Hacking Your Workforce to Align It With New Business Strategies 

An unexpected market force like COVID-19 can translate into knee-jerk reactions with the immediate need to safeguard and survive. After the initial shock and triage, countless organizations have rightly taken time to rethink business strategies, budgets, and roadmaps. Ideally, this means examining and redefining your operating model, the heart of an organization. 

Such evaluation dictates or drives a range of efforts that include technology solutions, ways of working, business processes, and governance — all of which profoundly influences your workforce composition and structure. Implementing a new or revised operating model can be an arduous and overwhelming task because it demands an introspective look at virtually every aspect of your operations. But in our current environment, the biggest obstacle is not uncertainty. It’s time. 

Without the luxury of a deep dive across the business, organizations are required to “fix the plane while flying it.” But there are things you can do to hack your organization to more quickly align your workforce to meet new business imperatives?

Chart the Course for Change

Your organization is no doubt already undergoing incremental adjustments, like working remotely, furloughs, and/or modifications to peoples’ roles. Priorities have shifted, at least in the short-term, and staff have been directed to pivot overnight. Things that seemed unattainable at the beginning of this year — like standing up new customer services (e.g., BOPIS and curbside pickup), deploying a completely remote workforce, or implementing virtual collaboration tools — have come to fruition and will be part of the next normal moving forward. 

Even though the change pump has been primed, you still run the risk of change fatigue and apprehension. It is therefore vital that you formulate a communication plan that clearly spells out next steps and expectations, including reasons for business shifts and impacts on day-to-day life. 

Harness Your North Star

During extreme times, it is crucial to emphasize your brand promise and beliefs for the future. What is your North Star that people should be navigating toward — the “why”? Provide a concrete vision of your overall purpose that people can rally around. Continue (or start) to shape desired behaviors like accelerated decision-making and cross-functional collaboration. Also encourage feedback and ideas from frontline workers. You want teammates to accept living with ambiguity, but not be paralyzed by it. 

You also want to strive to answer people’s questions, like when or if there will be a reduction in workforce, whether career growth and promotions are still possible, or what is the return-to-office plan and expectation. This is important even if your response is, “We don’t have those answers yet.” This is not only necessary to gain buy-in and preserve productivity, but you need to consider such issues when developing the next steps. 

Break the Rules

This next part is scary. Give yourself and others permission to break the rules as you know them and create a new playbook. This step is typically called thinking outside the box. The key is not only to look at your organization’s capabilities — what’s working and what’s not— but also at what you can learn outside of past experiences.

For instance, numerous employees recently cited that one of their biggest struggles working virtually was maintaining productivity and the expectation of continuously being in front of their computers during “normal” business hours. With the reality of personal and family obligations, this proved difficult for many, creating anxiety and guilt. Working hours spanned a wider range of timeframes with interesting outcomes. 

I’ve observed that organically, employees started connecting with others keeping the same hours. Working pods started to form irrespective of time zones or geographies. They were not driven purely by functions, but rather by productivity and effectiveness.

The result has been unexpected cross-functional knowledge transfers and creation of novel approaches that could be duplicated across the business. This ties back to manufacturing structures with first, second, and third shifts that allow flexibility for workers and check the box for an always-on mentality, without burnout. 

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Another example of reinventing the rules amidst a crisis is a non-profit that supports cancer research. The organization rolled out a high-level operating model with leadership firmly in place, while still working out how to create and execute new and refined job profiles. To propel things forward, they delivered an aggressive communication plan that explained the new operating model with FAQs for the extended business community. The communication team identified key leaders to form an innovative “Change Agents Guild.” Additionally, they provided tools, key messages, and talking points to align communications to the strategy and bring together different groups. The unifying message was a call to action to bring the operating model to life and overcome previously identified market disruptors.

As the organization looked to fill roles, it observed a concentration of talent in one market but struggled to find talent in others. It was operating based on unwritten rules that dictated employees have to live in the market they support. Yet when pushed to answer “why,” the company struggled to find a reason. This opened the door to many possibilities for reconfiguring the workforce, causing the organization to reconsider how it matched roles and individuals. 

Reframe Internal Assets

Many organizations are still under hiring freezes, perhaps making a few case-based hires. By and large, they are moving forward with smaller, leaner workforces. That means that resourcefulness is key. You may literally have hidden talent within your organization, so shop your own workforce. 

Through competency modeling, capturing skill sets by level for function and expertise, you can look across your organization and uncover ways to fill gaps within your workforce. For example, finance and marketing functions could naturally seem quite far apart, but if you are moving to a more strategic marketing approach, you may be pleasantly impressed by their overlap. 

Taking a holistic view of your talent and creating wider career paths supports an improved employee experience, while retaining current talent. Additionally, you have a more realistic view of where true gaps exist to inform talent and hiring plans. 

Similarly, when you peruse a compilation of LinkedIn profiles, you will likely notice career paths that do not match those defined in-house. Today’s workforce is different than that of previous generations. People typically have experiences across industries and fields that on the surface appear disjointed. However, if you dig deeper, you (or they) could likely string together a compelling story of overlapping skills and interests that add diversity and capabilities to your job descriptions. 

Regardless of how you decide to hack your workforce during this challenging time and journey, it is essential to put your people first because they will sustain your organization for the long-haul.  

Courtney Albert is U.S. lead (externally) and master practitioner (internally) for organization strategy and design at North Highland Global Consulting. She is a master practitioner with more than 15 years of experience in organizational design, change management, business process improvement, and communications.

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