Let’s Maintain Agility After the Coronavirus Crisis
Author: Dr. Shelley Kirkpatrick
It’s an understatement to say that we’ve all experienced a lot of change during the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the challenges, some positives have come out of this situation, especially when it comes to how federal agencies and other organizations have quickly adapted to keep the government running and work moving. Organizational agility has been a goal for many years now, with numerous agency mission statements highlighting the need for it.
The Benefits of Adversity
One of the most apparent changes is the shift to telework. A quick response capability is one aspect of an agile organization, and it’s amazing how fast telework was put in place for so many people. Leaders moved quickly to update policy guidance regarding how to accomplish work. HR departments adapted benefits and leave policies. IT departments acted quickly to provide more network infrastructure and access to collaboration tools. On a personal level, almost all of us scrambled to find home office space, or to be more precise, home office spaces that could accommodate multiple family members, including school- and college-age children, all of whom now needed to be on audio and video calls throughout the day.
I have seen examples of employees figuring out this new world together—learning how to work Skype, Zoom, and other collaboration tools, sharing tips on running virtual meetings, and finding out about features of these tools that we never knew existed. And, yes, many of us made mistakes or had missteps. I learned that I need to mute the speaker on my computer when I have also dialed in on my phone (sorry to those of you who heard that terrible echo!). When my colleague, Sarah, had the same problem, I was able to help her.
Missteps and learning go hand in hand and are another positive aspect of an agile organization. I intentionally use the word misstep, rather than mistake. A mistake is often considered to be intentional. In contrast, a misstep is when someone does the best they can, but things still don’t go well. We are all making missteps as we are faced with new challenges, and by sharing those missteps, we help others learn—another hallmark of an agile organization.
To keep up with rapidly evolving advice from public health experts, many leaders have had to communicate directly with their employees through conference calls that have thousands of people listening in. Leaders don’t have the luxury of taking the time to rely on the chain of command to relay messages. I’ve seen communications from leaders that are direct and transparent. In addition to speed, direct communication has less chance of having the message become distorted as it travels through the chain of command (remember the telephone game?). Direct communication can also enhance trust in the leader as well as build agility.
Agencies have relaxed certain rules and policies to enable work to get done. Much of the focus is on retaining tasks that add value while eliminating tasks that may not add value or are not possible in the current crisis. Some decisions that used to take much longer have now been streamlined. I’ve seen several decisions get made quickly by small groups of knowledgeable people—decisions that previously would have taken months to be reviewed, discussed, debated, and re-reviewed before resolution. Agile organizations rely on people with the most knowledge to make the decision, and with that authority comes the responsibility to communicate the decision widely. This provides agility by allowing the organization to respond to change faster while still making an effective decision.
I’ve also seen norms quickly change in a way that promotes agility. One lighthearted example is the norm about background noise during work calls—it’s now acceptable if your son or daughter walks through the room while you’re on a video call or your dog barks at the mail carrier in the middle of your weekly status meeting. On a more serious level, many leaders are allowing others to rely on their good judgment when deciding how to apply rule and policy changes to their day-to-day work.
Another norm that is changing is about the importance of physical and mental health. I’ve heard stories about coworkers listening to presentations while walking outside to get exercise. I’ve been in meetings where the leader spends the first five minutes just checking in to see how everyone is doing. It feels very humanistic!
Of course, not every agency has been able to make all of these changes. Some have not been able to due to the nature of their work—some work needs to be carried out in person, such as that of a security guard, or in a secure environment. Yet even those roles have adapted by increasing the cleaning of physical surfaces, wearing face masks, or checking with employees each day to make sure they are not sick. While these changes will hopefully not be needed at some point in the near future, a good number of changes can—and should—be continued.
I’ve heard many leaders say, “See, we can move quickly and get things done when we have to.” The trick now is to maintain the changes that should be maintained. It’s not good enough to just revert back to the old way. Leaders can demonstrate leadership by asking their employees to think about what does and does not need to revert back in order to mitigate risk or save time and money.
We should all continue to rely more on telework. The Government Accountability Office notes that agencies cite benefits of telework (yet still need to collect data documenting these benefits). Telework could benefit employees—less time commuting, increased work-life balance—and agencies—increased productivity, lower facility costs—and society—reduced traffic and congestion, reduced carbon footprint. In fact, employees’ expectations may be that telework is now an expected feature of a job, so continuing it may help the government recruit and retain employees.
I also hope that we can continue to focus on employee health. Recent research finds that being healthy and well-rested has payoffs such as increased productivity and fewer errors. Let’s continue to encourage sick employees to stay home, even if they have a common cold. We might even use those opportunities when people are out sick or re-energizing when on leave to cross-train and develop others, another hallmark of agility. And, maybe we can continue to start meetings with the genuine question of “how are you?”
Let’s also continue to encourage people to try out new things, whether it’s a collaboration tool or new steps in a technical process, in a way that reduces overall risk and increases efficiency. Agile organizations constantly conduct rapid experiments and pilots to test out ways enhance organizational effectiveness. Rather than devote resources to an entire solution only to find out that it doesn’t work, it’s faster and cheaper to quickly test out a key part of a solution, find that it doesn’t work, and then move on to examining the next possible solution.
Finally, let’s encourage proactiveness, another key aspect of organizational agility, by continuing to talk about and share what we are learning now so that we can respond to future events. Surely, a year from now, we will all be busy with other things, but we need to continue to think about new events and crises that may arise. The point isn’t that those events will happen exactly as we envisioned. Rather, the goal is to prepare for whatever future happens. Let’s take a bit of time to explore what we learned from what didn’t work this time and begin to plan for other situations.
If anything, I hope that our main take-away from the events of 2020 is that we should not go back to the way things were with all aspects of our work. Let’s keep the good changes and adjustments that we’ve made and move forward from there!
Shelley Kirkpatrick is an Organizational Change Management Principal at MITRE. She specializes in developing and conducting organizational assessments on a variety of topics, including organizational agility. She holds a PhD in organizational behavior from the University of Maryland at College Park and a BS from Bowling Green State University. Shelley is currently an adjunct professor at George Mason University. She has previously taught at Carnegie Mellon University and The American University.
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