The Business Guide to Preparing for the Post-COVID New Normal

Once the current pandemic has subsided, will we return to “business as usual” or will we be entering a “new normal,” as many experts are predicting?

Many suggest, in other words, that the current conditions we are experiencing – economic, social, as well as others – may have permanent and profound impacts on the way we live our lives in the post-viral era.

For instance, the COVID-19 outbreak has spurred extensive changes in the business landscape, compelling a great many organizations to enact telecommuting policies, shift their strategic aims, and more. 

However, these changes are not temporary, according to some – they will lead to a different and new “normal” that organizations must adapt to in order to stay profitable.

What Exactly Is “the New Normal”?

Speculation has arisen, however, that these types of changes will lead to other lasting shifts that impact our lives at multiple levels. 

For example:

  • Changing customer and employee expectations will compel businesses to adapt products and services to meet those needs
  • Increased concern over public health and safety will fuel the adoption of new regulations and laws, as well as new business practices aimed at protecting the health of employees and customers
  • Digital technology will play a fundamental role in enabling these new structures and practices, which is why digital adoption and transformation are so vital, as we will see below

Naturally, it is impossible to predict exactly how the post-viral era will play out, since it has not arrived and since there are still a number of developments that have yet to occur. 

However, a good place to start is with the trends and developments that have arisen during the crisis. These will, to a greater or lesser extent, contribute to the formation of tomorrow’s economy and the new normal.

Digital technology, as mentioned, will inevitably become more central in the coming years, and this is evidenced by examining the trends that have spiked in popularity during the outbreak, such as:

  • Remote working. Working from home became far more commonplace during the COVID-19 crisis, since health concerns prevented employees from working on-site at the office. Though a certain degree of normalcy will return once the crisis has subsided, organizations and employees both will undoubtedly be far more open to the idea of remote working.
  • Telehealth, telemedicine, and telecare. Healthcare has been undergoing steady digital transformation for years, just as every other industry has. Telehealth, the medical field dedicated to providing remote care solutions to patients, has been gradually expanding, but with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, interest in that field has spiked. Providing healthcare remotely, after all, can significantly decrease the potential for the transmission of infectious diseases, helping to keep both patients and healthcare workers safe.
  • Robotics. In the West, many people have been averse to the idea of seeing robots deployed in customer service roles. However, during the pandemic, robots have delivered food, enforced social distancing, provided cleaning services, and more. Since the post-pandemic era will be quite health-conscious, we can certainly expect to see more of them – in fact, investments in many fields of robotics have already begun to increase.
  • Contactless payments. Since the virus can be transmitted via physical contact, digital payments have also become more popular. Digital wallets can be used, for example, to execute payments simply by swiping a phone or contactless credit card near an appropriate scanner. In fact, some chains have chose to only accept contactless payments.

In the coming years, consumers will undoubtedly be far more health-conscious than in the years prior to the outbreak, so technology trends such as these will certainly see an increased level of interest, investment, and consumption.

To learn more about the next normal, let’s examine some of the most commonly asked questions about the topic.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the New Normal

Here are a few frequently asked questions that can offer more insight into the new normal, what we can expect, and how businesses can get ready.

Why do experts think the world won’t return to the “old normal”?

Some feel that the current crisis has exposed too many assumptions about our modern world, and this knowledge makes it impossible for us to return to the same status quo that we just left.

Others focus more on the health-driven aspects of the current crisis, pointing out that increased public health concerns will permanently affect the way we live and operate.

Regardless of the actual underlying cause, crises often bring about changes to economic and social life, as history has shown.

In fact, “the new normal” is hardly a new term. It was used after the financial crisis of 2008, for example, to suggest that certain previously abnormal conditions would now become the norm.

Given the scale and scope of the COVID-19 outbreak – which far surpasses other similar health or financial crises – we should not find such predictions surprising.

How is the “new normal” different from the “next normal”?

The “next normal” is a term used by McKinsey and other research firms to describe the “new normal” that has yet to arrive.

There is certainly some confusion and conflation in how these terms are used, since they are both relatively recent. Their definitions will undoubtedly continue to evolve over time.

The important takeaway from both terms is the notion that businesses should prepare for a new social and economic landscape that differs significantly from the one we knew before the crisis.

However, businesses that truly want to prepare for the new normal can gain more insight by researching the “next normal,” since several major research firms have published recommendations on how to maintain business continuity during the post-viral era.

How can organizations prepare?

It can be tempting to hesitate when it comes to planning, since we cannot fully predict how the new normal will turn out.

Hesitation, however, could be far more costly than investing in change today. After all, by projecting current trends forward, we can gain an accurate sense of what changes tomorrow will bring.

