The global COVID-19 pandemic is impacting us daily from all angles – health, economics, logistics, politics, education, relationships, and more. For people working in all industries and sectors, this crisis is creating a huge amount of fear and anxiety. In many ways, it illustrates just how vulnerable we are as human beings, and is causing us to question every assumption we had about the future.
With respect to making the big decisions about allowing workers to work remotely, health care benefits, and other forms of economic relief, corporations are stepping up to fulfill a leadership role. For leaders, this necessitates a closer look at the values and underlying purpose of their organizations, and re-examine the way they are making decisions.
I lead the Global Learning & Talent Development function in Aon. My team manages systems and programs that welcome on average 7,000 new colleagues every year and provide crucial client and professional skills training and leadership development. In the past two years, we have invested heavily in a digitization effort to implement Workday Learning and put a completely self-made digital learning platform in place. An estimated 30,000 colleagues around the world access self-directed learning to accelerate their career progression.
On Friday March 13, when my colleagues and I packed to work from home for “a few days,” no one had expected that schools would be shut that evening, and all bars and restaurants closed that weekend. Subsequently, we are now experiencing an almost nationwide shelter-in-place, with no clear sense of when it will end. Even with the digital learning capabilities we’ve implemented at my company, we had to pivot quickly to adapt to an all-virtual world within a matter of days. Here is what we’ve learned.
Content Relevancy to Meet Learners Where They Are
We initially started curating a collection of resources themed “Leading through pandemic” for people leaders. This quickly expanded to become “Leading yourself and others through pandemic,” to cover remote working and productivity tips. Very soon, we realized that employees are dealing with multiple issues — a large number of working parents are stressed by juggling work and life without being able to set clear boundaries, millennials are feeling socially disconnected because they live alone, etc.
So, we started to provide resources and forums around mental health and mindfulness, as well. Our content evolved with topical issues on people’s mind so they stay relevant.
Easy Navigation and User Experience
There is an overwhelming amount of information hitting us from all directions every day. It is worse now, given misinformation and speculative opinions. The average worker is already juggling 24+ different electronic systems within and outside the organization. In order for users to keep coming back to our digital learning platform, we need to provide a comparable experience to Google and Amazon. Fortunately, we have already been vamping up intelligent search and recommendation engines for a while.
Those proved to be a big game changer, in terms of how colleagues view their user experience. We also added visual guides to further ease their navigation. At any given point, a learner who is following a certain journey knows exactly how much has been covered and how much more remains.
‘Remote’ Doesn’t Mean Emotionally ‘Cold’
Remote working and constant digital access create an illusion of connectivity. But in reality, we don’t pick up nearly as many social clues from body language and facial expression as we would in person. That’s why infants and young children don’t bond with faces on screen compared to real people. With the help from short simulation and virtual role play technologies, our colleagues can learn most knowledge online and practice with bots or a remote leader-as-teacher, but those don’t completely replace in person coaching and on-the-job feedback.
We called upon our leaders and experts to reach out to colleagues and do daily check-ins. All team meetings start with a check-in, in which people share how they are feeling, what’s on their mind and what could be interfering. Our senior leaders ditched traditional emails and learned to send video messages that are shot on their phones. It’s a moment for vulnerability and courage.
The Four D Process
In times of rapid upheaval and uncertainty, continuous access to learning and development should be considered as a basic human right. It’s the only way we can stay employable in a world of constant change. In the “knowledge economy,” where skills are replacing capital to provide economic opportunities and sustainable career satisfaction, what you know and how to perform will determine whether you design/operate a machine, or work for a machine. We are expected to continuously improve.
In crises such as a global pandemic, learning brings an open mindset that facilitates agility. More engaged learners are more likely to see opportunities presented by challenging moments and therefore stay positive and perform better. The emergent model of leadership needs to be based on empathy and compassion, not just reminding people that they still need to hit their targets. Organizations need to make decisions based on values and principles while balancing different needs from employees, customers, suppliers and communities.
In Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships (Bloomsbury, 2020), we propose creating a human-centric approach for organizations to compete differently. The organizations that we work in, in turn shape the lives of the communities within which we serve. We can start from the inside out, by promoting empathy-based relationships within organizations, with personal dialogue at the core. With empathy as a core capability, we can prepare organizations to think about the impact of our actions, to ensure that we think through the unintended consequences of decisions which we increasingly have to make with less information and with little context.
We propose a “Four D” process for organizations to align and be congruent with empathy, values and purpose:
Discover what is important from each individual to align on purpose
Define what this means in the context of strategy and how the organization competes
Develop a plan to align the purpose-based values and empathy at the core of how everything is done
Deploy ‘how we do things around here,’ through the actions of every employee, everyday
The role of learning and learning departments will help shape our future society. It will require us to build a host of different skills and capabilities, including the ability of taking risks, staying open-minded and agile, learning from experiment and from each other as well as learning from our failures —even when we are also anxious and afraid or uncertain about the future. By building successful, involved, ethical organizations that have empathy at their core, we will increase the chances of creating a better world for all of us