Skip to main content

Organizations across the globe are figuring out how to operate during the COVID-19 Pandemic and trying to anticipate the “new normal” that will emerge in its wake. Many of the organizations we work with are experiencing a dichotomy. On one hand, a few of the most tapped resources in the organization are working in a round-the-clock frenzy to help the organization through the crisis. While those individuals feel completely overwhelmed, others in the organization are sitting on the sidelines because their jobs have been paused due to the coronavirus crisis. This part of the population is feeling helpless sitting in their homes, waiting to be tagged-in and growing more anxious week-over-week. 

For many industries during this crisis, this means quickly figuring out how to more fully leverage these sidelined employees who are no longer able to do their day jobs – sales reps in the field unable to call on hospitals or stores, factory floor workers unable to be on the manufacturing line, etc. Beyond being an inefficient use of resources, not giving these idle employees a sense of purpose disengages important team members who desire to contribute more fully – to be part of something. Yet, our standard hierarchical structures do not make it easy for people to add value and pitch in outside of their traditional roles. The particulars of this pandemic, which has most people staying home, create an out-of-sight, out-of-mind dynamic that renders this even more difficult to do sporadically, much less at any scale.

What steps can leaders take to engage underutilized workers quickly in new roles to weather the economic downturn? How can leaders activate their organizations and inspire the sense of urgency needed to address fallout from the pandemic, spur the transformation necessary to stay relevant, and uncover clever solutions? We have identified eight ways to help turn your latent talent into a competitive advantage: 

1. Build alignment of focus across the leadership team

Once aligned around the belief that there are possibilities for progress beyond what is happening across the business today, consider opening this dialogue to as many people who are awaiting assignment as possible. Often the most creative ideas for how to execute a novel way of doing something will come from those sitting in a seat different from yours, likely further down in the organization, looking at a challenge with a fresh set of eyes. To capitalize on the ingenuity and creativity that will bubble to the surface, senior leaders must first align around the many paths forward that exist and choose their focus among them. You always want to take advantage of a crisis like this to drive focus in the organization.

2. Clearly define what is urgent

Get laser focused on what is essential work to be done or not done, and be courageous in challenging or rethinking old patterns of thought around who must perform that work. The world has already been forced to rethink how work gets done – the opportunity here is thinking much more broadly about who can participate. What are the priorities and projects that must be completed immediately? These could be vital priorities that have arrived alongside COVID-19, or all of those smaller projects on your list of 75 initiatives that never seem to get done. What tools do new participants need to move these identified projects and initiatives forward, and can they be sourced immediately? The more specific you are in naming “the work to be done,” the less mystery (or overwhelm) is likely to exist when sorting out the next logistical details.

3. Don’t merely choose the usual suspects

Now is the time to look deeper into your organization for those contributors you haven’t called on before. You’ll be amazed by all the hidden talent within your organization – and what they can do when given permission to try. Chances are great that your usual suspects – that is, your go-to, trusted colleagues – are already tagged in a number of ways. This population, with their high performer reputations, are often overextended in the most “normal” of times, while others are available and poised to prove themselves, eager to have strategic tasks to challenge and distract them from the crushing boredom some are experiencing in quarantine.

4. Identify the skills and experiences required for balanced teams to attack the problems at hand

Clearly it benefits no one in the organization to have colleagues with no quantitative skills or prowess work on accounting, for instance, or high-stakes financial modeling. However, I guarantee that there are skills out there in the organization that are currently underutilized. There is a baseline skill-set and frame of reference needed for the priorities you have identified. Might there be a way to pair people with a skills mentor who has done some of this work needed in greater quantities, who can be a resource for questions and serve as a sounding board when someone new to the task feels stuck? Scaled across an entire segment of your workforce, imagine the culture-deepening network created by such deliberate cross-collaboration. 

5. See the volunteer army sitting right under your nose

Quickly pull together a database of all of the people whose jobs have been significantly impacted, resulting in excess capacity. When you know what you need done and see the resources you have, you’ll begin to see how you can put the puzzle together in never-before-done ways. Just because you haven’t had reason to before, doesn’t make it impossible to do – but you must first be able to see the available moving parts as clearly as you have defined the needs of the business.

6. Over-communicate the opportunities to plug in

This is a scary time. Anxiety is understandably running high for many, not the least of which are those who feel powerless at home without clear ways to contribute to the needs of their organization. You can help counter the prevailing sense of fear by creating a sense of purpose to help counter the endless list of unknowns. Relentlessly communicating the places where people can pitch in will surface skills, talents, and experience within this population of employees. Engage more people in helping address pressing issues by assigning them to teams on an interim basis – regardless of their current roles or where they sit in the hierarchy. Doing so will maximize their utility and drive high engagement and commitment both during and after the downturn.

7. Unleash the teams with leadership support

Establish a clear mission, and a desired set of outcomes – ie: efficiency gains, cost cutting, enabling work from home technology, etc. We are experiencing some shared human needs right now – to feel productive (even if it’s in a way that bears little resemblance to what productivity used to look like), to feel part of a team, and to feel supported in our needs. It is essential that newly formed teams and re-deployed individuals are assured that they have “air cover” from leadership and permission to boldly move the needle, explicitly understand their goal, and understand any guardrails (budget, for instance) that exist to achieve that goal. 

8. Track results & celebrate wins

Do not underestimate the power of positive stories in the darkest of times. We live chronically under-encouraged as a matter of course, so now reveals an extraordinary desire to see little molecules of success, of hope, of signs that we’re moving in a positive direction. These wins will inspire more wins, boost morale, add a sense of heart in a disheartening time, and help maintain a sense of organizational culture even with everyone remote to one another.

This approach enables you to unleash hidden potential in the organization, drive rapid results, increase engagement, and set your organization on a path for far more rapid post-crisis recovery.

Discover more with Kotter.

Learn more by viewing our Research + Insights page.

View All Research + Insights