Drawing on the latest thinking from the Future of Work (FOW), agile, neuroscience and Human Centred Design (HCD).

What might change management look like in a post-pandemic world?

Since COVID-19 struck all corners of the globe and impacting how people work in almost every organisation, we experienced a period of rapid and imposed change. This also raised a provocative question: If we changed so easily and quickly, what might change management look like in post-pandemic world?

The answer is simple – it will be the same as it should have looked in a pre-pandemic world. Let me explain why.

The pre-pandemic world

Pre-COVID, the external environment was already fierce, demanding that organisations become nimble, and more responsive to market forces to remain competitive. Often described as VUCA conditions (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), businesses were under pressure to ramp up their innovation, learn from failure fast, and deliver solutions to customers more quickly. In turn, these new ways of working meant all employees needed to continually build on their existing skills with emerging skills including adaptive work styles and delivery.

For change practitioners, we were already expected to rethink the way we designed our change approach for these fast-moving, agile environments. However, adoption of new and innovative practices was sporadic. For many, the urgency to deliver change differently was not intense enough. There were pockets of slow adoption and experimentation of emerging practices.

A second element playing out pre-COVID was the disruption of power inside and outside organisations. Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describe this in their book as ‘new power’. Once power was held by few, now it’s shared by many. Traditional, hierarchical models of organisational power no longer hit the mark in motivating people. This shift was prompting us to rethink our engagement and adoption approach.

This dynamic combination of VUCA and New Power provided clues to how to shift the ways in which we led and managed change. Many change practitioners were starting to add agile change practices to their toolkit and recognised the need to engage differently with their stakeholders and impacted users.

The pandemic arrives

Acting as both a disrupter and an accelerant, the pandemic did show us what ‘VUCA on steroids’ looks like.

Whilst we continued to experience the same pre-pandemic conditions of VUCA and New Power, we also became the receivers of rapid and imposed change. A global crisis disrupted many widely held beliefs about change management and how to deliver it. When the pressure was on to introduce change quickly, such as remote working, we saw how quickly it could be done. When businesses needed to pivot to survive, we saw how innovative and adaptive many could be to keep up with overnight introduction of new regulations and lockdowns.

This was a significant nudge for change leaders and practitioners – it showed us what can be done with limited time, fewer options and resources when you work collaboratively and iteratively, letting go of the need for perfection and the overhead of heavy process, review and decision making.

Emerging from COVID retreat

Now that we are emerging from pandemic retreat, workplaces are facing what is now termed ‘the greatest workplace disruption’. It won’t be the same workplace we left behind. This ‘return to work’ exercise will need strong change management skills that consider the conditions of VUCA, New Power, safety regulations, empathy and deep uncertainty. Now, change itself is on steroids, making it the ideal time to experiment with approaches we may have overlooked or avoided pre-pandemic.