It may be a little too early to look back at COVID just yet, but as we close out 2020, we do now have just over 12 months of evidence – qualitative and quantitative – and we can least start to explore what worked and what didn’t. We can see who handled it best and who lagged, and we can jot down some lessons that we can take into 2021. So, we’ve done just that, and here are our thoughts on the four stages of dealing with COVID.

Stage 1 – Responsive | Reactive – what’s going on!

Dates may vary slightly depending on where you live and work, but in early 2020, we all got the edict – Lockdown! From the ‘there’s a virus in Wuhan China’ to ‘it’s bad in Italy’, to ‘everyone must work from home in (insert the name of your country or city here)’. And we did. Packed up our bags, hugged out workmates’ goodbye, maybe swung past the pub for a last hoorah, and headed home to our studies, dining tables, share houses and beach homes.

The Communication teams whirred into action. Rules. Advice. Better advice. Edicts. Policies.

Truth be known, from the smallest companies to the largest corporate monoliths, we all did pretty well. We packed up our desks, took a little stationary, and perhaps ordered a new monitor online, (that tiny laptop was never intended for the eight hour day if you wanted to retain any degree of eyesight beyond 25). Without policies we even managed to find ways to share our dining tables, our role in the home-made lunch run, and how to take two or more zoom calls in the one house at the same time.

There was an added degree or two of difficulty thrown in with home-schooling, particularly for kids who were yet to learn to read, or were finishing their HSC. A few parents went slightly crazy, but their friends and family saw it happening, and stepped in with a bit of extra love and attention, and a bottle of wine here and there.

We wore hats at Friday night zoom drinks. We sent little care packages to employees who probably hadn’t had a gift from their employer outside of Christmas for their whole working lives.

We responded to the biggest pandemic in over a hundred years pretty effectively.

And then we slowly realised it wasn’t going away. So we adapted.

Stage 2 – Adaptive | Creative– We’re learning on the fly.

Stage two of our response was definitely adapting.

Our business couldn’t run like this, so we’d need to do that. Our restaurant couldn’t open, so we’d deliver takeaway. Cocktails went into jars, and when we weren’t growing our first batch of vegetables, we all started ordering local to keep the hood in good shape for ‘life post the pandemic’.

The PR Machines took over from the Comms team.

“We are better at working from home than any industry/company.”

“We responded fastest in cancelling our lease. We’re never going back to the office. Ever.”

“We were an events company, now we’re an online events company”.

At this stage, the economic warnings were heating up, and we needed hope.

While we can all be a little tired or jaded from the zoom calls looking back, this process of adapting bought about its own unique creative energy. Just as our ‘reactive stage’ was uncertain and draining, this one added some vitality back. Following the proven Darwinian approach to continuing life, we were adapting.

All over the world, governments, organisations, and individuals, started working on what now, and they came up with all sorts of ideas. It often came from that newly online events company sending a link to a webinar on a topic we knew nothing about. Or a musician sending us songs from their basement or home studio. A new tax option to help small businesses keep the team intact. We needed it all, and we fed off it.

We adapted.

And then the months dragged on, and second lockdowns happened, and we were tired. Continuous bad news went to a 25/8 cycle (beyond the all day every day), and the overwhelm set in. We were going to need something quite different to pull us through from this point.

Stage 3 – Proactive – We’re not wasting this crisis!

For the early adopters, visionary thinkers, or whatever you choose to call that group of people who constantly create momentum, the proactive stage came early.

Our earliest examples were from April and May 2020. Their version of the 2020 was different, their words unique. When everyone was talking about survival and being overwhelmed, they were redesigning and rethinking what their organisations might be. When everyone was saying “diversity and inclusion is dead”, they were looking at why diversity and inclusion was more important than ever. They started talking about societal divides, and why bridging them was good for everyone. They started looking at ways to connect even the most remote employees. They started asking employees what lessons they’d learnt and what they could use to build the future.

They started to talk about the lack of collaboration and the importance of connection to help the next gen learn their crafts/skills/jobs.

While some big organisations were sacking their next gen, these ‘proactivists’ were actively seeking ways to bridge generational gaps in thinking and technology, so their organisations came out of this in even better shape than they went in.

We called this stage Co-Curation.

It was the stage when we helped our most determined and optimistic clients to think forward. While everyone was talking about ‘new normal’, they wanted a ‘better future’. They looked at what to retain from the past, what to throw away and replace with new lessons, and what opportunities they could take to skip whole years of planning.

They proactively wrote the 2020-2023 strategy while everyone else talked about the challenges of Job Keeper or other government subsidises running out.

And gradually from September till now, we’re seeing more businesses join the cohort in co-curating a better future – which is now the only way to think.

And that brings us to where the most forward thinking are up to now.

Stage 4 –Iterative | Expansive – We’re fundamentally changing how we work together, and we’re going to keep on changing.

There’s a new way to think about the future and planning. It’s not completely new, but it’s a whole different way to apply it.

An iterative process is simply a series of steps that you repeat, tweak and improve with each cycle. In practical terms, think of it as the practice to make your product perfect. This stage is all about expanding this style of thinking across your entire organisation.

Sure, if you can hack through some of the jargon and lengthy workshops from experts, some of this is embedded in Agile thinking, but it is now being applied not just to process, but to whole business and people strategies. Iterative Strategy is now how the most forward-thinking companies are writing their strategies and plans, as they get ready to step boldly into 2021.

These strategies now come with new assumptions, questions and timelines. The whole idea of a long-term strategy set in stone is just not realistic anymore. Now plans are getting reviewed every quarter to take advantage of new opportunities or changes that will no doubt present themselves, but which right now, no one can predict.

Iterative strategy is now the art of creating a loose plan or set of guardrails or principles for the next three years, that hardwires action planning pieces into much shorter timeframes, with much more involvement from every person on the team.

This is the fourth stage … And it’s the most important one. It’s the stage where we can evolve more quickly and do it together.

Where to from here – learning from the COVID Quadrella and moving forward?

What’s interesting is that some of the key changes we’re seeing – remote working, the shift from full-time to part-time and diverse workforces flexing to individual needs – are not new trends. These have been happening for 15 years. COVID has just fast-tracked these a little and now they are being held as core.

People want to hang with organisations that proactively plan and iteratively replan. As humans we don’t want to feel stuck in bureaucracy and this year we’ve all seen just how fast and creatively organisations can move when the pressure is on. Our expectations of what’s possible and what we expect from where we work has now fundamentally changed.  The COVID Quadrella has created a huge wave of change that went like this…

We reacted and responded. Fast.

We adapted.

We proactively rearranged our organisations and work.

And now we we’re iterating and expanding these insights to change the way we plan, imagine and build the future.

Our task is now to redesign work, together, iteratively, so that everyone can share in the future design and possibilities. And while this is the stage that takes lots of energy, it is also where the greatest rewards will lie.

Frankly, if you follow all the trends, this change is long overdue. We could all sit around and be disappointed that it took a pandemic to jolt us into action, or we could all just start looking forward. There is literally a world of possibilities.