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Sustaining the Positive Lessons COVID-19 Has Taught Our Organizations

This year has delivered an abundance of opportunities to develop new skills and new business strategies in response to the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest, shifting work practices, changes in our personal lives, and many other challenges.  

After years of focus on learning and development research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), I can’t help but wonder what will happen to all the lessons we’re learning in 2020 once we are able to move beyond the crisis-response focus this year has demanded.  

We’ve seen that while lower-performing organizations may deliver knowledge-building content and development opportunities, they often struggle to sustain the learning that took place.  

These days, we often hear people voicing the desire to “get back to normal.” In other words, back to the way we used to do things before normal exploded right in front of us. Sure, there are many things we used to do that we look forward to resuming at some point. But instead of looking back, why not look ahead?   

At i4cp, we have a front-row view of the innovative, compassionate, often high-performance ways organizations and their leaders have responded to the unique circumstances of 2020. We are seeing exciting new practices, philosophies, and capabilities that companies will not only want to retain, but develop further when chaotic times settle down. 

Call insights reveal opportunities for lasting learning 

On i4cp’s ongoing weekly Action Calls for Total Rewards, L&D, and other professional communities, our conversations with guests and attendees continue to explore the ways companies and their leaders are learning on the fly and trying new approaches.  

A few examples: 

  • Leaders and organizations initially responded quickly and decisively to prioritize employee safety.
  • Companies made rapid shifts to remote work; those requiring onsite workers acted quickly to adapt their facilities for continued operations while social distancing.
  • Attention and efforts have focused on more holistic employee well-being, particularly mental health, and financial wellness.
  • Some executives have had to rewrite strategy playbooks in real time to ensure the survival of their companies.
  • Many leaders regularly reached out to employees to check in on their well-being, facilitate discussions, and drive thoughtful communication across their organizations.
  • Executives in hard-hit industries joined with their counterparts in those fields to lobby for financial aid or other support.
  • In many companies, employees have turned to each other for all types of support, marshalled and shared resources, and built a greater sense of community and collaboration.
  • Through the ranks, employee resource groups (ERGs / BRGs) stepped up to sustain communications, act as liaisons between companies and employees, and help reinforce organizational cultures; they continue to expand those roles.
  • Organizations have begun to make inroads into culture change and prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion, although much work remains to be done.

By no means is this an exhaustive list—your own organization has probably reacted in similar ways and also identified other strategies, priorities, and behaviors that need to be addressed. 

And although many efforts began as seat-of-the-pants responses to crises, we hear increasing numbers of leaders and professionals affirming the value those new methods are contributing to their organizations.  

Sustaining and building on lessons learned starts now

Do we really want to watch positive new ideas and approaches fizzle when the world—and the business environment—shifts again? Of course not. And that implies work to be done to sustain what we’ve learned so far and drive those insights to newer, higher levels.

Perhaps the clearest lesson COVID-19 has taught us is that we are in this together. That means that collaboration and partnerships have grown in importance as tools to drive stronger outcomes. For businesses, 2020 been a time to marshal all of our internal resources. This need will not end when we enter 2021.

Company leaders must begin now to think about maintaining what we’ve learned, and L&D should be among the first functions to which they turn for expertise. Retaining what we’ve learned requires careful planning and purposeful execution. 

Learning and development know-how can help with that task as leaders identify how new ways of doing things are contributing to achieving business priorities, and how they can provide stronger support going forward. 

Employees need to know now that companies expect follow-through and have eyes on the future. Along with L&D, the expertise of all business functions will be needed to capture and creatively build on the lessons COVID has taught us.  

Together, we can sustain those positive strategies we’ve fashioned to rise above the challenges 2020 has brought and apply them to effectively meet whatever demands our post-pandemic world will bring.

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.