Beyond digital transformation, companies need emotional transformation to survive this pandemic

digital transformation

For the past decade and change, corporations invested billions into digital transformation strategies and now the global COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate test of the quality of this investment. Over the next few weeks (or, likely, months) of the fight to “flatten the curve” of the spread, businesses will be forced to operate with a distributed workforce, limited access to physical resources, and countless curveballs we can’t even imagine as a result of the fallout from this unprecedented crisis.

As a business owner myself, I’m already experiencing shades of challenges to come in the short time since I enforced the work-from-home rule for my staff. My business is small and very digital. There are ten of us and we’re all web-savvy. We already use online collaboration tools — such as Slack, Zoom and Google Drive — religiously. We have a strong work-from-home policy that our team takes advantage of on a regular basis and our jobs are easily done remotely. 

So, you may assume this transition towards “social distancing” would be a simple one, right? That’s what I assumed, too. But after two short weeks, I’ve realized that there are many more challenges we weren’t prepared for.

Challenge #1: Moving from “social distancing” to “physical distancing with social bonding”

Within a day of the entire team working from home, we realized that team members were feeling isolated and anxious, which affected everyone’s productivity (even my own). 

Having worked from home off and on for years, I had my own coping strategies that couldn’t be deployed in this new situation. When I was a freelancer feeling isolated, I would head to work from a coffee shop or book face-to-face meetings with colleagues to get my fill of human contact. Seeing this need among my fellow freelancers, a group of us started the coworking movement, which has since birthed over 25,000 spaces worldwide for freelancers and remote workers to access when they need human contact. This, of course, is not possible in the current scenario.

Not everyone has years of experience with working from home and frankly, it is a skill that needs to be honed. The easiest part of developing this skill is deploying the technology and teaching yourself discipline. There are countless digital tools available and a copious number of books written on the subject of productivity. However, I’m hazarding a guess that none of them address this particular situation we find ourselves in. 

Because we’re nimble and I empathize with my team’s feelings of isolation, we immediately started implementing social time in our workday. One team member fired up a Zoom room to tell one of his infamously funny lunch table stories:

what organizations need to survive a pandemic - daily Zoom broadcasts!
Our team member, Zach, telling us about the time he overpaid a bar owner for this print of cats in a bathroom. 

We decided to make it a daily lunch hour (optional) ritual. Additionally, we opened up several additional Slack channels for sharing jokes and breaking news, I openly encouraged team members to feel free to have purely social time during work hours if they needed it, and we shared a hilarious game of at the end of the day on Friday, which revealed my awful dog-drawing skills:

screenshot of the game Scribblio being played by a group where they are to guess a dog that has been drawn
I’ve had dogs my entire life, but for some reason, I couldn’t draw one if my life depended on it during this game!

These actions seemed to help the team feel more bonded and less anxious, but we have yet to crack the code for replacing the level of connection we feel while working side-by-side.

Even one of the most well-known and successful remote workplaces, Automattic (the team behind WordPress and WooCommerce), understands the value of that social connection. In a 2016 blog post, Simon Ouderkirk, Director of Data and Analytics at wrote about the importance of what he called phatic conversations (talk for the sake of talking): 

It’s important not just socially, not just because it’s good to get to know your colleagues for your own sense of belonging and social in-grouping. It’s important because it opens up streams of communication, it gives you and your new connection access to more and different viewpoints and parts of the company.

Simon Ouderkirk

This post was written years before COVID-19 started tearing through the fabric of our social world. And as Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, said in a recent post, “This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold.” 

Which brings me to the next challenge.

Challenge #2: Creating work environments that improve mental health

Even if a global pandemic was one of the disaster scenarios your business planned for, it’s still unlikely you or your team were fully prepared for how things started to unfold in these past few weeks. The speed at which the news was coming in created a sense of dread for me every time I received a news alert. My team was hearing stories from friends and family members —people testing positive for the virus in their communities, friends losing their jobs in an instant, and first-hand messages of family members in a panic because their local grocery store was out of everything.

The Institute for Corporate Productivity has been monitoring the impact of COVID-19, and their data suggests “the productivity impact of COVID-19 hitting organizations to a high or very high extent has risen exponentially, leaping from a combined 9 percent last week to 41 percent this week (March 19).”

