Let’s Move Forward from COVID—Without Forgetting What We’ve Learned

As the post-pandemic world starts to take shape, many leaders will long to return to life before COVID-19. Instead, they should let go of the past and forge a new, better workplace, say Hise Gibson and MaShon Wilson.

The pandemic is winding down, and the world is moving toward an endemic approach. In the world’s COVID-19 epicenter, New York City, businesses, restaurants, and Broadway have reopened now that 4 million New Yorkers have been vaccinated.

Testing centers have begun to close as hospitalization rates decline, and even the spike created by the delta and omicron variants could not stop corporations from recalling workers to the office.

Many companies want to go back to the way things were, but that would be a mistake. “Organizational forgetting” is an academic term used to describe the voluntary or involuntary loss of knowledge in an organization. The type of organizational forgetting occurring now is creating more problems.

Instead of relying on the lessons learned from two years of COVID-19 crisis management, organizations are voluntarily losing knowledge and refusing to acknowledge the new environmental factors created by a persistent virus. It’s as if the success and gains made in 2021 with vaccinations and the incremental return to work and school policies have made leaders at different echelons reluctant to admit that their success in the previous crisis does not guarantee success with the new ones.

Organizations are trying so hard to maintain their hybrid work environments and fill offices. They’re trying so hard to get back to the pre-pandemic workplace, but was it so great? No.

There was and continues to be a culture of inequity that leaders did not address. The inequities resulted in team members being unable to bring their whole selves to work, which meant that organizations were operating with sub-optimal contributions. Also, excessive hierarchy that sought to drive efficiencies actually stunted growth and simultaneously penalized outside-the-box thinking and innovation. Organizations consistently applied new metrics to measure performance but used activity and time logged into systems to proxy for the actual value.

Forging a new, better workplace

Businesses are only as good as their people, and few people want to return to what was. People are tired and burned out. The virtual meeting that runs back-to-back has shed light on the need for mini-breaks and recovery time. The result of the remote work environment, in some industries, is that leaders believe that employees are accessible 24/7.

With over two years in a virtual, hybrid, and back-to-office see-saw, many people still deal with COVID disruptions. Many people are still undergoing deep introspection about their life direction—and considering significant changes (in other words, quitting). People want more meaning from their work. The informational power shift from employer to employee quickly allows employees to assess their options and find new opportunities within the industry, pivoting to another sector or starting an entrepreneurial venture to find more meaningful work.

Two things companies should be doing now: Assessing their current cultures and taking stock of how they handled the pandemic. Before they can do either of those things, leaders must leave the past in the past. After they let go of what was, they can use a tool that’s very powerful for corporate introspection. It’s called the CARE framework. Here’s how it works:

Collaborate on culture. First, the organization must decide its values. Identifying these values should be a collaborative, inclusive process at all levels. For example, common organizational values are “we are a people-first business” or “global impact in how people work” or even “do what is ethically or morally right.”

The easy part is stating the values; the real work is operationalizing the values. The organization needs to be clear and concise in creating its future vision, making it easier for team members to internalize these values. When this is done well, the lagging indicator is higher productivity, leading to additional revenue generation.

Assess the organization. The next step is for leaders to collect perspectives about how the organization fell short of its stated values or mission statement in the pre-COVID and current-COVID era. The organization can conduct interviews, working groups, and surveys to assess how employees perceive its shortcomings and leaders.

This exercise helps spot gaps between an organization’s stated and lived values. For example, the leaders of a so-called “people-first business” would quickly realize they’re not achieving their mission if employees cite grueling work schedules, leaders without empathy, cumbersome administrative processes, and an inability to change.

Reflect on the blind spots
. When leaders realize where their organizations are falling short, they can reflect on their shortcomings and make a concrete commitment to change, rather than qualify their failures.

Execute and reevaluate. Maintaining culture change requires measurement. Leaders should constantly reassess their progress by collecting feedback from a random representative sample at random intervals. The culture of continuous improvement is a robust accountability mechanism that drives innovation throughout the organization when done well.
After leaders establish whether their organizations are living in line with their values, they can take stock of how they’ve handled the COVID crisis, both operationally and managerially, and codify strengths and weaknesses. Leaders can accomplish this through three steps:

Create a system for evaluating and reviewing crisis plans. Building a process for reviewing crisis management plans and implementing new feedback and lessons helps companies stay ready for the unexpected. Any organization should have an up-to-date plan they can readily execute; organizations that constantly review their plans won’t have to create many new operating procedures.

Acknowledge change. Leaders have to be humble and accept that the operating environment has changed. What makes an organization successful in one crisis will not guarantee success in the next.

Train to prevent organizational forgetfulness. Organizations have to plan for turnover and teach new members the organization’s norms and practices—and how they apply during a crisis. Organizational forgetting doesn’t only occur because organizations choose to neglect previous lessons. It also happens because organizations fail to train new members and pass knowledge down.

Business leaders have an opportunity to create a new vision for working that values ideas and innovation, but only if they can take what they’ve learned and look forward—and let go of the past.


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