Timelines will certainly vary, but they will undoubtedly be shorter than we expect, and certain shifts are bound to become permanent, such as:

  • A renewed interest in public health and health-related technology. The current health crisis will leave its mark on the world and, in large part, drive the direction of future trends and investments. A greater interest in health and public safety will fuel growth in a number of areas, but not just healthcare. Above, we saw how the outbreak has fueled growth in a number of fields that support public health and safety, such as robotics and telemedicine.
  • Remote working and the virtual workplace. Throughout the world, concerns over public health – as well as government mandates – compelled employees to work from home. The virtual workplace arose out of necessity during this crisis, and it will likely remain, at least to a certain extent. After all, remote working improves employee productivity, cuts costs, and keeps them safe from infection.
  • Digital technology in general. The gradual digitalization of the global economy has only accelerated in 2020, and it will continue to accelerate in the coming years. Many organizations recognize this, such as Accenture, which chose to compress three years’ worth of digital transformations down to three months.

While there are undoubtedly detailed analyses that dive into more specific projections about specific industries, each organization should perform its own research and assessments. 

That information can then be used to develop a digital transformation agenda suited to its own circumstances.

Why CIOs Should Accelerate Digital Transformation Efforts

Digital transformation is one of the most important areas to focus on, regardless of industry, as suggested above.

image source: deloitte.com

Here are a few reasons why it is important to begin implementing those efforts sooner rather than later:

  • The COVID-19 crisis has become a catalyst for digital transformation
  • The new normal will be more digital than the modern economy
  • Tomorrow’s business landscape could be very competitive
  • Unprepared organizations won’t be able to participate

Digital transformation can be a broad term that encompasses a wide range of initiatives and strategies, so it is not enough to merely accelerate existing transformation agendas.

In fact, pushing forward existing programs as-is could be quite harmful, especially if those programs are geared towards a business context that looks different from the “new normal.”

Instead, those programs should first be evaluated carefully, then modified to meet the needs of the upcoming post-viral era.

Top Strategic Priorities to Focus on During the Transition

Digital maturity and resilience can only enhance an organization’s ability to thrive during the digital era, especially since the digital era will become more digital in less time.

Since the pace of global digitalization is accelerating, organizations should increase their pace of transformation in order to keep up.

Here are three of the most important strategies that CIOs should emphasize when rethinking their transformation programs:

Digital Adoption

Digital adoption is a business function that focuses on the full integration and utilization of digital technology.

While software implementation revolves around deployment, digital adoption strategies recognize that product value depends heavily on user onboarding and training.

Digital adoption platforms (DAPs), therefore, are specifically designed to streamline both implementation as well as onboarding, training, and the everyday software experience.

An effective digital adoption program offers a number of benefits, including:

  • Accelerated software implementation, integration, and utilization
  • Greater product value and software ROI
  • Increased innovation and agility
  • Boosted employee productivity and organizational performance

To achieve benefits such as these, it is important not only to implement a digital adoption strategy, but to use the right tools – namely, digital adoption solutions.

Digital Maturity

Digital maturity is a concept that refers to an organization’s overall digital capabilities. 

In the digital age, an organization’s ability to survive and thrive depend heavily on its overall digital maturity, which is often measured on a scale. 

At the bottom of the scale lie organizations that possess few digital tools, poorly integrated technology stacks, an untrained workforce, and so forth. Organizations at the top of the scale, however, have a well-trained workforce, advanced IT infrastructures, tightly integrated IT systems, and so on.

As we just covered above, digital capabilities depend not only on the actual tools and infrastructure an organization possesses, but also on the workforce’s ability to utilize those tools. 

For that reason, digital transformation programs aimed at improving digital maturity must focus on several areas, including:

  • A modern IT infrastructure. Digital technology is the machinery that drives the modern organization, and cutting-edge technology can offer a distinct advantage in the marketplace. However, it is worth noting that if the entire marketplace evolves, then the failure to upgrade one’s own IT infrastructure will have the opposite effect, resulting in a competitive disadvantage.
  • Better digital training and digital skills. Product value depends directly on how well employees can utilize their digital tools and technology. A digitally savvy workforce will be able to quickly adopt new tools and more efficiently utilize those they already have. Lower digital literacy levels, on the other hand, depress productivity and reduce the ROI of software investments.
  • A culture that is data-driven and digital. Organizational culture is another factor that contributes to employees’ productivity with digital tools. Cultivating a digital company culture goes hand-in-hand with digital skills training: the more digitally savvy and digitally friendly the workers are, the easier it will be to adopt new digital tools and leverage those tools in new environments or circumstances.
  • Integrated technology stacks and streamlined business processes. A streamlined digital workplace implies not only digitally skilled workers, but integrated digital workflows and processes. This requires technology stacks that have the capacity to integrate efficiently and effectively, and it also requires well-designed business processes that are innovative and modern – as well as a digitally skilled workforce, as mentioned above.