The levels of stress and anxiety are far too high to expect anyone to focus on their work for long periods of time. I encouraged people to go for frequent walks to get fresh air, close their social apps, and log off and play a video game to unwind (the launch of Animal Crossing: New Horizons couldn’t have been better timed). I obviously wasn’t alone. Nokia’s Deepfield research team reported that in day one of back-to-work in a newly locked-down Europe, teleconferencing app-use increased 300 percent and gaming app-use increased 400 percent.

Companies shouldn’t be discouraged by this statistic. In fact, breaks are good for productivity and playing video games on those breaks could lead to increased levels of creativity and productivity, according to the BBC.

There are limits of course, but procrastination is linked to depression and anxiety. When you can’t control the world around you and everything is overwhelming, beating a level or two on a game could bring a confidence boost or at least a nice distraction. For my own team, I’ve heard that logging into Animal Crossing for 15 minutes here and there helps them forget that the world is on fire. They come back temporarily refreshed and focused on the next task.

As much as this is an amplified issue during the pandemic, it’s not isolated to this moment. The World Health Organization, who are our beacons of information these days, give the following assessment:

Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.

Though many businesses are eager to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible, there will likely be additional fallout in the area of mental health to consider. 

At the rate this virus is spreading, most people are likely to know someone that will contract COVID-19 and many will lose friends and family. Others will be hit financially because of the loss of income in their households. They may lose their life savings or their homes. Additionally, the post-traumatic stress of the event is going to have long-lasting effects on everyone’s mental health.

Even when this is “over,” it’s going to take a long time to get back to previous levels of productivity… if going back is something we should even strive for.

Challenge #3: Preparing for a new normal or, rather, creating a better normal

coronavirus digital transformation

Here’s an important question for you: how well do you think things were working for your business pre-COVID-19?

One of the discussions I keep stumbling across is people musing about the opportunity this pandemic creates for rethinking everything. At first, it was rumblings about their own businesses, then broader musings on what this may mean for the future of everything.

It’s still way too early to grasp the ripple effects of this pandemic. We can model health and financial outcomes and scenarios until the cows come home, but there are so many unknowns and animal spirits to come. 

I will make this prediction, however: planning for black swan events will take more priority into the future —and this is a good thing. COVID-19 could prove to be a bit of a test run for more global crises. 

Only a few months ago, Australians were facing the worst wildfires in their history due to record-breaking temperatures and severe droughts. It feels like this happened a year ago, but there are still ripple effects on their economy as they face this new crisis. If we’re writing this off as a fluke, we’re kidding ourselves.

The creation of a new normal means that we need to re-balance our priorities and put a higher value on the systems that bind us together as human beings. Economic growth doesn’t happen in an efficiency vacuum — it happens because people are healthy and confident and secure enough to spend time thinking bigger and more creatively. Prosperity isn’t just about Wall Street: it requires a healthy, thriving Main Street, bringing us healthy food, safe shelter, and soul-nourishing entertainment. The ultimate supply chain starts with the earth, providing a bountiful supply of natural resources for us to use and restore wisely.

Do we go back to the systems that broke down so terribly during this crisis? Sure, a strong public healthcare system doesn’t matter so much when everyone is healthy, but humans are not immune to aging and disease and viruses. It matters when it happens to you. And guess what? It will.

Healthcare is just one of the myriad broken systems we’ve built that benefit the few and promise the many that they can have it all, too — if they only work harder and rely on themselves. Right now, we see a stark contrast between those who buy into that philosophy and those who don’t. 

Ten years ago, I read an essay in the Wall Street Journal by Gary Hamel titled The Hole in the Soul of Business that brought me to hopeful tears. In it, Hamel put out the call for businesses to rethink their values and aspire to a more “noble purpose.”

A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance. In so doing, it transforms great talent into exceptional accomplishment.

Gary Hamel, The Hole in the Soul of Business (Wall Street Journal, Jan 2010)

To survive through and beyond this crisis, the next transformation your organization needs to take on is an emotional one. Since it’s the only way to find connection in these days of physical separation, the digital part of your previous transformation can help, but we can’t apply it only to increase efficiency and productivity.  It needs to be applied to aid social bonding, improve mental health, and to help us rethink how we use technology in the post-COVID-19 world. 

It will require enormous amounts of emotional and social resilience to thrive in the many new normals we will encounter going forward.

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