Last month, as restrictions started to lift across Australia, we compiled a group of PMO and Program leaders for a Zoom conference on how the global pandemic has shaped the way the workforce looks and feels and how it will transform moving forwards. The year began like no other with the devastating effects of the bushfires and was amalgamated with the social unrest of Brexit, the breakdown in globalisation, trade wars, significant Cyber Security breaches and the advent of COVID-19; all of which culminated in a blurring of ‘normality’ everywhere. Such significant events had an immediate impact on both society and the market, which brought about the need for more stringency on budgeting, prioritisation, simplification, rationalisation and ways of working in order to change and pivot as needed.

In our discussion, we set about creating an open forum for individuals to discuss their personal challenges, as well as those of their organisations, creating a community feel and allowing people to learn from one another. Here are some of the key insights from the event:

A Need for Speed

The conversation opened with Jack Su of QBE Insurance, who discussed the immediate need for a focus on people and the shift from a predominantly customer-centric approach to companies also looking after their people internally. The focal point was how to set people up to work from home and create a “pulse” within the organisation whereby people can have regular contact with each other, despite the lack of physical connection. Jack discussed how his team brought together cross-functional Agile squads and created a slick and productive way of working, explaining how everyone had to collaborate in order to “grab the bull by the horns.” Shirin Danesh of Optus also supported this with her view that businesses were forced to “innovate or die,” with no time to stand still.

The consensus across the group was that many organisations handled this predicament very effectively; particularly IAG who, as both Vivienne De Rooy and Kristen Dorsch discussed, capitalised on their nimble feel as an organisation and managed the transition rather seamlessly, largely thanks to their inherently digital feel. Regular check-ins, lots of pre-existing relationships, aligning people to the vision and steering everyone towards the same goal were the key ingredients for a successful shift towards remote working for IAG. All of this pointed to exceptional business agility, which resulted in an improvement in their customer engagement scores – a fantastic success story amidst a very challenging and unpredictable time.

This “need for speed” was also discussed by both Chase Gunning of Qantas and Olga Richardson of Mirvac, who each talked through the importance of pivoting quickly, creating a new business continuity plan and bringing their teams on the same journey as rapidly as possible. With Chase facing with the rather unpleasant task of standing down almost an entire airline and Olga being onboarded to a large transformation project a week before the lockdown, both individuals faced contrasting but similarly unenviable challenges to their leadership.

The Rise of Change Management

Central to all these challenges is how businesses manage change from multiple angles. As Brett Young of Westpac discussed, this period has created a rise in the prevalence of Change Management as a profession, veering away from being a neglected “tick box” exercise to being pivotal to business conversations. This was also discussed with passion by Michelle Teunis of CA ANZ who, on only her second day in her new role (in which she was also onboarded remotely), was asked to deliver a presentation on the importance of change. Michelle illustrated how change is all about benefits realisation and bringing people on the collective journey of the organisation. It works alongside Project and Program Management to drive towards the desired outcome.

In some cases, Change Management has entered key business conversations far earlier than ever before and even preceded conversations at Program Management level, with the business needing to accept change-related decisions before spending money, rather than change running in parallel or even in the background once the parameters have already been set. For executives and sponsors, they want to know what the benefits realisations will be and whether they are set up to adopt what the delivery teams are implementing before steaming into the project or program.

For Michelle, change has become an ongoing process of testing and reflection on what works and what needs changing. She argues that because of this constant iteration, the well-used expression “the new normal” should instead be labelled “the next normal,” in that it is a constantly evolving process and is not simply a shift from one way of working to another.

Rethinking Wellbeing and Communication

The other significant theme that organisations have had to navigate is people’s wellbeing: physically, mentally and emotionally. With people locked down in their homes, restricted on seeing others and unable to exercise as freely as before, this obviously brings about significant health implications, coupled with the anxiety associated with the market uncertainty and an economic crisis. Many of the speakers, including Gav Riddell of HCF, discussed how setting aside time for personal wellbeing has been welcomed by organisations, once again demonstrating a people-centric approach.

However, Michelle also discussed the juxtaposition associated with working remotely, in that people are feeling more productive than ever and enjoying the flexibility, yet they are also feeling rather disconnected from others, which creates issues around mental health. So, as Shirin also discussed, there is a balance that needs to be met between human connection and simply getting things done. Many organisations have adopted several new habits in order to drive that human connection, both work-related and social; whether that be morning stand-ups and evening check-outs or casual drinks at the end of the week. All of this helps to create a sense of unity and togetherness, as well as allowing people to feel connected.

With the widespread use of several collaboration tools, such as MS Teams, Zoom and Webex, there is a need for people to adjust to a new way of communicating, including sharpening how we present, how we come across and how we allow conversations to flow without being within the same physical space. We have had to adapt our toolkit quickly, much the same as how documentation skills, email writing and CRM usage have had to become significantly sharper too. People are now interviewing over video platforms and being onboarded to work alongside people they have never met, which means that we have to become more conscious of the way we articulate ourselves and the impression we evoke.

The Importance of Agility

This then brings us on to the final point of the discussion, which was centred around recruitment and how the current climate could potentially create an increase in fluidity within the resource market. This raises questions about what portion of the workforce will be contingent and whether the current virtual nature of the workforce will open up new pools of talent, without the need for people to be fixed to any specific geographical location. Depending on how long the virus takes to be fully eradicated and how quickly the market takes to recover, we could be faced with the possibility of being set up as virtual workforces for some time, so there is a distinct possibility that the ‘gig economy’ could become even more agile.

What was clear from this whole discussion was the significance of that word “agile”, not just in the sense of the overarching framework (capital “A” for Agile), but the need for nimbleness and the value of having a workforce that can pivot and turn quickly. The consensus was that most companies have handled these sudden changes very maturely and smoothly, with some naturally better equipped than others. What is also abundantly clear is that everyone must play their part and come together and that we are all learning on our feet. None of us will have ever been dealt such a hand in our lives and careers, and the lessons from these extraordinary times will hopefully equip us all and make us stronger for the future.

Thanks for reading and thank you to everyone who attended and made the event happen, particularly to Anthony Wellbelove for chairing and facilitating such an engaging and open discussion. Please click the link below if you would like to view the recording of the discussion.

Stay tuned for our next roundtable event and I hope everyone stays safe and healthy!

This conference (and other events like it) is an extension of our commitment to providing true partnership and value-add industry knowledge for some of Australia’s most innovative Tech businesses. Contact us today to learn how we can connect your organisation with industry-leading Tech talent.