Resilience, Part Two: Focusing on People
We’ve learned from COVID-19 that in a crisis, enterprises quickly have to focus on getting their employees working again. It’s the chief prerequisite for reestablishing business operations. After all, how can your employees respond to the crisis if they can’t work? In an earlier post I pointed out that agility, or nimbleness, is the essential pillar in your resilience strategy, since it’s the only way to prepare for something when you don’t yet know what you’re preparing for. Our next crisis might be a pandemic similar to COVID-19…or it might not! In this post, I’ll talk about that crucial first element of your resilience strategy: the type of agility that enables your workforce to continue working.
The obvious place to start is with remote working. Though it’s tempting to think of this as a challenge of enabling employees to work from home when the disaster strikes, this is too limited a view. What you really want is workplace agility. You want employees in the general case to be able to work from wherever they’re best able to; you want to untether them, when possible, from a specific building and a specific desk. As I said in my earlier post, the capabilities we need for disaster response are often capabilities we can build into our everyday activities. Ideally, you empower your employees to work from anywhere, any day—not just after the crisis strikes.
With workplace agility, an employee can work from the most effective place possible at the moment—which might be home, or the office, or a coffee shop. You can make the most of it by empowering employees not just to work from home, but from virtually anywhere. They might be most productive in a coffee shop. Maybe a flood destroyed their home as well as the office, and they need somewhere else to work. The more agility you can support, the better.
Fostering workplace agility is easier than it may seem. Why do white collar workers work in offices in the first place? In earlier days, employees worked with their hands and had to be in a factory. Managers supervised them by watching (“overseeing”) them. With the rise of white-collar knowledge workers, it was assumed that managers should “oversee” them in central offices as well. But that factory-like oversight is not very effective with knowledge work (“I see that you only had two innovative ideas per hour this week—you’ll need to stop staring into space and focus on your creativity per hour, or else!”). And with today’s digital tools, there are fewer reasons for centralization—employees hardly need paper clips and staples and a mail room any more—so it’s just the management paradigm that needs to change.
Undoubtedly, in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve already discovered what you need to do to support workplace flexibility. You need to give your employees some tools. You probably need to change some policies. And perhaps you need to set up standard protocols for using video in meetings and adjust your culture to make remote videoconferencing a normal part of work.
Once you have workplace agility, it can easily help you with your day-to-day efforts as well as with crises. You can expand your labor pool, for example, by hiring people in other geographic locations, or perhaps people with disabilities who can work better from home.
In many cases, you can extend location flexibility into time flexibility. Many of us discovered this need in the COVID-19 adjustment. Instead of traveling to other countries for meetings, we’re now doing them by videoconference. As a result, meetings are taking place across time zones. But why not take advantage of worktime flexibility in general, when it makes sense? Again, you might be able to reach out to a whole new workforce this way, or to let employees work when they are most productive. And again, you might need to adjust processes, policies, and culture to support it.
I can’t resist pointing out a geeky connection here—if you’re not a software developer, please avert your eyes. To maximize worktime flexibility, you need to make interactions between employees asynchronous, the same way you make interactions between microservices asynchronous. In either case, doing so fosters agility.
In a crisis, some of your employees might not be available or able to fulfill their roles. You might also need employees to take on newly created roles, or need a surge in employees for a particular function. For example, you might suddenly need a lot more employees answering calls from customers. The point is that you need the agility for employees to perform roles other than the ones they typically perform.
Interestingly, IT has begun to value to generalist skills. We used to assume that with rapid developments in technology, only specialists could keep up. Today, in DevOps, on the other hand, we prefer T-shaped people—generalists who also go deep in a particular area. With a team of generalists, team members can share responsibilities rather than subdividing work within the team based on functional specialty. There is a more general principle in play: generalist skills foster agility. And in a crisis, you might need employees to play multiple roles.
You can also consider cross-training. If you only train people for role X who happen to be in role X at the moment, then you can’t quickly increase the number of people in role X when you need to. On the other hand, training people in a skill they never use is not effective—they need to practice to keep it fresh. Again we see the pattern: you can’t depend on a one-time plan you pull out of the filing cabinet in a disaster—resilience is about how you manage your company day to day. You build role agility through a scheme like rotating people through positions, building cross-functional teams, or pairing people in their everyday work.
The most crucial special case of role flexibility is preparing people to lead in the event that a leader is unavailable. That’s right—what if you need to act quickly in a disaster, but the only person authorized to make certain decisions is unavailable, unreachable, or injured? You need other people who are capable of stepping up. You need them to be trained and capable. You need a protocol to specify when they will step in as an emergency responder. You need a way to authorize them—give them access to IT systems, or give them “check signing” authority. You should probably have a formal hand-off of authority process—and also an informal one, in case the hand-offers aren’t available either!
You know what I’m going to say next—this isn’t something you can exercise for the first time in a disaster. It needs to become part of your everyday work, or it won’t be tested and ready to go when the disaster strikes. Great! You needed a succession plan anyway, didn’t you? When I worked in Homeland Security, we had an annual exercise where we simulated a disaster. Part of it involved handing off authorities: someone was delegated to play CIO as if I weren’t available, and we tested the handoff each year. You’ll be surprised at what doesn’t work the first time you try it.
Other Workforce Agility Considerations
Here’s a short list of other things to think about in creating workforce agility:
- Self-service. In a disaster, almost any human process is a potential bottleneck. If I suddenly need access to a database or software tool, do I need to wait for someone to get it for me? If so, what if they aren’t available? Making a process self-service—with the appropriate controls of course—removes risk.
- Blameless autonomy. If you want people to step up and take authority in a crisis, you have to understand that they may not be perfect in the new role. And you can’t micromanage them—the whole point is that you need them to be autonomous. You must support them to make sure they’re comfortable taking the risk of making fast decisions.
- Communication offloading. A crisis requires lots of communication, external and internal. You can support senior decision makers by setting up communication protocols and systems and making sure people are available to help them. You might create a “war room” of PR and marketing experts to head off the press and make sure messages get out.
- Data access. Similarly, decision makers will need access to data—quickly. Make sure it’s available and there’s a way for them to get it!
- Security. In the office, you can be pretty sure someone trying to use your IT resources is an employee; after all, they’re in the building and on the company network. To provide workforce agility, you need a secure way to identify people, and a “zero-trust” network that doesn’t make assumptions based on the location from which resource requests are coming. But this is no more than good everyday practice! Our timing is good—multifactor authentication and zero-trust networking tools are increasingly available.
Resilience depends on workforce agility. Even without knowing what disaster is lurking, you can build workforce agility just as you build IT and technical agility, as part of your everyday running of the company. That agility pays off not just in the unknown unknowns of disasters, but in the everyday known unknowns of a rapidly changing competitive environment.
Resilience, Part One: Preparing for Unknown Unknowns, Mark Schwartz
Supercharge Your Skills for Cloud Success, Jonathan Allen