Virus detected, disruption activated

27 March 2020 | Columns

Chaze Nalisa

There was a time, literally a couple of weeks ago, when someone sneezed and the reaction of those around them would be a simple, “bless you”. Do not dare sneeze or cough today, until further notice, lest you cause fear and panic around you. The dreaded coronavirus, which causes the Covid-19 disease, has suddenly taken over our lives.

In years past, this time of the year, people would still be wishing each other a happy new year, but this year we are wondering whether we have been teleported into an apocalyptic movie that once entertained us. Sudden disruption has forced itself among us.

Before writing this article, in order to gauge understanding, I posed a question to a few of my personal contacts, asking them what came to mind when they heard the word ‘disruption’. Twenty-three people responded, and here are the common words and statements that I collated from their responses: They defined disruption as an alteration, an interruption, a disturbance, causing a problem, something out of the norm, destroying structure, an interference, a delay. From a quick overview of these responses, one can tell that the respondents are in consensus that a disruption brings about some kind of change. The Oxford Dictionary definition of the word ‘disruption’ is “to prevent something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected”.

Change, as we all may know, is when something or someone becomes different, moving from one state to another, from one form to another, from one position to another, and the list goes on. Change can either be minor alterations or it can be radical transformation. I think we can safely agree that the disruption the world is currently experiencing has brought and continues to bring transformational change.

Most Namibian organisations, the people, in their professional and personal capacities, and the business processes, have been caught off guard by this global disruption called Covid-19. Nevertheless the responsiveness of some of these organisations has brought new meaning to the term ‘safety first’ and a great demonstration of putting the number one customer, the employee, first.

It has pulled most people together, blurred some lines of rank, and created an opportunity for all employees, regardless of their designation and authority, to lead without fear. Disruption does not necessarily mean that things come to a standstill; it may mean that although there is a continuation, it will not be business as usual or as expected.

All in all, it is evident that there is a transformational change impacting the usual and expected way that organisations have been functioning and many are uncertain how long this transformation will carry on and the magnitude of disruption it will still cause.

Allow me to highlight a few important facets about organisational culture that may fuel transformation. For the sake of this article, organisational culture is simply the values and beliefs that inform how business is conducted in any organisation. There is a lot one can say around the topic of a culture. Highlighted here are only four features that an organisation which desires to respond to sudden disruption with agility should imbue and promote in its culture. These are as follows:

1. Diversity - Organisations need to increase talent diversity, because people with different backgrounds will make stronger teams, and it has been proven that diverse teams deliver stronger results. In times of disruption, diverse teams bring to the table a great drive and desire for success. Where there is diversity, leadership is not limited to higher ranking officials, but it can be observed that all players lead in their respective roles and even seek to push beyond their limits.

2. Technology - People need to be afforded the opportunity to explore platforms that enable them to work more collaboratively across continents, across cultures, with more flexible thinking. In times of disruption they are capable to use different methods to get the same or similar results without major interruptions and even without fail. Furthermore, this exposes the people and processes to better evolved, mobile and flexible workforces.

3. Remote work - We should not wait for challenges to force us into remote work, such as working from home. We should prepare our people to work remotely, anytime and in as many different locations as humanly and ergonomically possible. Whenever the need arises, such as now, they would have already been enabled to work with flexibility and freedom. The employer will be assured of the productivity of these people, as it is already a practice of the organisation. The only component lacking in this practice is the link and the bonding with colleagues. However, businesses need to create the right conditions for people to be able to work together; to share elements of value or purpose using other tools, measures and platforms.

4. Human skills -There are five human skills that can set any organisation apart and ahead of disruption, namely: adaptability, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, communication skills and ability to unlearn and relearn. These skills have been said to be more important than actual knowledge. An organisation that promotes the importance of acquiring these human skills at all levels, and especially from middle to higher management levels, is an organisation whose DNA is riddled with high performance, passion, trust and loyalty.

Never has the entire world been at battle with a common enemy, as it has been in the past couple of weeks. A virus has been detected and disruption has been activated. It is in times like these that the culture of an organisation is tested, as it determines how an organisation responds and whether it can transform for the better. Now is the time for employers to stretch the table and create room for the talents. They must embrace the redesign that this transformation might bring. Perhaps this is the future we heard about. Amidst trying to maintain order and positivity, organisations should create platforms for continuity, because this could be a paradigm shift to the new normal.

*Chaze Nalisa is a consultant at Totus Consulting Group.

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