The best way to predict what the ‘next normal’ will look like is to create it

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COVID-19 forced businesses into a ‘flight, fight or freeze’ scenario, and many have come out fighting. Companies have fast-tracked innovation in order to survive the challenging business climate they found themselves in. Changes that would have once been enacted over months – such as transitioning to work-from-home models, flexing to accommodate new consumer behaviours, and scaling up digital support channels – were pushed through in weeks. The result? A new world of agility and opportunity.

The challenges created by COVID-19 are not over. Companies now face the daunting job of rebooting the global economy in a world where the old rules of business no longer apply. It is impossible for any of these businesses to predict exactly what their ‘next normal’ will look like in the coming months and years. They can, however, take an active role in shaping it by building on the momentum lockdown gave them to drive sustainable, innovation-led business models. This will be key to enabling them to keep pivoting in the face of unpredictable change.

Reimagining leadership and ways of doing business

As business leaders begin to construct the ‘next normal’ they must unlearn the ways of the pre-COVID world, such as the concept of having a fixed destination in mind and a fixed path to get there. We expect the pandemic to cause further ripples of change over coming months and years. To respond, business leaders need to be willing to adjust direction regularly and reprioritise to survive – to be agile. This will mean becoming comfortable with following a broad direction of travel on a path that may take unexpected turns. They must also sacrifice trying to come up with the perfect solution the first time around, instead focusing on moving swiftly in the right direction. To support them in this process they will need to build teams capable of making quick decisions, driving action and iterating fast.

The workforce of the future

For employees to successfully support their managers in realising new ways of doing business they must be effectively managed and motivated. This requires human resources (HR) to rethink employee engagement for a remote working world.

Flexible working has been shown to be a success and viable long-term option during lockdown. That said, employees do feel the strain of not being able to interact normally with their colleagues after several months of working from home. According to recent research from Vodafone, 41 percent of employees are missing workplace humour. With a full-time return to work unlikely in the immediate future, HR must consider how corporate culture can be retained remotely. For instance, by creating relaxed virtual forums where strong performing team members can be celebrated or new employees introduced informally. This will be key to maintaining healthy collaboration between employees and teams.

What’s more, businesses will also need to devise strategies for upskilling staff remotely so that they are equipped with the tools and training to thrive in the ‘next normal’. This will include delivering guidance on how to support customers digitally or to drive sales when face-to-face meetings are impossible.  Companies must move rapidly in enacting these plans to prevent themselves being outpaced and losing business to competitors who are capable of delivering human interaction remotely.

Combining the human touch with digital power for enhanced customer experience

Positive human interaction is at the heart of effective customer conversations. This has not changed despite lockdown or social distancing, and makes in-person encounters challenging. In place of traditional methods of interaction, people have turned to digital conversations and phone calls to deliver customer service. The lessons learnt on making these moments with customers matter need to be taken forward into the ‘next normal’. Perversely, technology will hold the key to making human interactions more powerful. For example deploying automation to handle routine tasks, and using analytics to identify and remediate issues, will enable people to focus on delivering valuable human experiences.

The oxygen of business success

In the ‘next normal’ agility will be the oxygen of business success, and we will see standards of innovation we never before thought possible. Business leaders will change business models that are no longer fit for purpose. Engaged, upskilled employees will pivot to deliver positive human interactions, supported by digital methods. By proactively taking these steps to become agile, businesses will shape the ‘next normal’ that they step into, and capitalise on emerging opportunities at speed. This will distinguish them from competitors and ensure their survival in the post-COVID-19 world.

This article is written by Sundara Sukavanam, Chief Digital Officer at Firstsource and was originally published at Global Banking and Finance Review 
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