus on direct work, and greater engagement with family have all resulted from the new approach. The jury is out however on whether working from home can be effective in the developing young people, collaborative design work, serendipitous innovation, building team cultures, and meeting people’s social needs. But, the bulk of the workforce has experienced real flexibility, and this will be expected in future. An outstanding question is how engagement models will change as a result, and whether there will be an acceleration of the gig economy as a result.

  • From the hierarchy being remote and powerful, to being familiar and facilitative

Over the last two months I have joined a range of board meetings with globally eminent over achievers, interviewed CEOs and C-suite executives, and interacted with a wide range of workers all through Zoom. It has been a great levelling experience with passing dogs, passing kids, impatient teenagers interrupting executive Mums, and frustrated parents interrupting aspiring young executives. We have been effectively invited into people’s homes (and sheds), all in casual dress, and without the power distance of large offices and boardrooms guarded by protective administrative staff. The hierarchy will never be the same, and new forms of leadership engagement will evolve, leading to flatter hierarchies and a more equitable distribution of power.

  •  From centralised functions to the performance of empowered portfolios

Over the last few years, for various reasons, many corporate structures have swung through the seemingly inevitable pendulum cycle to the extreme end of centralised functions. These structures have proven unable to enable the local insight, cross-business integration and the agile responsiveness required to deal with something like covid-19. Successful businesspeople with decades long track records of creating outer performance in shareholder return have long questioned the efficacy of extreme centralisation. They cite the lack of connection between accountability, empowerment and the intimate business knowledge required for success. Perhaps the pendulum will not swing this far again for a long while and integration will be driven by much more fluid and adaptive mechanisms than the blunt instrument of organisational structure.

Graeme Stanway

Graeme Stanway

Graeme Stanway is a partner of VCI Ltd, a global strategy design company. Graeme has over 20 years’ experience in mining, heavy industry and technology businesses. He holds a PhD from Imperial College University of London, has been awarded the Medal of Innovation from the Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK. His strategy work has been referenced in the book “The First 11” as a benchmark case study in strategic transformation.