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Lessons Learned by Organisations during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 caught many organisations off guard. The same is true for the academic ‘future of work’ literature, which hardly pays any attention to a disruptor like a pandemic. In the past months a catching up in the academic and especially the professional literature regarding COVID-19 could be noticed. However, this literature does not describe the actual actions organisations take to deal with the implications of COVID-19. In this article, based on a literature review a classification scheme of possible actions is drafted. Subsequently, 19 European organisations were interviewed and the actions they are undertaking are put in this classification scheme. In addition, the positive outcomes of these actions are collected as are the lessons learned by the organisations in these past months. The research results help further academic research in mapping the implications of and actions to combat disruptors like pandemics. They also help organisations prepare themselves better for the inevitable next crisis.

Introduction – Lessons Learned by Organisations during the COVID-19 Pandemic

To state that the COVID-19 pandemic has a great impact on the business community is an understatement (Hughes et al., 2020; Kniffin etLessons Learned by Organisations during the COVID-19 Pandemic al., 2020; Shankar, 2020). Some authors even state that this pandemic is creating an economic crisis that is bigger and thus will have more impact than the financial crisis of 2008 (Cassidy, 2020; IMF, 2020). According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) (2020), based on a survey of more than 2000 HR professionals, one-third of the employers where these surveyed professionals worked had no emergency preparedness plans to deal with similar disasters, and of the two-third that had a plan more than half did not include policies covering communicable diseases. Over 7 in 10 employers were struggling to adapt to remote working, 2 in 3 employers reported that they had difficulty maintaining morale amongst their employees, and over a third of employers were struggling with decreasing productivity. The pandemic forced 40 percent of the organisations to shut down certain aspects of their business operations, with another 19 percent contemplating to do the same, and 10 percent even facing a total shutdown. In total 83 percent of the organisations had to adapt their business practices to the new situation (i.e. no more new hires, decreased hours and/or pay rates for employees, layoffs, offering paid or unpaid leave), with another 8 percent considering doing the same.

Similar disturbing figures are reported by other sources, such as Beech and Anseel (2020), Eggers (2020), Kniffin et al. (2020), and Wang et al. (2020). To make matters worse, organisations rarely allocate enough resources to prepare for, let alone deal with crises such as pandemics (Bowers et al., 2017; Burkle, 2010; McMenamin, 2009). This situation is already popularly called ‘the new normal’, which is described by Verbeke (2020, p. 444) as “a situation of radical change, consistent with a large exogenous shock experienced by firms and society at large. Such shock can be a radical change in institutions or a broader-environment related shock. Through many cascading effects, somewhat like those found in ecological systems, the shock structurally changes behaviours”. This ‘new normal’ forces organisations to adjust their business operations to fit the new situation. Unfortunately, the academic literature does not provide much in the form of effective guidelines and ideas for dealing with this type of new situation caused by COVID-19. There is some economic epidemiology research that provides insights into the relationship between (potential) influenza pandemic events, the behavioural responses of people to outbreaks, and the economic consequences of these responses and the disease (Brahmbhatt and Dutta, 2008; Geoffard and Philipson 1996; Gersovitz and Hammer 2004) but no information can be found in relation to the topic of ‘future of work’. This is illustrated by the results of research undertaken by Julie Linthorst and André de Waal (2020). Their research consisted of a descriptive literature review with the aim to identify the megatrends and disruptors that academic researchers predicted would potentially become important to deal with for organisations in their workplace in the (near) future.

The initial review of the so-called ‘future of work’ academic literature hardly yielded megatrends or disruptors so they had to turn to the professional managerial literature. Ultimately, the researchers were able to identify thirteen megatrends and one disruptor and the impact these (potentially) have on organisations. In this respect, megatrends are described as large social, economic, political, and technological changes that are slow to form, and once in place, they have an influence for some time, between seven or ten years, or longer (Naisbitt and Aburdene, 1990). Disruptors are defined as ‘someone or something that prevents something, especially a system, process or event, from continuing as usual or as expected’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020). The main difference between megatrends and disruptors is the speed with which they appear and the effects they have, i.e. megatrends are changes that (often gradually) take place over a longer period of time, while disruptors are short-term, seemingly unexpected sharp changes with high impact (de Waal and Linthorst, 2020). The one disruptor Linthorst and de Waal found in just a small percentage of the examined literature was the pandemic, which is the worldwide spread of an infectious disease (such as the 1918 Spanish flue, HIV/AIDS and currently COVID-19). In their literature review de Waal and Linthorst hardly found any ideas for organisations to effectively deal with the implications of pandemics. This basically means that a lot of organisations have “to make it up as they go.”

To help these organisations on their way, we undertook discovery-oriented research into what organisations are currently doing to combat the COVID-19 implications. Our research aimed to find answers to the research question: How are organisations in practice dealing with COVID-19 in their work environment and business processes? For this, we first developed a theoretical categorisation scheme, based on a review of the literature on the implications of COVID-19 as foreseen by researchers at the time of our study. Subsequently we collected case studies of organisations dealing, in their own words, effectively with the COVID-19 implications. Our findings were entered into the categorisation scheme and from this we derived several main ways of working that currently seem to be among the best ideas to deal with the COVID-19 organisational implications. Learning in this way from what organisations did, and are doing, in practice to deal with COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to learn from disaster, increase our knowledge to deal with disruptors, and foster new more efficient and effective ways of working (Herlant, 2020). As such, the study result will help organisations and their managers to deal more effectively with the crisis and economic recession and thus mitigate the negative effects of COVID-19. Our study also helps further the theory on disruptors, and specifically pandemics, as we fill the current gap in the literature on how to deal effectively with the organisational implications from
such a pandemic in an evidence-based manner. Although pandemics were not paid much attention to in the future of work academic literature, the recent COVID-19 outbreak shows that they do have a great and pervasive impact on societies and organisations and thus should be paid much more attention to (de Waal and Linthorst, 2020; Kniffin et al., 2020).

The remainder of this article is structured as follows. In the next section, the literature on the implications that the COVID-19 pandemic has for organisations and their operations is examined, these implications form the basis for a classification scheme to be used in the practical research. This is followed by a description of the research approach we used. Subsequently the research findings are described and discussed.
The article ends with a conclusion, the limitations to our study, and opportunities for future research…

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