It has certainly been a very eventful 6 months. Who would've thought as we saw in the New Year on 31st December 2019, that within three months we would be in a government instigated lockdown in a global effort to control the spread of a pandemic which was going to kill so many people? It's like a movie that you watch from the comfort of your sofa, safe in the 'knowledge' that it'll never happen for real; except it did happen for real and now, as we hopefully start to put it behind us we are left with the fallout. Families mourning their lost loved ones, workers the World over mourning their jobs, business leaders and owners mourning the loss of their turnover, profit, staff and livelihood and governments in a state of paralysis wondering what the hell just hit them and reeling from the backlash. Unfortunately, we are far from out of the woods yet.
There is talk of a 'second spike' of the pandemic as we're all allowed out to play again. As Leaders, we're walking a knife-edge between the need to get our businesses operating and our people working again and the risk that it could all go to hell in a handcart at any minute. Some of our people have died, some have now worked from home for so long they've become hermits, some are absolutely terrified of the outside world, others cannot wait to get back to work and some, unfortunate people (dependant on your paradigm of the world) haven't stopped working and have in fact been busier than ever. Frankly, getting all of our people back into work without causing them any further shock or trauma, or infecting them with Coronavirus is going to be like a game of Russian Roulette and it is Business Leaders like you, who have the barrel firmly between your teeth! So, it's sort of important for us to get this ARARP (as right as reasonably practicable).
Up until a very short time ago, there was no rule book for this situation, now there seems to be around 385,786 of them! Every bugger on LinkedIn has suddenly become a freaking expert in hosting a podcast, writing COVID risk assessments, hand washing, lone working, human behaviour and psychology, how to 'solve' mental ill-health or how to write a book during lock-down and everyone has an online learning offering covering anything you never knew you needed to know about Pandemics. Every man, woman and dog has started up their own consultancy and is now the expert in whatever you want to spend your money on. It's a minefield and everywhere you step you are likely to trod on some poor sod who is busy learning how to incorporate their business, find an accountant and develop some half-baked products that they hope some poor sucker will buy so they can pay their mortgage, all whilst recovering from the real trauma of being made redundant or furloughed.
As a small business owner, I started panicking 12 weeks ago when my biggest client stood us down and then within one week so did all the others. Literally my business evaporated overnight and I was terrified. We had an overflowing order book for 2020 and we were starting to speak to new clients to explain that we might not be able to get to them until 2021. We had just moved into swanky new offices, doubled the size of the team and in the first 8 weeks of the year we had signed up no less than 4 new global clients for multi-year projects. We had sponsored a documentary which was due to be premiered in April. We had work planned all over the world and had committed a very scary amount of money to sponsor a series of conferences throughout 2020. Our new website, state of the art online learning platform and our new training catalogue were all due to be launched this year and we were excited about opening new offices in the USA and Europe. Oh how we laughed, drank milkshakes, ate cake and danced - it was all so jolly. And then fucking coronavirus struck!
At first, we did all the things you would expect and all the things I talked about above, we panicked! We decided to rush the completion of our online learning platform, get someone in to build us a cheap app, get the whole team developing new 'COVID' related products, start focusing on remote working, try to develop products for a different client base, explore new markets, collaborate with 'new' people, write books, attend online conferences and sit in on other people's webinars. You name it, we had it on our list and we were going for it! COVID was not going to beat Paradigm Human Performance!
By week 4 we were knackered, the products we had developed weren't up to our usual high standards, the few new customers we were talking to didn't really 'get' us and they didn't want to pay our prices when they could get it for next to nothing from 'Nigel' who's started doing a bit of 'elf and safety consulting' during his furlough. Our e-learning platform was looking like a dog's dinner and our app was well, apathetic to say the least! The funds were running low and my early COVID mantra of 'speculate to accumulate' had turned out to be a complete bloody disaster! By week 5, we furloughed the team, stood down some consultants and I hid in a dark cupboard and licked my wounds for three days.
Then, around 2 weeks ago something happened. Our longest standing customer called me up and asked for some help - one of 'our' people. A couple of days later, our biggest client asked us to provide support to them over the internet, nothing new, just our brand of straight-talking, no bullshit HOP, in person but online - another of 'our' people. Over the last 2 weeks 'our' people started calling again. Then some new customers reached out who want to become 'our' people. We were being asked to do exactly what we do best - provide HOP and HSE support where it matters - where the rubber hits the road, at the sharp end.
We had been running our own 'In It Together' webinar for 6 weeks at this point and whilst attendance some weeks was great, others weeks were embarrassingly low but 'our' people kept turning up and supporting us; we even ran a 'Bring your kids to Webinar' week which was just great fun, not because we had hundreds of kids online, but because we didn't and so the grown-ups stayed and took part in the quiz and won the prizes - 'our' people. I started to realise that we didn't need to bend ourselves into new shapes, cheapen our products or sell our values down the road to survive. We are known for providing excellent service, building lasting relationships, meeting our clients where they are, solving real-world problems and supporting our people in any way we can and probably most importantly, being pretty straight-talking and telling it like it is.
