It's all F***ed.

Where to focus when the world you know unexpectedly ends.

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

All of a sudden and with little notice, we were forced from our privileged position. For years we'd been approaching corporate innovation/ change/ adoption [select the one that suits you] by choice, but now we had to do it through necessity. The way we work, create, communicate and collaborate was thrown into disarray, literally overnight - and we had no choice but to cope.

What we focused on first was connection. Many of the best individuals, brands and organizations of every size and scale realized that the only constant in these times -and the secret to successfully navigating them- is people. Customers, employees, suppliers, advocates, partners all have humanity in common.  So communication became the focus.

Before we start, let’s be clear. Some got this so right, while others royally f***ed it up. If there’s one thing we’re going to learn from all of this, it’s that the right way to approach the new normal for your organization is exclusive to you, because no one else has the same combination of mission, approach, systems, circumstance and people as you. Maintaining the flow of information and communication in and around your brand, business, corporation or institution is essential [for reasons discussed in my book, The Human Workplace]. It‘s the only way to keep it together when all of the other structures we’ve come to depend on (financial, environmental, other) are on pause. It’s no surprise that Zoom is booming, Teams is on fire and every other communication platform under the sun is alive with activity. People need to connect.

I want to dive into some of the insights and conversations I’ve been involved in recently that can help you enhance that connection between people, organization, brand and work. Spoiler alert – if you’re assholes, you will be exposed as such, no matter how much you pretend to be otherwise.

A Story of Authenticity

This might have happened to me, it might have happened to someone I know. I’m not going to name names, but rest assured, it happened. I’ll shield the industry too, but here’s the story:

$30,000 was paid by Company A to a supplier for products that were going to be used to generate new and more revenue. COVID-19 suddenly hit and the products could not be delivered. The supplier postponed the delivery, rather than give a refund and sold a replacement stop gap product in the meantime, costing $3,000. As COVID-19 developed, even the stop gap could not be delivered. At the same time, Company A’s revenue completely disappeared overnight and the invoice for the additional $3,000 remained unpaid. It was chaos.

The supplier’s CEO made a COVID-19 statement (sound familiar?), sent to the entire customer database stating how they were there to help their clients through this and do everything they could. On the same day, Company A received a letter sent directly to their Accountant from the Finance Team at the supplier, applying 8% interest per week on the outstanding $3,000, despite the fact that the products were never delivered.

Saying one thing and doing the complete opposite isn’t authentic. In this case, the supplier exposed itself as an organizational asshole, while pretending to be customer-first.

They aren’t the only ones. Sports Direct, Virgin Atlantic, Wetherspoons, Premier League Football Teams – all are under fire for the way they have treated people within the community that made them successful, during the COVID-19 crisis. Whether people stick to their resolve to boycott these brands once this is all over remains to be seen (convenience and other consumer behavioral drivers might work in their favor), but what is clear is that they have behaved like assholes.

Your Starting Point

Assuming we don’t want to be assholes (clearly some people do), then before doing anything else, start with a very simple question that applies not only during COVID-19, but in any crisis and really, at any time:

How do our people want and need to connect with us?

From there, it’s a case of understanding the real essence of your essence or culture (what makes you great and why people come to you) so that right now, when the world is restricted,  you can replicate the best of what makes you great in a way that fits the circumstance.

First things first – don’t take yourself too seriously. An overly-formal broadcast email from a CEO at this time might be helpful to inform, but it can’t be a substitute for genuine connection, particularly at a time where social isolation means people are increasingly working in less formal ways (every time you're on a video call, assume underwear or pyjamas below the screen line!). Relax, it's a great opportunity to remove some unnecessary formality and focus on genuine connection between people, organization and work, built around shared interest, mission or purpose.

Practical Suggestions

As a kick off for the Pioneers of Tomorrow invitational (virtual) event series run by MAT Studios ATL, a group of participants from major corporations discussed the need for innovation during COVID-19 and beyond, as well as how to approach it.  Here are some simple suggestions that can galvanize your people and keep things moving forward even when there is physical disconnection and uncertainty all around.

Create an innovation challenge, or other participation drive.

Although in an ideal world open innovation and collaboration should be the norm, most organizations aren’t there yet, so creating a challenge where people can contribute ideas, vote on them, drive conversation, inspiration and foster collaboration on challenges will create activity and excitement that enhances the connection around a shared business-related goal.

Plug in to your people.

Freelance experts are always going to be the best go-to for specific skill sets, but it’s worth remembering that the humans already in your organization already have skills over and above their job descriptions. Offering opportunities to get involved in projects beyond their day-to-day by sharing some of those extra capabilities is an excellent way to foster cross-organization collaboration, drive new thinking and enhance the connection between people, organization and work.

Go for a virtual drink.

Take the pressure off with after-work social chat. Everyone’s going to the virtual pub with friends, so grab the drink of your choice, create a shared jukebox playlist on Spotify and start that group work call to debrief on the day or week in a relaxed setting that keeps morale high and ideas flowing.

Start a team WhatsApp group.

Everyone is suddenly working different hours, in different places, trying to balance work and home life, while dealing with what’s happening in the world. General workplace conversation is something valuable that everyone misses. Create an informal outlet for that loosely work-based chat where everyone can share fun or interesting things too. It’s a great way to keep everyone connected and it will spark ideas too.

See your people as a community.

We already discussed how customers, employees, suppliers and anyone associated with your organization is part of a community congregated around it, so start looking at them in that way and engage them in the way you would engage any community. Offer value that stimulates conversation and collaboration around your brand or mission. At all times, think about what your people actually want to hear about. Speaking of which…

Avoid email/ broadcast fatigue.

If you’re putting yourself in your people’s shoes, then you’ll probably realize that, in all honesty, most of them couldn’t give a s*** about how you’re responding to COVID-19. They want value and insight from you that contributes to their situation, not just a generic message.

On one single day last week, I received 33 emails with the subject COVID-19 Update, many of them from organizations I hadn’t interacted with forever. Just because everyone else is doing something, it doesn’t mean you should. Be authentic and communicate in a way that fits your community (and in a way they actually want).

Check in 1-1.

In these uncertain times, it’s essential to ensure that everyone gets an individual check-in. It doesn’t have to come from the CEO, but from a colleague, leader or other connection. Talk through any concerns, needs and offer support. We all like to feel valued!

Bonus tip.

I recently spoke with a major global corporation who sealed a huge trans-continental deal via Facetime. Using spaces and systems that people already engage with is a great way to connect with them authentically. No one needs to be learning something new right now just to stay in communication. Make it easy.

Final Thought.

What people came to you for originally hasn’t changed due to this pandemic. Stick to what you’re good at and keep going. Your community needs you, so be there for them. By engaging them and keeping the conversation flowing, you can keep things moving, keep ideas flowing and understand what they need from you now and into the future.

Be authentic. Be real. Create connection.

Try to remember: Agile, flexible, remote are all words we’ve been talking about for years. They are here now and we have to adopt them, out of necessity. This is the future – it’s what we do with it that counts.

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