Preparing Your Workforce For A Second Wave Of COVID-19

As states begin to open up around the country, experts have warned of a likely W-impact, with a second wave coming later this year. Here’s how to prepare your workforce.

Critics have already begun to assess leaders’ actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial health of business and the emotional and psychological health of people are the natural measuring sticks to determine leadership quality and capability. As the crisis continues with its impact slowly revealing itself, it is increasingly likely that rather than a V-shaped recovery, we will see a double dipping W impact with a second wave of COVID-19 predicted for later this year. This presents a unique opportunity for another pass at managing the crisis, however, the window to prepare is limited and stakes are even higher. The grace shown to unprepared leaders during the initial crisis will not be granted again.

Leaders must demonstrate a well-oiled business continuity machine and the ability to continuously adapt and respond to new information and challenges. This ranges from applying new data and analytics to customer preferences and product/service experience to prolonged supply chain disruptions and more health and family issues affecting workforces. Leaders who did not realize a win previously now have another chance to build organizational strength to successfully combat a second wave.

Enabling business stability with a “Corporate Reserve Corps”  

To build the muscles of business continuity and adaptive resiliency, leaders must recognize the importance of cross skilling and reskilling throughout the ranks. Developing a Corporate Reserve Corps is a critical way to ensure that leaders and teammates can be redeployed as needed, creating maximum continuity, adaptability and flexibility across the company.

A key component to organizational stability is ensuring that strong leaders are in place to take the helm in their areas of expertise as well as in adjacent roles that require a similar skillset, if needed. By leveraging nuanced business knowledge, they can enhance stabilization. In the Corporate Reserve Corps model, preparing for the unexpected requires knowledge share among working leadership, making it easy for individuals to jump in and lend a hand.

While succession planning and career pathing have always been encouraged in the most resilient companies, these practices are built into long-term plans with massive runways for training and upskilling. In our new responsive environments, succession planning and leadership transfer become short-term cycles that must ensure business continuity as the pandemic creates more burn out, sick out and opt out among people. Preparing means intentionally designating leaders to learn elements of adjacent business functions now so they are ready to lead, rather than learning on the fly.

The Corporate Reserve Corps also requires organizations to place new emphasis on the ability of workers and leaders to shift focus and operate effectively across roles and functions. For example, Bank of America redeployed 3,000 branch employees to help handle call center demand instead. The training protocol becomes whatever is required to fill the knowledge gaps between the branch teller role and call center support duties. This approach prioritizes training areas that drive business value and put employees to work where most needed.

At another large financial institution, one of its first responses to the COVID-19 was redeploying individuals to key projects focused on regulatory requirements. They are currently learning new skills and operating in new roles; however, leadership is focused on preparing for the eventual return to business as usual. The missed opportunity is not building a simultaneous effort to cross train and reskill staff across multiple roles where capacity may be needed—to prepare for a second wave.

Now is the time to anticipate functions across the business where help will be needed and apply cross training/skilling in those areas for a strong reserve bench. For example, during this pandemic, some companies found additional employees were needed to fill roles related to increased demand as well as changing products/services. Interviewing and onboarding processes required an all hands-on deck approach throughout HR, repurposing benefits admins to generalist roles. But if the pandemic returns or reaches HR, even this will not be enough. Organizations at the forefront of reskilling and building a reserve corps may take the opportunity to have employees from areas like finance or innovation cross-trained for interviewing skills, so they can quickly pivot when the need arises.

Developing stepping stones to resiliency

Small but intentional organizational behaviors encouraged by leaders can go a long way in ramping up the reserve corps model within your company. Tolerating—and encouraging—additional attendees in remote meetings is one way to expand cross training and on the job models across roles and functions. Without physical limitations of room size or psychological dynamics, inviting other people to a virtual meeting translates into a low-risk forum to spread knowledge and experience.

Other steps can include creating co-worker partnerships that allow peers to share knowledge and turn to an on-the-job buddy with questions. Trained employees can also be recruited to become mentors and often enhance training materials with their own practical knowledge.

The upside? When called upon, well-trained individuals now have the functional knowledge to keep the business running, share new ideas that may not have been readily available before and boost productivity during a crisis—and beyond.

Dr. Kelli Klindtworth
Kelli is a principal at North Highland, a global management consulting firm, with more than 17 years of professional experience across all sectors. Her consulting experience includes a focus on cultural transformation, employee engagement, change management and organizational effectiveness.