COVID-19 prevention had long since become routine in summer of 2020. An altered, but nevertheless regular work had been going on. Sometimes it was even difficult to enforce “one day a week in the office”. A “New Normal” seemed within reach – with mobile working at the center. The “second wave”, long expected but underestimated, brings crisis management back to the fore – but should not obscure the view ahead to “the time afterwards”!

On the route to a ``New Normal``

The altered, improved circumstances and new tools make a real “New Normal” possible: work and leadership are potentially changing. It is about more than a return to “the good ol’ days”! Rather, on the employee side, it is about:

  • Self-motivation towards the purpose of work
  • Independent organization of their own tasks, regardless of where they work from
  • different ways of working – which lead to the goal or result
  • Independent but sensible organization of working hours, including office vs. home office

This requires at the management level:

  • Trust in the skills and motivation of employees
  • Enabling, also through coaching, instead of control
  • Acting as role models for mobile working – balance between accessibility and the right to privacy
  • Active promotion of a transparent, cooperative and health-promoting corporate culture
  • Provision and cooperative further development of the necessary (IT) infrastructure

Basically, these demands are trivial – in essence they are decades old! However, there is extensive experience from the last few months, which will become even more acute in the second wave. In the following chapters I want to show some conclusions that give hints to leadership practice in the New Normal.

1. COVID-19 as Crisis: Do what has to be done! Or arrange it...

That leadership takes place in a VUCA environment was and is not new. Yet, under COVID-19 conditions, this could suddenly be experienced more drastically than for a long time! Suddenly there was the need for rapid change, the sense of urgency was a given. A lot was unexpectedly difficult, other circumstances required changes in attitudes and were difficult personally. There was some rejection. And typical of such upheavals, there were hardly any rules and procedural instructions. So, new experience had to be made again. Yet, throw old things overboard, develop creativity and pioneering spirit – haven’t we longed for them? Let me demonstrate some challenges and solutions that have appeared in my consulting work with managers. The list keeps growing …

Ensure commissioning and service on-site, apply for “special permits”. Meanwhile, in production (and in the canteen), reliably ensure distances between people and organize alternating shifts. At the same time, prevent direct infections at customer counters, utilizing panes and FFP2 masks. Only singularly occupied tables, marked paths for visitors, limited number of guests in company restaurants. I noticed: where there was clearly structured, clean, fast-flowing production with ergonomic workstations, all of this was very easy! All of this remains necessary for the time being and managers have to ensure that it is promoted, controlled and tracked! Everyday meandering always threatens …

Conclusions for personnel management: Situational leadership was necessary between the enforcement of rules and creative problem solving! And because some measures still represent restrictions and are even questioned, communication is particularly important. Justify, explain …

The “second wave”, long expected but underestimated, brings crisis management back to the fore – but should not obscure the view onto the “time afterwards”! The fighting chance is: maintaining the mastered processes, continuing the digitization – for employee and customer benefit!

Reiner Borretty mit Corona-Maske
Maske und Home Office - ein Scherz

Useful hints for working in the New Normal:

  • What work and meetings do we want to do in the home office?
    How do we ensure functioning processes, interfaces and division of labor, virtually?
  • Which tools are suitable for virtual communication and cooperation – what is specified by the employer, what is also desirable?
  • Which binding regulations on accessibility do we want to meet?
  • When do we set up a regular virtual meeting – and keep it?
  • What special appointments do we want to make for informal meetings, such as after-work meetings, or for health-promoting activities, such as gymnastics, yoga …
  • Only after the second or possibly third wave: Which (economical!) face-to-face meetings should ap reintroduced?

An improvised standing workplace …

2. COVID-19 as chance: More than Communication and Cooperation with new tools!

The home office in particular brought high demands here. It was about more than the exchange of emails that had long since left the “8-hour day, 5-days-a-week”. In particular, communication software, e.g. MS Teams, WebEx or Zoom, and cooperation software, the simple Conceptboard, MS Planner and many others, forced and enabled completely new forms of interaction. Often these (often not at all) new tools were met with a certain skepticism. But under COVID-19 there was a certain inevitability of trying until learning progress and initial success were achieved, and finally new skills were developed. For managers and employees alike! In many places, some existing programs had long been neglected and idled until their benefits were recognized, they gained acceptance and were used. In the end you had to go through it: “With a little help from my friends.” – In this respect, virtual cooperation is not really new: what’s new ist that the tool landscape is still not fully integrated! The joy of new possibilities and the fun of the creative application are interrupted time and again by frustration at functions that suddenly no longer exist.