We are helping our people bring their people back into the workplace in ways that are aligned with the principles we have taught them. They are using their error reduction tools and techniques to dynamically assess error likely situations, they are using pre and post job briefings as a way to 'check-in' with each member of the team in a more personal way than ever before; they are using the W.I.T.H. model to think about the additional challenges they are facing because of different pressures and new ways of working, they are thinking about new degrees of organisational drift related to their tasks and activities, they are learning more about the significant risks of fatigue on safety-critical operations and increasing their use of verification methods during extended shifts or unusual shift patterns, after all, our people keep the lights on, the water flowing, the products on the shelves and the world moving. They are using their defence-in-depth knowledge to prevent unwanted outcomes, we are coaching, training, mentoring, investigating incidents and hosting learning teams online at all hours of the night and day because 'our' people are all over the world and we can't be there in person right now. We are delivering training to large groups of people and we are doing it in real-time, over the internet. Sometimes it's bumpy, sometimes it's totally shit but mostly its just Paradigm doing what we do - looking after our people the best way we can and they appreciate that. No gimmicks, no quick fixes and no cheap and nasty!
Just as there is no vaccine for COVID, there is no silver bullet for getting your business back up to full force! There is no magic wand and most importantly there is no one size fits all when it comes to getting back to whatever Business as Usual looks like for you. You're going to have to suck it and see. How do I know this? Well because I really do understand what you need to do for your people, your business and your own sanity right now and it's quite simple - be honest, be curious, be courageous and in the words of Simon Sinek, think infinitely, not finitely!
For the majority of your people, your friends and your family, COVID will hopefully be a dark and distant memory pretty soon. That is not meant to belittle the dreadful toll it has taken on families and individuals by any means; I just mean that on an individual level, the majority of people will return to their normal routines and recover relatively quickly, but in my opinion, the world of business has been changed forever and in much more fundamental ways than we are currently all focusing on and talking about.
Way beyond the implementation of rules for social distancing, PPE, disinfecting our workplaces, deep-cleaning our public transport and welfare facilities and all the other minutiae that is eating our lunch today so that we can get our people back to work quickly whilst kidding ourselves that we are doing it safely; I believe the real aftershock, or second-wave, from COVID19 will have an even more seismic impact on our businesses, and we really need to be talking about that. That is - by how much has the cost of running your business, providing your services, delivering your project and manufacturing your products increased, both now and in the future and how fit for purpose is your business model going forward?
Undoubtedly, if you are in the contracting industry the financial impact of COVID could be even more significant. The costs of completing work for your client has just increased exponentially and whilst reduced capacity and lower productivity remains the order of the day, that cost will keep escalating. Did you have robust enough contractual arrangements in place with your client to recoup some of these additional costs? Do you need to think about your contractual basis for work going forward? Is a knock-on effect that you will now have to delay the start of new work for the same or a different client? What will be the domino effect of that?
This is what I predict will happen over the next year to eighteen months, although I sincerely hope I'm wrong - I believe that companies will think finitely, spending lots of money with little or no ROI, bringing their people back into the workplace, lots of training will be delivered for the new world order and new 'Return to Work' initiatives and safety programmes will be launched. I believe that specialist Business Consultants and Advisors, like us, will see an increase in demand for our expert advice and our products and services. It will feel like things are turning around for small companies and 3rd and 2nd tier contractors as we all pull together to get back to normal and there will be a peak of productivity.
Then as we come to the end of the calendar or financial year, I suspect that clients will refuse or procrastinate over covering the additional costs incurred by the contractors; some might even start looking to their contractors for damages because of the delays. In turn, this will impact the way we all 'price' work in the future. Prices will increase and clients won't have the budgets required to deliver on long term strategic plans. When finances are challenged, non-revenue producing expenditure gets withdrawn and so typically consultants and lower-tier contractors get dropped. Because this was a 'novel' situation, allowances won't have been made for this level of contingency.
This is why I strongly believe that Senior Leaders need to take a strategic approach to return to work post-COVID and not get bogged down in tactical planning and detail. Part of that strategic planning is considering what the best investments are for us now, which will not only support our short term requirements but which will also future-proof us for the next pandemic too. Whatever we spend our money on in the next three-to-six months we have to be certain that it provides high value at a reasonable cost and not low value at a high cost. That will be sustainable or reusable in the long term and isn't just a 'band-aid' to get us through the short term pain points. Let me explain a bit more.