Enhanced digital maturity can improve an organization’s ability to adapt, survive, and thrive during any conditions, including crises and disruptive changes. 

It is equally important, however, to build processes that are specifically designed to maintain business continuity during disasters.

For CIOs and IT teams, this means enhancing the organization’s digital resilience.

Digital Resilience

According to certain security firms, preparedness should extend beyond IT security. 

Digital resilience strategies are the answer, incorporating other preparations that include:

  • Cyber security. A robust cyber security program can prevent many cyber threats from ever occurring in the first place, and it can also mitigate losses when they do occur. Since cyber security is such a fast-paced and specialized field, it is usually wise to outsource many security functions to third-party security firms. 
  • Disaster recovery. Proper security can help to prevent or mitigate a great many losses, but when disasters do occur, it is vital to have recovery options in place. IT disaster recovery plans and software should be developed long before they are needed, since a lack of preparation can be catastrophic. 
  • Data sharing. One key to building digital resilience, according to UpGuard, is internal data sharing. Not only does this strengthen business processes, it also prevents errors that could create security risks.

Strategies such as these demonstrate that the mitigation of business risk does not depend exclusively on response planning, such as business continuity plans. Those types of response plans are certainly valuable and can significantly reduce losses during disruptions, but with the right approach, certain types of risk can be avoided entirely.

For this reason, it is critical to incorporate a comprehensive resilience strategy that encompasses a wider range of potential risks – especially during today’s uncertain business environment.

Building Organizational Resilience to Thrive During the New Normal

Business continuity and organizational resilience should become top priorities for organizations that want to survive and thrive during the new normal, or the next normal.

These business disciplines are dedicated to preparing for and minimizing the negative impacts of major business disruptions, such as natural disasters or supply chain disruptions.

As we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis, even widespread illnesses can have an enormous effect on business operations. 

Though it can be difficult to predict where or when a disruption might occur, it is certainly possible to prepare for and mitigate their impacts.

Here are several areas that can help companies build organizational resilience:

  • Business continuity. Business continuity planning can help organizations maintain business operations during disruptive events, such as natural disasters or supply chain disruptions. These response plans can significantly mitigate the negative effects that occur during a disruption, helping to lower financial losses and maintain customer trust, among other things. 
  • Disaster recovery. Some consider disaster recovery to be a field within business continuity management, while others view the two as separate. From the latter view, business continuity aims to protect key business functions and operations, while disaster recovery is solely focused on recovery and restoration. Regardless of the terminology, a complete organizational resilience program should incorporate both functions: operations maintenance and recovery.
  • Risk management. Risk management is applied in a wide variety of business activities, such as business continuity management and change management. In the context of organizational resilience, risk management can assess a wide variety of threats that could impact organizational operations and performance. These can include not only disasters, but also risks such as economic instability, digital disruption, and so forth.
  • Cyber security. As mentioned above, cyber security and information security are vital to ensuring an organization can stay safe against cyber attacks and threats. Without a solid cyber security setup in place, a single cyber incident could prove disastrous.
  • Organizational culture. Earlier, we touched upon the importance of having a digital-friendly culture, which can help organizations thrive during the digital era. However, there are other traits that can help a workforce stay adaptable and resilient during disruptive changes. For instance, as we transition into the new normal, it will be very beneficial to have cultural traits such as an openness to change and a pro-learning attitude.
  • Workforce skills and digital savvy. The importance of digital skills cannot be understated, since those skills are the primary driver of employee productivity and, in many cases, organizational performance. Since disruptive changes often require the rapid implementation of new processes and procedures, it is critical to have a workforce that is well-trained and capable of adapting to those new processes.

Since the post-viral era will be rife with uncertainty and potential obstacles – many of which could harm business operations – every business should seriously consider developing an organizational resilience strategy.

When implementing the preparedness strategies covered so far, it will inevitably involve a certain amount of organizational change. In order to execute such changes smoothly, it is important to implement a structured approach to change management.

How to Manage Organizational Change Effectively

Organizational change can be quite challenging and success is by no means guaranteed.

In fact, if such changes aren’t executed and managed carefully, failure is a real possibility. 

This is why change management is so important.

A structured approach to change management can…

  • Improve the outcomes of change projects
  • Increase the chances of successful change
  • Reduce obstacles commonly associated with change, such as employee resistance
  • Shorten timelines and costs

Under normal circumstances, change management is well worth the investment, but in today’s tumultuous business environment, the stakes are even higher. 

