COVID-19’s Upside: A Culture of Innovation

There is no argument that COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on the world economy and marketplace — its most consistent characteristic being an ever-changing set of unknowns. The inability to predict COVID-19’s path forward has forced organizations — from startups to Fortune 100s — to navigate a path of varying challenges as the canvas for our future appears more like a kaleidoscope than a horizon revealing a perceived vision forward.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has had some unexpected positive upsides that leaders should be aware of, cultivate, and nurture as we all move toward a new normal.

Over the past months, I’ve observed several consistent transformations within businesses that have had a positive effect. Yet of all the changes we’ve experienced as a result of COVID-19, the transformation that has the potential to have the most positive impact over time has been the formation of a culture of innovation.

The change to our current work environment occurred with the metaphorical flip of a switch. Leaders and employees were forced to transition to remote work “instantly.” The result of this overnight shift created not only the need for innovation but a genuine desire within all levels of organizations to be part of the solution. Everyone from the CEO to the intern came together to bring new ideas, create new processes, and adjust schedules and roles to keep the business alive and employees safe.

Think of the changes we have experienced as we found ways to equip employees to work from home in very short order. Hardware, software, and office supplies showed up overnight. Businesses transitioned to an almost 100% adoption of remote work platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, WebEx, and RingCentral. Employees’ work schedules have more flexibility to accommodate the challenges (and benefits) of having family living alongside, and sometimes inside, our work areas.

We adjusted, refreshed, or recreated methods for development and delivery of our products and services to facilitate healthy and safe distancing, and we increased employee cross-training to facilitate seamless customer-focused service in the midst of a disrupted workforce.

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Consider how these changes transpired. Many, if not most, of these solutions are a result of our teams pulling together and coming up with ideas to form immediate solutions. Individuals at all levels have found that not only is their perspective needed, they recognize and actually feel that they are valued and see how their ideas are helping their organization survive. 

However, it’s also worth pointing out that we are experiencing a culture of innovation that can disappear as quickly as we found it. Companies whose leaders still feel — or revert to feeling — like they must generate all the ideas will not survive in such a fluid environment. Our employees have a lot to offer, and leaders must continue to take advantage of people’s wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience. 

The call to action is simple: Leverage the lessons learned to continue to innovate. Ensure that all employees feel their input is needed, valued, and respected. Trust, encouragement, and mutual respect must be part of organizational DNA, and sustainability rests on our leaders to cultivate and nurture a culture of continued innovation.

Buck Rogers is North Carolina vice president at Keystone Partners, a career management and leadership development consulting firm. He has over 25 years of organizational leadership experience at all levels, from team leader to CEO, which equips him well to serve as a trusted advisor to organizations in the areas of leadership development, coaching, career management and organizational transitions. Buck is also a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and is a decorated veteran of Operation Desert Storm.

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