Responding to change and business uncertainty: the impact of COVID-19

Responding to business uncertainty - financial chart with stock price changes

Nothing could have prepared us for the situation we as a society now find ourselves in during 2020. Faced with a new complex reality, many organizations have understandably struggled to respond quickly and practically to growing business uncertainty. Businesses have been forced to ‘go digital’ almost overnight – which has presented opportunities as well as challenges for senior leadership teams.

CTOs have suddenly been thrown into the spotlight and are better placed than ever to drive business change, while CEOs are under pressure to set the tone that could shape their companies’ futures. So how have businesses responded to the crisis? And what important lessons have already emerged? Here are the main developments we’ve seen taking shape over the last few weeks and some key takeaways for organizations to consider when facing business uncertainty.

Shifting priorities in the face of business uncertainty

Since the stronger social distancing measures came into effect, we’ve seen that changing business priorities have centered around three major themes: cash preservation, customer experience and employee engagement.

Cash preservation involves ensuring that the business is well funded and not undercapitalized in a particular area. This has been complicated by growing business uncertainty and the fact that some organizations are now having to think about funding new ways of working. Most businesses are being forced to pause and ask better questions about how they spend money. They are having to think about how they can invest differently and scrutinize whether investments will really provide the tangible value needed to satisfy customers and employees in both the short and longer term.

When it comes to customer experience, making sure that customers continue to be served in the way they expect is paramount. The customer still reigns supreme, putting the onus on businesses to establish a remote working environment that serves their customers in the most effective way to ensure long-term customer retention. Many businesses are responding by embracing speed over perfection. Amidst so much business uncertainty, a less-than-perfect customer interaction today can actually be more valuable than a perfect one in a month’s time. What’s more, a company that is able to move faster now will be even more agile once the immediate crisis lessens.

Moving to employee engagement, the biggest challenge businesses in all industries are facing is the cultural and behavioral impact of shifting to remote working. Businesses should therefore prioritize the health and happiness of their staff, which will help increase loyalty and engagement long term. The first step is to engage your team in conversation – this is vital. Fostering community through virtual tools has proved to be an excellent way to combat isolation, while embracing the messy human elements of ‘business as usual at home’ such as children, pets and cramped apartments can keep spirits up. Employees themselves have also started supporting each other in new and innovative ways, such as offering virtual yoga sessions and coffee chats to stay connected.

Leading from the front

If there’s one thing this crisis has highlighted, it’s the importance of strong leadership. But this doesn’t just relate to making difficult decisions, which many leadership teams are currently having to agonize over in order to optimize teams, manage cash reserves and keep businesses running. It’s much more human than that.

In the current climate, a key consideration for business leaders should be their people. Strong leadership is all about how available and approachable leaders are to the people in their organizations. Instead of focusing on how they will manage people when working remotely, the most effective leaders will be thinking about how they can help employees and customers through the crisis. How can they help them cope with uncertainty? Or help them stay informed by providing timely information?

The way leaders respond now is what employees and customers will remember in the years to come. It could be something as simple as giving employees the time and space to adjust. Or encouraging them to set office hours and disconnect outside of them to prevent burnout and help maintain a healthy work/life balance. This level of people-focused leadership – along with providing constant and consistent communication – can help employees feel more at ease in this uncertain time.

Many companies have been financially impacted by the pandemic and are having to make difficult decisions about whether or not they currently ‘need’ all of their people. But what business leaders are likely not considering is will their people ‘need’ them when this is over? If leaders fail to effectively engage their teams on a human level, they risk a mass exodus from the business once stability is restored.

Resetting the status quo

Amidst so much change and business uncertainty, it’s tough to look beyond one day to the next. But as we get used to a new reality, our thoughts turn once again to the future of work. Will we ever completely return to what we previously thought of as ‘normal’? Although it’s too early to know for sure, it’s looking like the answer to that question will be a resounding ‘no’.

While remote working is nothing new, the forced nature of what we’re currently experiencing will prompt many companies to reassess their operations and rethink entire business models. On a day-by-day basis, companies are realizing that they’re able to support customers and operate efficiently with staff working remotely. This will certainly have long-term ramifications for businesses and employees alike. After all, if companies can cut costs and provide a quality customer experience with employees working from home, why wouldn’t they embrace it?

Almost all of us are learning that working differently is not only possible, but also offers an opportunity. Many teams all over the world are operating more efficiently remotely without the normal workplace distractions, while the increasing agility, connectedness and access to executives is enabling faster decision-making.

When the world is changing as quickly as it is at the moment, it’s vital that we as business leaders focus on the tangible. What can we do now to support our teams, our customers and therefore our businesses?

Ask your employees, partners and customers as many questions as you can. Understand their concerns, learn from their experiences, and look for the gaps you can fill with your own knowledge. If this situation has shown us anything it’s that no one has all the answers. Admitting what you don’t know, sharing experiences, and asking for help is the only way to make fast, informed and sensible changes. Business leaders who can do this are far more likely to survive the uncertainty that we’re currently facing and thrive in the months ahead.