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As coronavirus strengthens its grip on business and societies around the world, it is worth considering how crucial agile working is when it comes to effective-crisis management.

Just a few months ago, hardly anybody outside the scientific community had ever heard of coronavirus, yet, at the time of writing, the threatened pandemic dominates international news. Although only a small fraction of the world’s population has regrettably suffered, the disease has already had a massive impact on the global economy, wreaking widespread disruption, destruction and dismay.

Many airlines, travel groups and hospitality firms predict that their profits this year have already been wiped out; thousands of European companies that rely on parts from and trade with China and South East Asia are struggling; ever more geographic areas are on lockdown; while UK schools and businesses have seen pupils and employees required to self-isolate.

Bringing an eerie contemporary significance to the old expression, ‘When China sneezes, the world catches a cold’, coronavirus is a potent example of just how quickly a sudden crisis can bowl whole societies and interconnected, interdependent interests and industries around the planet for six.

And even where profound emergencies can be broadly predicted, ‘remedies’ tend to boil down to ‘sitting them out until they go away’.

Recent and current disaster events are reminders of the importance of a culture of agility in business and the workplace, having gained popularity because it allows companies to grow and prosper amidst increasing volatility and unpredictability.

Indeed, the realisation for the need for lasting organisational agility sprang from the onset of ‘the age of uncertainty’, which has seen established business models turned upside down by an emerging intensely connected, ferociously competitive global economy.

Achieving growth while being resilient to – and even harnessing – disruption should be on every business leader’s agenda as new competitors and new technologies shorten commercial cycles and create new customer demand and new ways of reaching them. Large complex organisational structures, embedded processes and cultures of past success exacerbate the challenges by slowing down the rapid innovation or reinvention needed to prosper in this new world. Quite simply, companies must be able to assess and adjust ever more quickly if they are to survive, let alone thrive.

Successfully creating an agile culture requires a cultural convergence of:

> Intense empathy for customers: employees and managers are ideally placed to listen to, understand, internalise, anticipate, work with and design around customer needs — often, even before they have voiced these needs. Employees should be given both awareness of their role in this and the means to make it happen.

> Cooperation to generate the best ideas: employees and managers have to break down silos and embrace diverse viewpoints – with openness, candour and empowerment to venture opinion all key. However, the balancing act is not to have so many people and ideas that nothing gets decided or accomplished. With this in mind, you also need …

> A fast, consistent ability to mobilise: employees and managers need quick decision-making and the authority to work and deliver value as fast as possible. This means adoption of an ‘80% right/100% fast’ mindset to take decisions, start and enable work that allows for adjustments, redirection, rework or even stopping – which is often very difficult for many leaders.

> Openness and readiness to change: employees and managers must be prepared to leave old ways of doing things behind and focus on the end goal and the best way to get there – even when it feels uncomfortable. Helping people become change-ready is vital: they must be educated on why becoming more agile matters; they need to be emotionally ready to make the change; they have to feel empowered to support the change; and they must have the intent to embrace becoming more agile.

HR has an absolutely pivotal part to play both by helping to develop agile mindsets, attitudes and behaviours across organisations and in role-modelling how it is done.

An example of this can be found in what agile HR functions can do to help cope with the current coronavirus crisis.

It is possible that many more people will be required to self-quarantine or be subject to emergency domestic travel bans, or that entire UK cities will be locked down. This means that businesses must actively try to minimise the disruption caused by employees being unable to get to work.

Advance plans should be made that allow the company’s continuing focus on getting the basics done and delivering on its client commitments. Having contingency arrangements in place that enable staff to work from home, where it is practicable, is crucial. Doing so involves navigating a host of complexities, which require the support of various departments and specialists.

For example, workers might need to be quickly issued with transportable devices to fulfil their roles outside the workplace – or install company systems on their own kit. As well as the tech challenges this presents, legal protection for employer and staff members must be attended to.

Throughout, having HR experts ready to jump in and address important people issues will be vital for maintaining critical customer deliveries, helping staff who find themselves stuck at home continue to make valuable contributions and managing employee communications and feedback loops.

The advantages of having agile HR SWAT teams as part of your model extend far beyond being well-placed to fulfil individual client and business commitments when disaster strikes, though. They include being faster in finding solutions to employee engagement barriers e.g. addressing onboarding or performance management blockages

Being agile is an invaluable discipline. And, because rapid change is not only here to stay, but set to accelerate at a dizzying pace, it simply cannot be an afterthought or an optional extra any more. HR functions have to be ready to ‘live agile’ and should consider the implications of this as they review how to make their operating model fit for the future

Jenny Merry, Market Leader for UK, Ireland and France at Kincentric

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