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Planning Ahead for a Post COVID-19 Workforce and Workplace


Dr. George Westerman talks to Michael Wong about how smarter executives will successfully lead their workforces in a post COVID-19 business environment.

Dr. George Westerman, Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management and Principal Research Scientist for Workforce Learning at the MIT Jameel World Education Laboratory, talks to Michael Wong about how smarter executives will successfully lead their workforces for a post COVID-19 business environment.

Michael Wong: During our last Q&A three years ago, you explained how large traditional companies in any industry can make digital transformation work for them. What has changed in the past few years?

Dr. George Westerman: In the past few years, we’ve seen two major changes. First, digital transformation has gone from an intriguing idea (and sometimes an ominous fear) to being a fundamental part of the leadership conversation. Early incremental experiments are giving way to broader more systemic change. And leaders in B2B industries are paying as much attention as those in B2C industries were.

Dr. George Westerman

The second change is that the focus is moving more to the people side of digital transformation. We always talked about how digital masters build two capabilities. Digital capability was about using technology in your business. But leadership capability is even more important. It’s about energizing the organization around the need to innovate, and then driving the organizational and process changes that turn technology into value. 

What has been happening recently is that much more attention is going to the people side. For example, we have new research on how to change your culture to make it more agile and digital-ready.1 And the need to help workers stay ahead of constantly changing business environments has led companies to rethink the way they manage learning and development,2 and think more broadly about the whole workforce learning ecosystem.

Another big change has been COVID-19. With the pandemic as an agitator, how will smarter executives successfully lead their workforces in a post Covid-19 business environment?

The joke is that, for many companies, COVID led digital transformation better than their management teams did. Certainly, for many companies and schools, more digital change happened in two months than in the prior five years. But just because they changed fast, does not mean they changed well. 

The companies that were already what we call digital masters had capabilities they could draw upon to go farther, as COVID-19 helped their customers and employees to see that remote collaboration can be effective. But the other companies tended to cobble together solutions to meet a short term need. Now they need to take a careful look at what is possible and how they can get there in a smarter and more enabling way. They need to think about whether they have the right digital and leadership capabilities in place. And how to get their IT platforms, their IT people, and their IT/business relationships into the right shape to power their company forward.

Then there is the people side again. I did a recent webinar on this,3 where we talked about needing to change four parts of the people side to help your organization come back stronger. First, change the why of work, by helping people feel engaged in a real mission for the work. Then, work on changing culture and L&D, which I described earlier. Finally, we need to pay more attention to human skills,4 not just technical or job-specific ones. For many of us, we manage these “softer” skills subconsciously, and are learning they need much more conscious effort when we’re all working remotely. And for people who don’t have these skills, they’re learning how very important they are. 

Finally, while Fortune 500 firms, especially like biopharma and tech, might have the resources in terms of money, human capital, processes, and technology (IT, security and infrastructure), what should executives of smaller entities, without deep pockets, do to help their companies be ready to compete for the future?

Industries were already changing quickly and then COVID accelerated the changes. This is a real opportunity for smaller firms to make an impact. You can identify opportunities for working in new ways while the larger companies are trying to reorient their organizations for this evolving world. If you’re a small provider with an existing niche of products, services and clients; you can use this time of uncertainty to get even closer to customers and partners. In addition, the big companies are looking for help to solve real problems they are facing, if you’re willing to work with them. But, since trust and reliability are so important in pharma, you’ll need to show they can count on you to deliver reliable and safe products and services, not just fast and innovative ones – especially in today’s uncertain times.

Another element to pay attention to is what remote work may do to your own culture and processes. Many small companies have developed processes that thrive on regular contact and informal collaboration by people in different roles. If you’re fully remote, you’ve lost the chance for those informal conversations in the hallway. That can impact your innovation and employee satisfaction. So, if you aren’t already doing it, put some focus on how to recreate in the remote world the serendipity and camaraderie that happened when people were working together in the real world. 

During more than 18 years with the MIT Sloan School of Management, Dr. George Westerman has written three award-winning books, including Leading Digital — Turning Technology into Business Transformation. Dr. Westerman is now extending his role in MIT to focus on helping employers, educators, and others to rethink the process of workforce learning around the world.

Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

1. https://enterprisersproject.com/article/2020/9/digital-transformation-how-build-digital-ready-culture

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkyHCoyCcbs

3. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/webinar-coming-back-from-the-coronavirus-as-a-stronger-organization/on-demand/?og=Leadership+Editors+Picks

4. ​https://jwel.mit.edu/human-skills-matrix ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​

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