Laura Choos is an Organizational and Workforce Consultant at Fors Marsh Group (FMG), where she guides federal clients through managing change due to internal and external factors. She also develops and delivers FMG’s Leadership Lessons program, which comprises virtual webinars focused on leadership development. Additionally, she serves as a subject matter expert in the topics of competency modeling and diversity, equity, and inclusion. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from George Mason University in Industrial–Organizational Psychology and a Master of Arts degree from The George Washington University in Organizational Science.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the U.S. workforce, requiring organizations to be resilient and flexible in an ever-changing environment. This sweeping change has also driven an increased use of diverse technologies to facilitate tasks that are routinely completed in the office. Just one week into April of 2020, 31% of the nation’s entire workforce had entered a completely remote work environment, and 74% of professionals currently expect remote work to become the new normal. ,  Contrary to popular belief, remote work isn’t just for the private sector, either; 49% of employees in the government, public administration, and military sector are reporting that they are able to do their job completely remotely.  Right now, telework continues to be how much of the nation’s work gets done, rather than something reserved for unique employee situations.
Are current telework arrangements simply a Band-Aid for the immediate problems of the COVID-19 pandemic, or are they something that can be continued and even enhanced to improve organizational performance? As the pandemic took hold, telework solved crises in the moment, and its success points to the viability of larger-scale and ongoing remote operations. Technological solutions, such as workforce communication platforms and videoconferencing tools, expanded rapidly to meet new needs that emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As different platforms and tools continue to jockey for market share, tech companies continue to roll out innovations that break down the barriers between what can and cannot be done remotely.
Technological capacity is central to facilitating and expanding remote work, but it requires innovative and effective human engagement to reach its fullest potential. This human factor offers leaders an opportunity to truly stand out by responding to situations of change while adopting a growth mindset. Leaders can collaborate and build trust with their teams, leveraging open communication to support flexibility and adaptability. Creative use of new technology can underpin this communication and transparency, facilitating buy-in and mission alignment that ultimately transcends what might have been possible in rigidly hierarchical office spaces.
Some changes are planned, others are not.
Changes like new information-sharing processes or reconfigured procurement procedures can be prepared for ahead of time. Other changes are more unexpected and sudden, like responses to crises such as 9/11 or the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of whether it is expected or not, change affects leaders and their teams. Employees may worry about an uncertain future and lose confidence in their job functions and their leaders. They may become less productive and may even consider leaving their workplace—a serious challenge to employers during times of change, when experienced employees and institutional memory can be vital to positive outcomes. Leaders may encounter roadblocks when searching for the right methods to communicate with their employees, both in sharing information and receiving feedback. In large organizations, information may not flow easily from one department to another, leaving leaders themselves without a clear vision for the future. When implementation is rushed, the usual process to take change one step at a time and ensure buy-in is not always possible.
With an increasingly established telework force and new technologies in place, organizations may feel they are “okay for now,” having met the crisis-state challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. In reality, however, leaders know that “now” may be very short-lived. More change is always coming, whether it is planned or unplanned. Organizations have two choices—remain in a reactive posture, hoping for the best outcome when new problems arise, or view change readiness itself as an ideal state and strive to meet it. Will organizations continue using temporary, stop-gap solutions? Or can leaders help create an organizational state that prioritizes flexibility and resilience, avoiding injury altogether and thriving during times of change?
Thriving during change relies on people and processes.
Meeting the needs of people and creating nimble, responsive processes creates a “new normal” in which employees feel empowered and receptive to new ideas and leaders can communicate and reinforce new processes with less resistance. Organizations can use their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic to show employees that they are capable of adapting to change.
Coping with the “new normal” of remote work and an ongoing climate of change requires short-term and long-term solutions. Some ideas for quick wins that continue to promote employee engagement are:
1. Use the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to improve practices.
As you envision the future, you can change “good enough” practices to ones that truly work for your team. As you make routine plans and decisions, consider what you might want to change. You can ask yourself questions like, “Should a video call be used for all announcements, or can I simply write a status report to update the team?”
2. Try something different in a low-risk environment.
As you reflect on how to adjust processes, make small changes and solicit feedback from your team. To return to our example above, you might use a status report for a week or two and ask for team feedback on it. Think about change not as a big project, but as a series of small experiments—what we might call “probes into the future”—to quickly learn, through in-the-field experience, what works, what does not, and what it takes to get a result. These tests can be conducted in days or weeks, like the way lean start-ups use prototypes to better understand what customers want and will pay.
3. Get personally involved.
When efforts to make change lack urgency, senior leaders often kick off the initiative and then disappear, leaving the day-to-day work to change consultants or staff members. To re-create the kind of motivation that exists in a crisis, leaders should continue to stay involved with the teams, join them in celebrating the successes and challenges, and help their team to pivot or solve problems. The continuing personal involvement of senior leaders sends a signal to those working on change projects that the effort is critical to the organization’s success. It also increases the pressure to succeed by knowing that senior leaders are paying attention.
4. Be patient.
Remember to recognize effort, even if outcomes don’t yet live up to your expectations. A growth mindset conveys many benefits, yet learning a new practice is challenging, too; a lack of immediate, measurable progress can be discouraging. Forgive yourself and be generous with others—try to focus on the effort being put in and the valuable insight into ambiguity that is being learned from that effort, rather than the lack of immediate results.
5. Reset expectations and communicate transparently.
The shift to remote work provides a perfect excuse to reset your team’s expectations around giving and receiving constructive feedback. Try asking, “What three things would you try to change if you were in my role?” Modeling openness to feedback will make it easier for your colleagues to accept feedback themselves. Online work is significantly less forgiving of coordination and leadership failures, so it’s a great opportunity for involving others in implementing immediate course corrections. This might involve starting meetings by communicating what you know, indicating that much is still unknown, and inviting teammates to share not only their knowledge, but also their concerns and questions. By getting things out on the table, more issues can be addressed.
In the longer term, cultivating an attitude of transparency, flexibility, and openness to feedback will position your organization to weather the increasing pace of change that is our reality today. Furthermore, understanding how ready your organization currently is for change will help to diagnose what technology and people capabilities need to be developed to sustain changes over time. FMG’s Organizational and Workforce Consulting experts are well-versed in all aspects of change management. Using a proprietary Future Ready Assessment, FMG experts pinpoint key development areas for clients and provide powerful insights to equip leaders with actionable steps to develop their own leadership styles.
Ready to be successful in current and future times of change? Reach out to Ethan Palmer, FMG’s Senior Manager of Organizational and Workforce Consulting, to get started.
 Erik Brynjolfsson, John J. Horton, Adam Ozimek, Daniel Rock, Garima Sharma, and Hong Yi Tu Ye, “COVID and remote work: an early look at US data,” Working Paper 27344 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2020), https://www.nber.org/papers/w27344.)