I don't believe that you are able to maintain social distancing requirements in your workplace. I will call Bullshit on anyone who tries to tell me otherwise. I think you know that you cannot maintain social distancing in your workplace. I don't believe that you can run your business effectively whilst maintaining social distancing. I don't believe you can rely 100% on your people to wear face masks at all times in the workplace. I don't believe you can avoid sharing tools and equipment that have not been sanitised after each handling. I don't believe you should kid yourselves or your people that this is what is happening because it isn't.
I believe that if you have invested in contact tracing technology you will quickly turn it off and stop using it when you realise that social distancing can't be maintained, in much the same way as you turn off the functions of your state of the art vehicle tracking system when you realise that your drivers have to speed in order to get their job done each day. It's an 'inconvenient truth' and as business leaders - We Can't Handle The Truth!!
I am seeing so many companies spending so many hours and hours of Zoom and Teams time discussing these topics that they have already become unreasonably expensive before we've even signed the purchase order! So what might be a better way of spending this time, your collective brainpower and some of your cold, hard cash?
Well, my first piece of advice is to stop looking for quick fixes from the snake oil salespeople who have come out of the woodwork with their new-tech gadgetry and get back to what you know - Human Behaviour and how pesky those darned Humans can be, your client, your business operations and the limitations of it and the finite amount of money you have to spend in order to get it right, first time so it lasts a long time! We have to learn the lessons of COVID, otherwise, we'll all be caught with our pants down next time!
Firstly, remember the principle of ALARP. As low as reasonably practicable means that you have taken into account all the possible controls that are available to mitigate risk, then you have systematically discounted some of them for not being cost-effective, being too onerous, impossible to deliver, etc. and you have stress-tested the best mitigations you can put in place and can be seen to be reinforcing those standards. If one of the control measures you have to discount is social distancing then say that - don't tell me your workplace is fully compliant and then let me see fifteen people hanging out of the smoking shelter! Be honest! You will stop going round and round in circles in the land of make-believe and start thinking outside the box which is exactly what is required now.
Instead of short term fixes, think about long term solutions. Instead of relying on your people to 'do the right thing', consider engineering out the problem. Conduct detailed analysis to determine whether a task can be redesigned in such a way that actually 'forces' any required level of social distancing. If you really don't think this is an option and your only controls are those being advised by the government then fine but if you can't maintain the distances, consider face masks, if you will struggle to get your people to wear face masks, start temperature checking as people arrive for work if that doesn't work think about physical screening of some description. Just keep asking the questions and asking 'what if?' and don't kid yourself that your ass is covered by the posters on the wall!
Second, use the right expertise and yes I am biased but I really believe the day for all Human Factors Design Engineers to shine is fast approaching. Have you ever hired the services of a real Human Factors Engineer who is qualified to design work environments in a way that maximises human performance? Have you observed a Human Factors specialist conducting a detailed task analysis and worked with one to redesign complete tasks or parts of tasks? It isn't just a science it's an art form. Reorganising your workplace, rescheduling your tasks and activities and having a workplace which is designed to enhance the ability of the worker is a game-changer and it's a keeper, not a band-aid.
Human Performance Expertise is aimed at maximising human performance in a poorly designed or flawed system by focusing on the habits, behaviours, attitudes and psychology of the worker and the 'Organisational' part of Human and Organisational Performance is looking at the context of the organisation as a system, again helping to maximise performance and set the people up for the best chance of success by simplifying and aligning organisational culture, goals, vision and mission. These are longer-term, more sustainable and invasive ways of moving beyond COVID into the new world of work beyond.
The third and final point from me is to ask your people what they want and need. Don't guess for them, don't assume that you know what they need and don't assume that they all want the same thing, they don't. Don't assume that everyone will need to be educated about mental ill health because some people are actually thriving in this day of remote working! Having regular conversations with your people in the workplace and at home, if they are working from there or furloughed, helps people feel like they are still a part of something and that their thoughts and feelings are being considered. It also helps to the return to work feel more like a gentle stroll at a sensible pace than a last-minute sprint up a steep hill.
As we stand today, COVID won't beat Paradigm Human Performance, even though I'm the first to admit that it is giving us a bloody good kicking. 'Our people' are coming back to work and as a result, so are we. Our plans for 2020 will get pushed a little further out and World domination will have to wait a bit longer but I can assure you that I am preaching what my team and I have been practising over the last few weeks and keeping our eye on the horizon and thinking infinitely is serving us and our clients well.
So to summarise, take your time and do the right things, don't rush and do the wrong things. Consider long term improvements over quick wins and temporary fixes. Call on proven and reliable expertise to prevent you from wasting time, money and effort on 'band-aids'. Talk to your people and facilitate a two-way dialogue and remember that no-one knows your business better than you and your people. Of course, if you would like to become one of 'our people' you know where we are!
Good luck, stay profitable, be real!