Below, we’ll look at some of the most important steps to follow when implementing and managing a change project:

Assess and analyze

Typically, before beginning any organizational change initiative, change managers will perform a series of assessments that examine:

  • Change readiness. Change readiness, as the term suggests, refers to an organization’s ability to change in the desired direction. There are a number of factors that can contribute to change readiness, many of which are situation-specific. For instance, digital skills and digital literacy would be factors to consider when adopting new software, as well as the existing software systems, how easy it would be to integrate the new software, and so forth.
  • Organizational culture. Organizational culture, as mentioned elsewhere in this article, can have a profound impact on organizations’ ability to change. Culture may or may not have an impact on proposed change projects, however. In some cases, it may have no effect at all or it may even be perfectly conducive to change. Since organizational culture change can be time-consuming and costly, its potential impact on a change project should be assessed before deciding to influence it.
  • Risks. Every organizational change comes with its own potential risks and rewards. Likewise, not changing can also carry its own set of risks and rewards. In the context of today’s continually changing economy – especially when speaking of the transition to the new normal – not changing may be far riskier than moving forward. Risk assessments are essential during this stage of the change process and can provide valuable information for change managers.
  • Digital maturity. Before embarking on a digital transformation program, the organization’s existing digital maturity should be assessed carefully. Examining people, processes, and technology can help program leaders understand exactly where the company stands, where the change project should begin, where it should go, and how to proceed.

Gap analyses, SWOT analyses, and similar methods should also be used to inform the change strategy. 

Strategize and plan

Information collected during the first step will be used as a starting point for the actual change strategy. That strategy will be aimed at solving a specific problem or achieving a specific goal – or, in the case of complex transformation efforts, a series of goals.

The goals of the organizational change program will naturally vary depending on the circumstances, but the change management strategy will revolve around the human side of change.

Change managers focus on the human element since employees are the ones that actually drive the change forward – their support is required for the plan to succeed. Many of the steps below are taken directly from change management frameworks, the vast majority of which focus on change at the level of the individual.

Inform and build awareness

Building awareness of the need for change is a critical step in any change process, and this is built into a number of change management models, such as the ADKAR model.

This means:

  • Explaining what will happen
  • Outlining the reasons for the change
  • Offering space for dialogue

Starting out the change effort in this way helps to circumvent potential problems that can result in feelings of alienation and resistance. 

If change is mandated and no explanations are provided, for instance, employees can easily feel besieged and pressured. The result: lower productivity and engagement. 

In contrast, as research by Harvard professor Ellen Langer has shown, explaining “why” dramatically increases compliance.

Provide tools and training

Unless employees have the necessary tools, they will not actually be able to implement the changes successfully. This may sound obvious and basic, but it can be easily overlooked. 

In other words, in order to enable change, it is important to:

  • Provide the appropriate tools and technology
  • Offer adequate training well before the change plan begins
  • Ensure that employees can demonstrate their abilities with those tools

Effective employee training is a must during any change program, since the quality of that training program will directly affect their ability to drive the initiative forward. 

Since most traditional forms of training are too slow to keep up with the fast-paced digital workplace, leveraging modern training tools can have a large impact on the outcomes of the change program.

Implement and manage

There are several points to keep in mind when implementing a change program:

  • Change leadership is just as important as change management, since it will drive employee engagement and directly impact the program’s performance
  • Change management metrics should be used to track the efficiency of the program objectives, as well as the efficiency of the change management program
  • Accountability systems and reward systems can increase engagement from employees and help to keep them motivated, which is often a necessity during long-term change projects
  • Managers should be ready and willing to modify the program based on feedback and performance data, which can reduce errors and inefficiencies

Proper management will have as great an impact on the project’s outcomes as the other steps listed here, which is why change managers and leaders should stay engaged every step of the way. 

Reinforce and review

Once change projects are completed, it is often tempting to perform a review and move on to the next project.

Program reviews are most certainly necessary, but the initiative should not be shelved at this point. 

Reinforcing change is an essential stage of change management, and it has been recommended by countless change management experts. In fact, reinforcing change is even included as a fundamental step in certain change management frameworks, such as Prosci’s ADKAR model and John Kotter’s 8-step model.

If change is not reinforced, then employees can easily slip back into old habits and undo all of the work that has been completed up to this point.

Periodic recognition, praise, and even further accountability procedures can ensure that the organizational change program remains permanent.

Final Thoughts

The world is changing around us at a rapid pace, and we are well on our way to a new economic and social reality that will look far different from the one we have known in previous years.

Though much remains to be seen, we can be certain that, among other things, the next several years will see an explosion in digital technology and innovation. After all, in the short time since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, certain technology trends and workplace trends have become commonplace, almost overnight.

In the post-viral era, some of those trends may reverse themselves to a certain extent, but there will definitely be an increased focus on health, safety, and well-being, so much so that the upcoming business landscape will require adjustment and change on the part of businesses.

Organizations that want to survive and thrive during the new normal should not wait to prepare. Instead, they should begin investing in organizational change and digital transformation today – if they wait until the new normal arrives, after all, it may already be too late.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.