This Is Not and Cannot Be “Business as Usual”

Many organizations heeded the COVID-19 warnings and sent people home to work as remote teams. The managers want to proceed as if the people can work from home and have “business as usual.” They've made these requests to their staff:

  • Work at home, as if you were at the office. (Keep the same hours and availability.)
  • Don't use so much wifi bandwidth when you VPN in from home. (Work alone so we don't have to manage bandwidth.)
  • You must use corporate tools even though they don't support your remote work. (See 7 Tool Tips for Your Newly Distributed or Remote Team.)

These demands are totally incongruent with our current context.

People can't successfully work from home under these conditions. Anyone with another human in the house will have to manage their schedule and work hours. Anyone who must use the corporate tools on the corporate VPN will use “more” bandwidth.

(In terms of the Congruence model, that's when people think about the Self. They ignore the Other and the Context.)

When I speak with my clients, they realize the craziness of asking for “business as usual.” And, that doesn't change this fact: the managers feel tremendous pressure.

All Managers Experience Pressure

Here's what's happening at several of my clients:

  • The execs discuss various new business models for the business. They don't have an answer yet. They need money coming in. That means…
  • The middle managers are supposed to “drive” work to completion, to retain and acquire new customers on current business. That means…
  • The pressure runs downhill to the team and the others creating and supporting the products.

The execs didn't anticipate having to create a new business now. Just a few months ago, they probably didn't imagine needing a new business.

Too few of these organizations had small transformational projects in their project portfolio. (See Projects, Products, and the Project Portfolio: Part 2, Assess & Rank the Work to see the three kinds of projects: keep the lights on, grow the normal business, transform the business.) Most of my clients made so much money with their current offerings, they didn't consider novel possibilities—those products with the power to transform the organization's offerings.

If you hear or say any of this, what can you do?

Start With Honesty

When I say to start with honesty, too many execs think I'm nuts.

Think about it. When you say to people, “Work fast and don't use any of our corporate resources,” how do people translate that? They might assume these conditions:

  • They think the company is in dire straits.
  • They think the company is about to close.
  • They think their salary is in jeopardy.

What do people do then? They don't work on the projects. They look for a new job. (Yes, even now. They want to escape. They think of your company as the Titanic.)

Instead, imagine saying this:

  • Very bad news: “We realize our business model doesn't work for our current reality. Please work as hard as you can over the next couple of weeks. We expect to announce where we are at that time.”
  • Moderate bad news: “We got caught flat-footed. We didn't realize we might have the wrong mix of products and services. Please hang in there and finish what you can so we can replan faster than we're accustomed to. We'll announce our first set of decisions in two weeks.”
  • Some bad news: “We're a little embarrassed we didn't plan for better internet access. Please hang in there while we try to figure out better support for you. We'll let you know where we are every couple of days.”

Each of these is an honest statement.

And, in the very bad news circumstance, will people still look for a new job? They might. And, they are more likely to give the management team the benefit of the doubt while the managers determine what's next.

And, because you offered short decision times, people will likely extend you trust to do what you say you will. (Managers and execs: if you're in any of these bad news scenarios, these decisions are your only job now.)

Extend Trust

Can you extend trust back to everyone?

When people work from home, you can't possibly know what people do all day. However, you can treat them like the adults they are and trust them. When you extend trust, they tend to trust you back.

Then, regardless of what occurs, people will be honest with you as long as you are honest with them.

Especially if you don't try to pretend you have business as usual.

Nothing is “Usual”

Part of the reason we're all having trouble is we have uncertainty about everything. We have no way to predict anything at all. We have no idea when we will have effective treatments or ways to live with the virus.

Yes, that makes me a little nuts. I'm human, as are you. (See Where Are You in Your Changes? to discuss how we might see our progress through change.)

Let's not pretend we know where we're going or that we have “business as usual.”

Instead, let's consider how to balance ourselves, the others, and the context.

Let's be honest with each other. And, extend trust. And, learn to live in this new, not-yet-normal world.

This post is part of the Collection of My Rapidly Remote and Managing in Uncertainty Writing.

2 Replies to “This Is Not and Cannot Be “Business as Usual””

  1. Johanna, your articles are always useful, often provocative. This one on ‘Business as usual’ was super. Sadly, everyone including the intelligensia managers are wrestling with this social and business upheaval for the first time at this scale. I am sure that by the time it all passes we all will have figured out what we should have done!

    1. Gary, thank you. I hope this upheaval passes quickly so that we can use our 20/20 hindsight. (Yes, pun intended!)

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