Learning lessons from COVID-19

Last spring when COVID-19 assailed economic and social norms, business organizations transferred their activities to an all-digital environment. Travel ceased and online meetings proliferated. After an initial period of adjustment, organizations are now beginning to assess the impact of COVID-19 and how they can integrate the lessons learnt into future work plans.

A sign informing individuals to keep a distance of 2 meters from each other
(Photo: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

As part of its effort to better understand how COVID-19 has impacted the standardization work of the IEC, the Standardization Management Board (SMB) set up Adhoc Group 88 in June 2020. According to Vimal Mahendru, co-Convenor of AhG 88, “We wanted to understand what we, the SMB, can do so that the standardization community can feel connected and continue to serve the global need for standards and standardization activity, and what might be the expectations from the IEC community?”

As a first step, AhG 88 undertook two surveys – one for IEC National Committees and another for IEC technical community leadership – to gather information about their work experiences during the pandemic and provide recommendations based upon the lessons learned, including possible integration with existing initiatives in the IEC Masterplan.

Business as usual

According to the survey, nearly 75% of all respondents worked from home 80% of the time and were comfortable with a shift to online meetings. As Mahendru noted, “The good thing is that no one was over-awed by the shift to Zoom calls and online collaboration. Across the board, we have heard that taking to the digital platform for meetings was not a big deal. Technical experts were already used to this in one form or another.”

Approximately 75% of respondents noted that the shift of technical work online had only a slight or moderate impact in terms of the speed and quality of their work. This assessment is confirmed by the latest figures published on the work of the various IEC committees. According to the overall findings presented during the General Meeting in November, the production rate of standards and other publications did not decrease compared with previous years despite the pandemic. It is forecasted that by the end of 2020, the IEC will have issued more than 700 publications which is on par with the previous year.

Increased participation

With less time spent on travelling and commuting to the office, respondents noted that working remotely has enabled them to participate in a greater number of meetings. While the discomfort of jet lag has been eliminated, it has instead been replaced by conference calls at odd hours to match different time zones thus creating a new set of challenges.

As Mahendru notes, “We have wider participation and there are a lot more experts who are available. Experts who responded to our survey told us that previously they could only attend, at best, two or three meetings per week because of the travel involved. Now, they are able to attend more meetings.”

Yet, it is not yet clear if the increase in participation has resulted in an increase in the quality of the work. Mahendru explains, “People are attending more meetings, and this could lead to better quality of work or even wider acceptance and learning of new areas of work. We are still evaluating the real impact of this change.”

Building social capital

The survey also highlighted an aspect of remote working which was not previously considered: the absence of social engagement between committee experts. As Mahendru remarks, “What the experts are really missing – and this came out loud and clear in the survey – is face time and the informal connections that take place during the coffee breaks, lunch, dinner, etc.”

According to the survey results, it is not clear if respondents are ready to move towards fully online plenary meetings. Mahendru notes, “Considering the nature of standardization, the work requires a dialogue, it requires verbal negotiation, trust building, bonding and empathy which leads to consensus. Today, our experts are drawing on the social-engagement reserves built over the years. These reserves will need to be replenished at some point.”

Possible remedies

Until it is possible to resume travel and hold face-to-face meetings, AhG 88 has made several recommendations to help the IEC community better navigate the current online environment.

One way to help meeting participants build relationships has been to open meetings 15 minutes before the official start time. As Mahendru explains, “It is like a coffee time where we can talk. It worked very well with the recent SyC LVDC and SMB meetings and I am now adopting this practice in other meetings as well. The social catch-up and the banter which goes on between us creates a friendly, solid foundation on which the formal meeting can build.”

AhG 88 has also recommended the development of a social media platform for the IEC community using the existing IEC Collaboration Platform. The IEC community members will be able to set up discussions on specific topics, post articles and create networks.

It is not clear when the work environment will return to the situation that existed prior to COVID-19 or if such a return to the older norms is possible. Instead, some of the ways of working that emerged during the pandemic may take hold. Regardless, Mahendru remains optimistic. “From every angle, I am seeing the resilience of our leadership teams and IEC experts which has been exemplary. They are adapting very fast. Maybe this is the human spirit. We are rediscovering our own capacity to handle change as it unfolds.”

“We do not yet know what the new normal will entail in the post-pandemic work environment or how it will take shape. Whatever the future may bring, I am confident that the IEC community is fully capable of facing new paradigms and will embrace change as it unfolds. Stay tuned….”