Accessibility as a trap - even in the "New Normal"

But be careful: once permanent accessibility is technically ensured, under home office conditions it may well be considered permanent availability. Customers, managers, employees know that e.g. middle managers are simply “there”. Consequently, the calender is completely boked. In some organizations, seven to eight one-hour meetings a day have become custom…

Consequences for Personnel management:

This also calls for discipline on the part of managers – the home office is actually a synonym for individual work. And that has to be done at some point. It is possible that setting appointments in Outlook without consultation is not the method of choice …

In the New Normal, executives will have to trust, more than ever before, and have to say goodbye to any micromanagement because it just doesn’t work.

3. Keep solving problems, informally!

The suddenly required universal virtuality of cooperation could also slow down processes. Making eye contact in the event of minor disturbances, getting up and simply approach someone, look for and find missing paperwork – all of this is no longer possible.

And many sales and commercial tasks urgently require contact “with the outside world”, which was already accomplished considerably with IT. At least there was no personal visit anymore. It was all the more urgent to maintain lively contact virtually.

Conclusions for personnel management:

Managers and employees quickly developed new forms of informal contacts, also to solve everyday problems. Thus, they ensured mutual trust and, in particular, efficiency: short phone calls, text messages, spontaneous virtual meetings … E-mails and even more scheduled virtual conferences are far less suitable for agile communication!

And: work is a tried and tested means against gloom! Much can be done virtually and without major losses, other tasks expired temporarily or at some point completely.

4. On the other hand, various topics had to be scaled down with respect to COVID-19..

VUCA volatile uncertain complex ambiguous

A temporarily slowed down or idle production, for example, required less or no material replenishment … That also changed routine processes: Situational agile action was suddenly required. Until new routines were established, with new processes using new tools. Which does not mean that the good old times were not suddenly glorified nostalgically …

Implications for personnel management in anticipation of the “New Normal”.

Here was and is still a bit of grief work. We have made the experience that process workshops or CIP initiatives, through which the advantages and disadvantages of the previously valid procedures are evaluated and innovations are developed participatoriy, can provide these.

5. Regular meetings stabilize cooperation and atmosphere - but there is a risk of neglect !

Daily stand ups, “morning round tables”, 9 o’clock meetings in the management team etc. serve to exchange information, plan, monitor progress and start initiatives. And of course the necessary small talk.

These rounds could also be continued in home offices, quite as “close to the original” as possible. At least initially, they could take longer because the tools had to be rectified first. But also because you were drilling somewhat deeper – a good thing! However, less exciting mandatory dates have long since been added to the important and exciting meetings.

Implications for personnel management, especially in the New Normal:

Disciplined planning helps. Pay attention to correctly seletcted participnts and especially to brevity and conciseness, a clear and strict agenda! The manager is again a role model for holding the meetings. Your own punctual appearance for video conferences, constant presence, full concentration (mobile phone off!) cause exactly the same behavior among employees.

6. Informal contacts, even small talk are part of work.

Such encounters, which occur just like that in the workshop, office or laboratory almost unnoticed, keep “the machine running” there. Even the rumor mill belongs here! It is precisely this social interaction that has had very different consequences for different employees. For some, this is where the term “social isolation” gets its true meaning.

Consequences for personnel management:

Many employees quickly created similar informal opportunities in virtuality: Virtual coffee, taking turns posting their own lunch; Small joyful tasks for everyone were quickly invented: taking photos of youself at your desk, doing yoga and gymnastics together, online games (which you don’t have to install on the company computer right away) … Smile and wave when small children crawl or stumble into the picture – us everyone can do it and be happy!

In the meantime, however, some things have become a bit stale. The following applies to the current situation and the New Normal: pertinent initiatives are also management tasks! Leadership should signal interest and initiate it among employees. Note: if one can organize, motivate and discipline yourself as an employee in the office, one can also do this in the home office. You can trust! This is done by maintaining the relationship. And humor helps as long as it doesn’t slide into silliness or an end in itself.

Home Office

7. Planning holidays may lead to conflicting interests.

A special problem in staff management suddenly appeared in the meantime: in the middle of the strictest Corona prevention, long-approved vacations are due. Such vacations might not be fun at the moment – actually not a big change compared to the home office and the local and travel restrictions. Conversely, there is a risk that “everyone” will want to go on their postponed vacation exactly when the Corona crisis has been overcome, business is even catching up and is booming. Meaning that labor is urgently needed.

Conclusions for personnel management:

this dilemma can become acute at any time. Caution: clear decisions currently made can quickly turn out to be wrong or premature. The pandemic is a dynamic, non-linear and therefore difficult to predict process. We are finally experiencing the acute “second wave”, and even the third! In this respect, I recommend negotiating preliminary agreements with the employees that guarantee the necessary flexibility for both sides.

All of these experiences made in the last year and currently made may be used as recommendations for further action, but also to initiate reflection on one’s own attitudes. Whimsical remarks are allowed! In addition, the text should be understood as work in progress, in which the so minded reader is invited to take part! I look forward to emails and MS Teams / Zoom invitations – and in the above sense to phone calls!