Two months ago, before Covid-19, nobody imagined that businesses, organizations and governments would have to figure out how to re-start and get business moving forward again, nearly from scratch. The addition of unparalleled social, economic, financial, educational and legal constraints has made returning to work a daunting undertaking for both individual contributors and senior executives. This scenario is the definition a global Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment. How will executives tackle the formidable task of planning, leading and executing their return-to-work plan?
The Army created the term “VUCA” after the end of the Cold War and focused on creating leaders capable of operating in this new environment. (For more on applying VUCA principles to corporate leadership, read our six-part series.). The U.S. military is specifically trained to lead through crises and VUCA environments. These military lessons also translate directly to any executive leading their organization’s return to work plan.
Developing an organizational return to work plan is very similar to the challenge military units have faced for nearly two decades redeploying from combat zones back to their garrison posts, camps and bases. In 2005 while serving as the Rear (not forward deployed) Chief of Operations for the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, I led the development of the Army’s first 5R Campaign Plan on behalf of the 15,000 soldiers the 25th had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a phased plan to redeploy, reintegrate personnel, reset equipment, reorganize the design and make-up of units, and embark on a retraining plan from individual to collective unit level. Executive leaders can use this framework to develop and execute their own “5R Return to Work Plan” post this pandemic crisis.
1. Reintegrate: This should be phased over time starting with essential personnel then moving to important and non-essential. Formal welcome back ceremonies are critical to pull the team together, rekindle camaraderie, formally re-open the business, and communicate the current state and road ahead to employees. These or other forums are where leaders can recognize star players during the crisis – leaders who stepped up, employees who went the extra mile, and those who volunteered, gave and sacrificed for their community. Remembrance or memorials of employees or their family members who passed from Covid-19 will help with closure and shows genuine concern and understanding for what your employees have been going through.
Organizations also need to think through how they can facilitate the childcare and home-schooling needs of their employees and offer access to mental or spiritual wellness resources. Lastly, leaders must self-regulate and manage their own emotions, task load, and how others perceive their words and actions. Everyone is watching closely. Sensitivities and emotions will run high for months after the “end” of this crisis. Leaders must be calm, understanding, and precise in their actions and communications.
2. Reset: Many organizations will need a ramp up to get machinery and equipment back online and fully operational. Technology will have to be checked. Hardware and software will need updating and digital systems must be refreshed. Air systems and filtering should be reviewed to ensure they meet necessary standards. Physical distancing, health monitoring, and testing protocols must be established along with PPE guidelines. Consider hiring a certified third party to conduct heath monitoring. Lastly, undertake a thorough review of employee feedback channels to allow many of the reintegration concern areas to be monitored and acted upon.
3. Reorganize: The “new abnormal” of conducting business post Covid-19 gives organizations a unique opportunity to review their organizational design. Trade-offs, realignment, restructuring, workforce telework proportions, and an overall review of what is necessary and what is not should all be on the table. Crisis tends to show the best and worst in leaders. It likely provides insight on leader capability and capacity, thus giving executives clarity on succession planning. The crisis may have opened digital solutions that can be exploited and new customer channels to be developed. If there was culture change you were trying to affect pre-crisis, the re-start gives leaders the perfect opportunity for initiatives to make those changes. Lastly, this is also the good time to review compensation and benefit plans and right size them for employees, executives and the future business.
4. Retrain: Atrophied business fundamentals need to be refreshed and new distancing and health protocols must be trained. Use of a train-the-trainer program will empower junior leaders and employees cascading down to the lowest levels of your organization. If more reliance on digital capabilities is part of your reorganization plans, then digital hygiene training and operating procedures are vital to ensure long term security and success. A surge of new hires, interns, and potential leader reorganization will require investment into onboard training. Lastly, now is the opportunity to conduct a full business process review. Changes will require orientation and training to ensure smooth transition.
5. Resilience: Now more than ever the importance of training and developing leaders in your organization should be clear. We are sure to have COVID-19 aftershocks and the next crisis may be just around the corner. Trained leaders thrive and do not shrink in times of adversity. This current crisis has undoubtedly spotlighted leadership potential throughout your organization. Use this knowledge to build or re-frame your succession plan. It will provide organizational resilience in the long run. Long term HR policies should be shaped to withstand future bumps in the road. Leave of absence, compensation and benefits, and at work health and welfare policies are just a few examples. If the crisis highlighted vulnerabilities in your supply chain, a thorough review on reliance, reserves, and diversification is in order. Lastly, development of a longer term digital and virtual work systems and products plan may provide a measure of continuity during the next crisis.
Every business and organization has unique challenges ahead. Leaders cannot develop and execute their 5R Return to Work Plan on their own. Find the right subordinate leader or expert team and put them in charge of the planning and execution of each phase as part of the broader plan and team effort. Using this framework will bring order to, and break down, the monumental task of returning to work into less daunting and more achievable increments. Leadership, teamwork, and an indominable spirit is getting us through this crisis. Developing a 5R Return to Work Plan will help build strength, resilience, shared purpose, and will bring surprising success for businesses and organizations post crisis.