We are now approaching (in the United States) six months in the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a good time to think about how we are adjusting to new conditions and expectations and to identify some next steps.

So far, much of the effort in organizations relating to the pandemic seems to have been concentrated on “crisis management”—reacting to the demands for physical distancing, masking, and reducing exposure by working from home (where that is possible). While this has been essential to stopping the spread of the virus, it is only a reaction. The bigger challenge is dealing with the long-term transition to a future that we can’t predict.

What we don’t know (yet) creates a great deal of uncertainty. The only thing we can be certain about is that the human resources (HR) and learning and development (L&D) functions in organizations are going to play critical roles in facilitating the transition and shaping the outcomes and future. The big questions:

  • Is there going to be a timeline and an end to the pandemic, or will COVID-19 be around “forever”?
  • How will we work and where we will work as the disease progresses—and evolves?
  • What about those whose work and career fields have disappeared permanently?

To answer those questions, we need to sort out some of the transitional issues and identify what works.

Changes to work and the economy

The changes resulting from necessary adjustments to health and safety concerns depend in part on whether “work” involves primarily individual collaboration or teamwork. The changes will also depend on the domain:

  • Knowledge work
  • Service work
  • Infrastructure work (everything from farming to construction to manufacturing, and more)
  • Government
  • Education

In complex organizations, this means a lot of different responses and transitions will have to be developed and implemented.

The “70-20-10” problem

Depending on the domain, the mix of informal, social, and formal learning is likely to need adjustment. In the initial changes, many organizations shifted to virtual delivery of instruction via conferencing software—an emphasis on formal learning.

However, this also seems to have resulted in less (or no) support for informal and social learning, which rely on collaboration to create tacit learning. In a post on LinkedIn August 4, 2020, “When the Organization is Melting — Add More Glue!” Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard, CEO at Innovisor (with Jesper Bubandt Toft) points out: “Remember, no collaboration happens by itself anymore. People are not bumping into each other in the hallway anymore.” Tacit knowledge transfer relies on face-to-face social interactions, and in some domains those are not happening so much now.

Other impact areas of COVID-19

In the short term, much attention has been given to knowledge needed to increase health and safety, and to support new skills and workflows needed as organizations shift technology into employee homes. Longer term, we will need to work out methods to address:

  • Onboarding and orientation for the newly-hired and the newly-displaced
  • Coaching for improved performance
  • Use of mixed-reality (augmented reality, virtual reality)
  • Reskilling as employee roles and assignments change
  • Proficiency with new technology introduced into existing jobs
  • Changes in leadership and management roles

Invitation: Share what’s working

  • At least some increases in communication can come from using the technology we already have. For example, permissions to set up and use teleconferencing (e.g., Zoom) could be loosened so that anyone can set up an online meeting.
  • Organizations can set up “open rooms” where employees can drop in for chats with colleagues, and where social celebrations (birthdays, “parties”) can take place online.
  • Managers can also set up online discussions where employees can share “lessons learned” and ideas for improving communication and connectedness between employees.

I invite readers to propose articles that present their solutions to the challenges outlined here. Share what’s working, and share how you have adopted technology and delivery methods to provide “touch-less” training, coaching, and performance support.