The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. That’s how many people think. It is natural human behavior to avoid the unknown and to maintain the status quo. Even as we watch the world around us being reshaped—by things such as rapid technological evolution, demographic shifts, or climate change—it is easier to maintain existing behaviors if the impact is not felt immediately. This is especially true in a culture where the current way of doing things historically has led to success.

Effecting change often requires a disruption that leaves no choice but to do things differently. This could be a positive event such as a city being chosen to host the Olympics or a company moving to a new office. It could be a tragic event such as a finan­cial crisis, an earthquake, or the coronavirus pandemic. These events trigger short-term behavioral changes—our fight-or-flight response—but the impact subsides quickly, and old patterns and familiar behaviors generally return.

This does not have to be the case. What changes have emerged during the Covid-19 crisis? Which do you want to continue? By determining the unexpected positive changes that you want to retain, evaluating the effectiveness of the change, and taking deliberate actions during the crisis—and doing this in the context of what will come next and what is desired beyond—some of the positive changes can be sustained.

Think back to just last year and discussions about workstyle reform. What were the reasons people gave for why working flexibly or remotely could not be allowed? Why was going paperless impossible? Then think about how things have changed as we manage the current crisis. After ensuring the health, safety, and wellness of employees, consider what comes next. Take stock of the workstyle and operating changes that have emerged and consider what you want to continue.

Using remote working as an example, take inventory of the behaviors, policies, processes, and technologies that have been implemented to make the change possible. For example:

  • Technology: purchased laptops and mobile Wi-Fi routers; adopted temporary policies allowing laptops to be taken home; quickly implemented collaboration technologies
  • HR policies: modified rules to allow flexible hours, work from home, extra paid leave, daycare support, and other benefits
  • Business processes: temporarily allowing PDF contracts instead of paper ones; suspended the requirement of a hanko (personal stamp) or handwritten signature; waiving the need for paper receipts
  • Behaviors: teams are innovatively finding ways to work effectively from home; having daily team check-ins; agreeing on tasks and expectations up front; holding virtual coffee or social gatherings

After the crisis subsides, it would be easy for the temporary policies to lapse and revert to the previous business practices and workstyles. We saw this immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. Many companies adopted remote work policies and some government regulations were eased, but, in most cases, the changes were temporary.

When working from home was recommended at the begin­ning of the Covid-19 crisis, just four percent of companies in Japan were able to quickly make the move. Today, under the state of emergency, about 50 percent of employees can work remotely. The extreme pressures of the crisis led to rapid change in an area that had seen years of talk but little movement.

Don’t let this painful period of personal and business loss and sacrifice pass without leaving a positive legacy. After taking inven­tory of new behaviors and business adjustments, identify how effective each has been and what can be done next to improve them. How well are things working now? What is needed next?

During a time of crisis, it’s important to take the pulse of employees, ensure they feel safe, and check that the company is staying true to its values and commitments to people through its actions. This can easily be done by conducting short, periodic employee surveys. The survey can also be used to make employees think beyond the crisis by assessing what is working well now and what is needed next to be more effective. Capture positive stories of unexpected benefits and creative ideas that teams came up with to make things work better.

Have each department or team likewise review what is working well and what improvements are needed. For example, in the urgency to enable remote working, were comprehensive cyber­security procedures put in place? In the rush to quickly imple­ment collaboration tools, were the best technologies chosen to provide the features employees are seeking?

Leaders should continue to prioritize caring for the health and well-being of their employees, but, as visionaries, we should look beyond the here and now to create a positive legacy from this disaster.

We are living through one of the most sudden worldwide disruptions to life, business, and economies in human history. Begin planning the next actions now to cement these positive changes and ensure they become permanent practices—the new normal. The result will be an even stronger company and culture, ready for what lies beyond. 

Nancy Ngou is an ACCJ governor and associate partner at EY Advisory and Consulting Co., Ltd. where she leads the Organizational Change practice, helping companies transform their business and culture.