The post-COVID organization: flatter, agile, flexible, fast, simple

Will the lessons learned from the COVID episode have an impact on the way companies are organized? As in many areas, this period showed companies that they were capable of things they didn’t think they were capable of, but we’re not too sure if there’s any of that left.

First of all, it is important to remember how our organizations have been transformed in depth, not always overnight but in the space of a few weeks.

From shock to improvisation

Of course the reality differs according to the country, the measures taken, their radicality and their suddenness, but in general businesses have had to face a sudden generalized confinement and, for many, a sudden drop in their activity. These are two key elements that have conditioned the way they have reconfigured themselves.

The confinement has led to the obligation to work remotely, to learn new uses of underused tools and the work practices that go with them.

The sudden drop in activity has led, again depending on the measures put in place by the governments, to the use of partial unemployment or, in its absence, to sometimes massive layoffs. But in both cases, the result was the same: it was necessary to operate with fewer people, and the people who were thus withdrawn from service were, although considered “not essentially productive”, cogs that the company used as a transmission belt.

Suddenness led to improvisation. Nothing was ready. Nothing had been tested. Remote working had never been seen as a business continuity plan for the company. It was not possible to get together to think about tomorrow’s organization or how to conduct the change. We had to build by moving forward, day by day, by pragmatism and experimentation. And, by the way, many things were put in place by themselves, whether the company wanted them or not, because it turned out to be the best way to proceed.

Beyond Remote Work

More than 18 months later, the major fact that many remember from this period is remote working. Perhaps because it allows to circumscribe the problem, to simplify it, or even to avoid taking into account more sensitive issues. But remote working, with its positive aspects and its dysfunctions, was only the easily visible face of deeper organizational changes.

A suddenly flattened organization

As always in a crisis, and certainly in an even more exacerbated way than ever before, businesses have focused on maintaining their vital productive functions in operational condition. Those who could no longer work (staff in stores, branches and globally in all the sites that were forcibly closed) were thus sidelined in a more or less painful way, but also “those one could do without”.

This is how many assistants but also, and especially, middle managers found themselves on the sidelines. Why use a long chain of command when with a click I can talk to the right people instantly?

This is how many managers and leaders realized that they could talk directly to the field, reducing the time between decision and action, without having to deal with multiple intermediaries. The irony is that they could just as easily have realized it before. But the organization was in place, the routines and meetings were in place, and it took a shock of this magnitude and the sidelining of some people being so obvious as to be self-evident to make it happen.

As a result, many people who used to lead and manage only through intermediaries and experienced the benefits of shorter decision cycles and a more responsive chain of command.

In the end, everyone praised the effectiveness of the model in times of crisis, except those who saw the business continue to function or even function more effectively without them. Even though it may seem surprising, many decision makers and top managers enjoyed getting a taste of the field, and some employees appreciated working directly for their usual manager’s superior or even someone higher in the org chart.

An agile business by default

Agility is something everyone talks about, everyone praises its benefits, but often without really knowing what it’s about. This is a subject that I will explore in more detail in other articles (even if I have already talked a bit about agility here) but let’s say to keep it simple that it is an approach that puts the value for the customer as a top priority and aims at producing something that corresponds to this need and only to this need, no more and no less.

Pursuing such an objective has of course consequences: close collaboration with the customer who is “part of the team”, operation by short iterations in order to deliver incremental improvements and to be able to correct the shot if the starting hypotheses were not good or if the need evolves etc.

This is the opposite of the way traditional organizations operate, with their long waterfall projects and tunnel effect.

During the pandemic we saw some incredible things happen. Businesses suddenly found themselves without an outlet for their products or a way to distribute them and were able to rethink their offerings and reconfigure their production and distribution channels in record time.

We have seen players in the world of cosmetics or electronic cigarettes start to produce hydro-alcoholic gel, and air catering companies sell their meal trays directly to customers in Asia. At a more modest level, the transition to e-commerce or click and collect for small retailers or delivery for restaurants has been, on their own scale, a real revolution for these players.

The market has changed, what mattered to customers has changed and whether it is by constraint (we need to find outlets) or by a desire to contribute to the collective effort (let’s produce gel if our tool allows it, cosmetic creams will wait) and these businesses have been able to take turns in a few weeks that would have taken months if not years to take in “the world before”.

To do this, we had to decide quickly, innovate, adapt in record time, try, correct…and then pivot again a few months later.

From large companies to small and medium-sized businesses, many of them have constantly rethought their offer, reorganized their production and distribution, which has sometimes led them into new markets and new businesses.

Flexibility at all levels

Of course, all this would not have been possible without a flexibility that not everyone felt capable of at the outset. Flexibility in work methods, in organization, in roles, in ideas. Adapting, trying, questioning, improving…

During the COVID era, businesses were pragmatic and less dogmatic than in normal times. They were able to ignore their certainties in a world where everything that was taken for granted and intangible was shattered overnight.

