COVID’s Biggest Lesson for Business? Always Expect the Unexpected.

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It has been over a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the world has drastically changed.

With virtual spaces becoming the default for so many activities, the pandemic has altered how we interact with everything from our homes and our friends to our work. Now is the time to ask what we can learn from this.

From an HR perspective, the past year holds all kinds of valuable lessons involving working and collaborating in virtual environments, employers’ responsibilities to employee mental health and well-being, and more. While these are all important takeaways, it’s only a matter of time before work circumstances change again. The world moves at ever-increasing speeds. Rather than slowing things down, the pandemic only accelerated the pace.

For that reason, the most important takeaway from the past year may be this: The unforeseen and unexpected is always a possibility, and businesses need to adapt faster than ever to keep up with the demands of the market.

What can companies do to ensure they’re ready to deal with the next big shift, whatever it might be?

Adapting to Change

In the past year, we were all forced to transform our business processes and communication channels seemingly overnight. There has been much discussion of how to adapt our staffing and talent development practices to accommodate these changes, but very few organizations managed to get it right.

In my conversations with CHROs and business leaders, I’ve heard countless stories of executives struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of change. As new conditions for working, traveling, and living were dictated and updated almost daily, business leaders scrambled to assess the skills of their staff members and shift talent from areas with reduced activity (e.g., sales, retail) to areas that were suddenly severely overworked and understaffed (e.g., online service centers, customer support).

To reorganize their workforces, many executives turned to spreadsheets and other manual processes. Moving employees around was often the best-case scenario; in less ideal situations, companies had to downsize large parts of their workforces in certain regions and departments just to keep their heads above water — while simultaneously hiring new staff to fill demand in newly opened markets.

Organizations that weathered the storm most effectively all have one thing in common:  Rather than immediately looking for external solutions, they started internally. They used technology to gain visibility into the skills and capacities of their existing employees, which allowed them to realign talent to meet the evolving needs of the business in real time.

Making Informed Decisions About Your Workforce

What business leaders need to realize is that incremental gains in traditional approaches like external recruiting and hiring and standard training and upskilling might be well intentioned, but they aren’t an efficient way to adapt to the speed of the market.

Uncovering gaps in capabilities and locating the right people to close those gaps in real time is considered to be way outside the scope of traditional HR. Because of this, by the time traditional upskilling and reskilling efforts are realized and implemented, they’re already obsolete. Hiring more and more new talent at faster and faster rates becomes the only solution. Of course, with the time it takes to onboard new employees, this too is untenable.

For a company to be truly ready for whatever comes next, its leaders must gain a deeper understanding of the skills and capabilities of the existing organizational workforce.

It’s also important to recognize these skills and capabilities change over time as employees, technologies, and paradigms of work evolve. Keeping track of these changes while surfacing relevant insights into what your employees can do outside of their rigid job descriptions is a big task. The larger the company, the harder it becomes to match employees to new assignments as they arise.

Luckily, AI-based tools enable and empower organizations to gain new visibility into their workforces, which allows them to utilize existing resources at scale and speed. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this past year, it’s that your company’s very existence may depend on your ability to realize your workforce’s full potential and to deploy it quickly in unexpected scenarios.

It’s important to implement solutions based on what we’ve learned from COVID, but it’s even more important to anticipate the unanticipatable. Be ready to react to change as it happens. The only way to do this is to ensure you know what your workforce is capable of at any given moment — and then position yourself to rearrange it to meet new realities at will.

Brian Hershey is the head of enterprise strategy at Gloat

By Brian Hershey