I’m writing this post from my dining room table, joining millions of people around the world working from home to slow down a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in over a century.

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every facet of our professional and personal lives. It has forced companies large and small to transform how they do business and how their employees work. Students are now using distance learning on an unprecedented scale. Companies that have historically had little to no telework are now rethinking and redesigning how to stay operational and keep their people employed.

At Jabian, one of our more popular topics of discussion over the last several months has been “The People Side of Business Transformation” because so many of our clients have just gone through a transformation, are in the midst of one now, or see the need in the future to embark on one. Businesses pursue transformations for a myriad of reasons, including reacting to a global pandemic.

In February (before social distancing), I had the pleasure of sitting at a roundtable with senior leaders and executive across Charlotte to discuss this topic. Four key themes emergedfrom that February roundtable that hold true for all of us as we live through this pandemic.

1.     Organizations don’t change, people change  

The pandemic is a unique case when it comes to transformation in that people are inherently at the center of it. We are changing our lives to keep people healthy and alive. However, in many business transformations, technology and process efficiencies typically have the starring roles and employees are viewed as “along for the ride.” Our roundtable participants made one thing very clear: There is no substitute for good old-fashioned, face-to-face communication. Of course in the midst of a pandemic, we have to be creative in the mediums we use to deliver messages.

Face-to-face communication creates an environment to talk to your employees and understand concerns, fears, and motivations. Based on discussions I’ve had recently with leaders, you can change your medium but continue to exhibit the same behaviors as if you were sitting with your employees. Listen intently, show empathy and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with “we don’t have all the answers.”

It is only then that you begin to see people put down their guard and be open to shift mindsets. If your employees “get it”, they will begin to change their own behaviors as opposed to the change being forced upon them. The other key byproduct of having meaningful discussions with your people is it helps to strengthen relationships around trust transparency. You will need to tap into this emotional capital throughout the journey. Lastly, talking to your employees allows you to create a forum for the co-creation of outcomes so the change isn’t happening to your employees. They are helping to shape and create with you. 

2.     All transformations need a North Star

All transformations need a North Star to serve as a constant reminder of why it was started and where it is taking an organization. Transformations do not start and end in a matter of days or weeks. Your employees and stakeholders need to be reminded of the answers to”why are we doing this?”, “what problem are we solving for?” and “what’s this look like at the end?”

Even for something as dire as the pandemic, the initial guidance and North Star for social distancing and staying at home has been somewhat fleeting until the last few weeks. Whether it’s a merger or acquisition, staying relevant and competitive in the marketplace, or preserving your business (and industry) when people can’t leave their house, your North Star is a beacon your leaders, employees, and customers need to remind and guide them through the transformation.

3.     Transformations aren’t just a single event anymore 

Does it feel like your organization is constantly changing? That’s because it is… #disruption. Technology has a heavy influence on the rate of change. Many of our roundtable participants talked about boundless transformations. One participant said “we are always changing.” The important takeaway here is that transformations should be viewed as a marathon rather than a sprint. You can certainly have smaller projects and initiatives but remind your leaders and employees that they are part of something much larger. Business transformations leaders should strive for incremental progress rather than perfection upfront. Small wins and success stories will keep your employees tuned in and confident that progress is being made against the North Star.

4.     Tell them, tell them again, and tell them a few more times for good measure  

We communicate a great deal about communicating, yet most companies’ employee engagement and climate surveys will say communication is poor. So, what gives? The roundtable categorized communication breakdowns across three areas: 1) delivery mechanisms; 2) what’s communicated and what’s not; 3) and its overall frequency. A large transformation requires a diverse, multi-channel communication strategy. Every person impacted needs to feel heard and communicated. That means in-person discussions with desk-less workers on a shop room floor and road shows for geographically dispersed employees, etc.

When it comes to what you communicate be as clear and transparent as possible. Use common words rather than opting for the usual suspects of “efficiencies, functionality, innovative, streamline, etc.” When talking about the transformation, remind people about the “why” and “where we are headed”. Lastly, communication is not a single email or event at the beginning and end of the journey. In fact, it’s very difficult to over communicate in a transformation. Over the course of the last several weeks, I’ve noticed an improvement from governments across the globe to communicate daily. That gives me a sense of comfort.

Transformations can feel extremely difficult, and having leaders and employees ask “why bother?” When I think about how long this pandemic will last, I’m uplifted by the ingenuity happening as we speak across all industries from front-line medical workers to restaurateurs and entertainment personalities. They are reinventing themselves and helping us feel a little more comfortable about what’s going on. That’s the silver lining and that’s why we embark on transformations – to be better. Hope this post spurs thought and reflection. Take care of yourselves and each other.