How to recover from COVID-19 Pandemic Shock Syndrome
While the pendulum swing of serial COVID-19 lock-downs is now allowing some travel, I decided to take a trip that included stops in some of my favourite hotels, but the experience as a customer was in stark contrast to the pre-pandemic era. The reception staff, masked-up and shielded behind a Perspex screen, made no eye contact while they demanded my vaccine certificate. The restaurant team wandered about aimlessly, reminiscent of that compulsory scene in every Zombie Movie where the zombies are stumbling around in a shopping mall due to residual memory of past activities. Housekeeping staff scuttled in the shadows, not wanting to engage with guests, and the swimming pool was closed and neglected. The usual international hotel experience had been replaced by a bureaucratic process performed by under-confident staff.
This experience started me thinking about my wider interactions with businesses in my professional role, and the same zombie-like malaise seems to be prevalent in all industry sectors. I've been hugely impressed with how most businesses adapted to survive in the early days of the pandemic, but now COVID-19 has become the go-to excuse for poor service. If you try to phone your bank, you are greeted by a lengthy message about how wait times will be longer due to COVID-19 and getting anything fixed in your home has become a herculean challenge. Can a pandemic that started in 2019 really be a valid reason for poor service as we head into 2022?
Businesses seem to be in shock, waiting for the next lock-down to hit, reluctant to adopt new services, take new directions or truly adapt to the new normal. The only innovation driven by this pandemic seems to be the universal adoption of endless Zoom meetings, plus the extension of ‘working from home’, which is the new phrase for watching Netflix.
I suspect some people will point to activity such as new store openings to demonstrate they are not a post-pandemic Zombie Business, but this is just their new store opening teams on autopilot. Opening more of the same type of stores is not adapting to the new reality. So what are the root causes of this malaise and how can we fix it?
1. Working from home does not work. Yes, I know the daily commute is a grind, and you could save a fortune by shutting all your offices, but people have been getting together for centuries to motivate teams, storm new ideas and coordinate projects. Sitting at home in your pyjamas staring at a screen is not the same as interacting with colleagues to get stuff done. Endless on-line Powerpoint presentations are a one-way process, whereas true team management has always been a two-way street. Also, we should never under-estimate the power of ‘water-cooler gossip’, as it’s how half the information is spread within a business, and it’s also one of the best ways for leaders to gauge the mood and morale of their people.
2. Hybrid Working is not just visiting an empty office once a week. Sitting in an office for five days in every week was never the best way to work, but effective hybrid working needs planning and coordination. Certain teams need to work with other teams - so synchronise their office days. Some teams would benefit from occasional meetings with other teams from different silos, so swap the hybrid working schedules one a month.
3. Look beyond Zoom and Teams for IT innovation. Video conferences are just the new ‘conference calls’ – a way for lazy managers to cascade information. Look at how your people communicate with each in their brief moments of freedom between Zoom calls. They use social media and messaging apps, or they live dangerously and actually talk to each other. Outside of work you may have to endure a weekly one-hour video call lecture from your Mother, but the remaining 99% of your communications with friends and family is via social media. If you manage an international team, or have half your team working from home, explore innovative ways to replace ‘water-cooler gossip’ with a social media inspired system.
I’ve seen various attempts at this in several business, and all fail because of the heavy hand of management and the sensitivities of the HR department. Valuable water-cooler conversations do not normally involve your boss listening in, and they never use Powerpoint. A chat room where employees can exchange ideas with people from any department, as well as share photos of their new baby or their daughter’s graduation, can help put that spark back into business communication. And except for policing for any signs of racism or bullying, bosses need to have a light touch to allow the conversations to blossom.
As another suggestion to encourage the internal networking necessary for any new project to blossom, we should look at dating Apps such as Tinder. Swipe left for not adding value, swipe right to add to the team.
4. Rebuild the multi-cultural, multi-generational business environment. One of the main differences I noticed when staying at business hotels in Asia was the lack of the ‘Filipino Effect’. Pre-COVID, hotels were staffed by a spectrum of cultures, and in Asia it was the Philippines who provided the energy. Now we have a mono-culture due to travel restrictions, and in addition all the ‘old-hands’ were retired, so knowledge, cultural variety, company culture and experience has been lost. The ‘Zombie Effect’ that I noticed in the hotels was due to inexperienced staff lacking confidence, plus a general lack of customer focus, and I believe this is a direct result of losing the multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce. Employing foreign workers is challenging due to travel requirements, but it’s not impossible, and look at the age-range of your current workforce, my bet is that you have no interns and few graduates at one end and no people approaching retirement at the other.
5. Re-engineer Offices, workstations and policies for the pandemic-era. People need to feel safe when working in the office, and this is much more that a vaccine certificate and a temperature scan. As with every pandemic since the Black Death, the main factor that impacts the level of risk is how people behave, and changing behaviours at work needs new policies, training and leadership. I lost a good friend when she tragically died from COVID after her manager came to the office and joined meetings even though he had symptoms. There are many reasons that can drive people to take unnecessary risks, but clear policies on staying at home when you have symptoms of any communicable disease, backed by effective sick-pay and healthcare systems, can significantly reduce risks of transmission in the workplace.
Maintaining adequate social distancing can be a challenge at work, but re-organizing workstations, providing screens and limiting occupancy of confined spaces can all help, especially if supported by health education campaigns so people understand why they need to act differently.
In the UK the landmark Health and Safety at Work Act from 1974 introduced the concept of a Safety Policy to help businesses to protect their employees, and the same approach could be used to protect staff and customers from future pandemics. An example ‘Public Health Policy’ is attached to illustrate how a new policy could help to protect people at work.
Re-engineering ventilation systems can also be an excellent investment. Laboratories and factories working with dangerous substances can do so safely using properly designed extract ventilation systems, so the same principles can be applied to the workplace. Ceiling to floor ventilation systems rather than the usual horizontal flow could help to get occupancy levels of restaurants, cinemas and meeting rooms back to pre-COVID levels by creating safe zones that prevent airborne spread to neighbouring workstations, seating of tables.
So, in conclusion, we all need to shake off the post-pandemic malaise created by the stress of lock-downs, the limitations of home working and the loss of workplace talent and learn how to thrive in a world everyone is more aware of how work can directly impact on their health.
About the Author: Due to some haphazard career planning, Peter combines an unusual range of experience including a UK Chief Government Public Health Officer together with international retail operations and certification industry experience in over twenty countries throughout Europe and Asia.