Speed: the key to survival

I always say that the worst enemy of a business is not its competitors but its own slowness, and the pandemic episode was a perfect example. The businesses that came out of it the best are the ones that knew how to go fast.

Fast to implement new ways of working, to pivot their business and their business model, to learn from their mistakes and change one day what was done the day before.

It is amusing to note that while under the shock of what was happening we heard a part of the population but also “thinking heads” pleading for a slower world, that the apostles of slow management were beginning to give voice, it is speed that allowed to get out of it.

What applies to business also applies elsewhere. Never has a vaccine been developed so quickly. Moreover, when we look at the results with a bit of hindsight, it is the countries that were able to decide quickly, even if it meant changing course as soon as the situation evolved in one direction or another or when the state of knowledge about the virus improved, that fared the least badly. On the other hand, when the chain of command slowed down the action…

Praise for simplicity

How many times must I repeat that the great evil of modern business is its complication? I have spoken with many managers and employees who have told me that, to their surprise, they have found their teams to be very effective during this period.

Of course there is a halo effect which embellishes things a little with the satisfaction of having held the course in the middle of a storm but still…

What happens when we give ourselves the possibility to make and execute decisions faster, when we remove links in the chain of command, when remote working pushes us to switch to a culture of results, when talking to someone live is just a click away… we simplify the organization even without being aware of it.

The “Covidian” business has been more direct, flatter, more collaborative and has been able to (or had to) break free from some of the rigidities.

A model that worked!

I’m not going to say that we’ll regret that period, but I think that everyone who was on deck during that time, regardless of their role, can say with satisfaction “we did it”. In fact, I think most of them recognize that their business found unexpected resources and adopted new ways of operating that they didn’t think they were capable of.

It is with our backs to the wall that we discover unsuspected resources and we have once again the proof: in some cases businesses have become in the space of a few months what they would have liked to be before but failed to be because of a lack of courage, because of various resistances, because of a lack of urgency.

So is it to be expected that lessons will be learned from all this and that certain things will become permanent?

What will be left of all this?

As we can see with remote working, getting back to normal allows us to get rid of some of the negative aspects (because there have been some, and not the least) but also to put the dust under the carpet and to avoid addressing the subjects that make people angry.

The same will be true for many of the “exceptional” ways of operating set up during COVID: not everything will remain, far from it. And that is not always a bad thing.

Why do we enjoy going backwards after having experienced the benefits of a flatter, more agile, flexible, fast and simple organization? Because we went too far, out of necessity, and the abuse of a good thing ends up in a bad thing.

Removing “unnecessary” levels to bring management and the executive board closer to the field and reduce the time between decision and action is good. But it is not sustainable in the long term. It’s perfect for managing the day-to-day urgency, not for the hindsight that these functions need. If we exhaust ourselves in the daily management and in the action, we don’t prepare the future and we get exhausted.

Exceeding one’s function is also a good thing. But when you work with “just” the necessary resources, you exhaust the teams.

Go faster? Another good thing. But it was done badly, which is logical given the context and the improvisation that resulted from the lack of preparation. Individuals were asked to go faster individually, which of course has obvious limits. The ideal is to go faster collectively without increasing the pressure on the individuals, but here we come up against the walls that all so-called collaborative or collective intelligence approaches face.

The return to normal, to the situation as it was before, will be all the more comfortable and natural since the provisional arrangements put in place during the COVID were not always sustainable in the long term.

Any leads for the future?

Going back to the way things were does not mean that nothing will change.

Businesses will inevitably have to think about all those positions they have been able to do without, and in particular about a certain number of middle-manager roles. We’ve seen that we’re more efficient without them, but we’ve also realized that they relieve a burden that the upper echelon of the organization cannot bear in the long term. The question is not so much their role as their number. If we want to ask this question at all.

There will be something left from the various pivots and reconfigurations of the business model and the value chain. But nothing permanent. We will know that we are able to do it on an ad hoc basis if needed.

In the end, it is perhaps the employees who will have the most complete reflection on what they experienced in the storm, on what they did not experience when they were sidelined and will draw conclusions not for the business but for their own account and their future.

In this series :
The post COVID business: myth or reality?
COVID has not been a change agent but an excellent consultant
The post COVID employee: an one-unseizable person market
The post-covid manager: more indispensable and lost than ever.
The post covid organization: flatter, agile, flexible and fast.
Post-covid operations: formalized, simplified, automated and people-centric
The post covid workplace: hybridization in pain.
Post COVID business culture: the great reconstruction in the mess
Post COVID business values: a lot of promise and little effect
The post-Covid Digital Workplace: ATAWAD and open to all

Image : Organization by  Viktoria Kurpas via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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