Sophy Pern
14 May, 2020

In the last few weeks we’ve been in many virtual coffees, focus groups and executive team meetings with clients. From these conversations we share some observations and themes, as well as some early thoughts on what might be helpful as organisations adapt to the gradual lifting of the lock-down restrictions.

Radical change

For many what has stood out has been how quickly and boldly organisations reacted in the face of the scale of the challenge, and how many old truths were called into question. Transparency became the default setting as CEOs and leaders explained radical changes in operations & staffing levels. Talk of profitability and strategy was replaced by a focus on what was really at the heart of the organisation. Virtual working, often viewed with scepticism, overnight became the default modus operandi for a huge proportion of employees.

Changes to ways of working

On the positive side, for those who have remained in work, many teams reported improved collaboration and decision making as some of the corporate “game-playing” stopped, and individuals and leaders felt more empowered and prepared to take decisions. “We would not have managed this had we micro-managed” said a senior HR leader. The cost of co-ordination is high, so effective “work cells” have been even more important. Good organisation design pays dividends here- and those in less clearly defined roles have typically found it more challenging. There is a desire to hold on to some of these ways of working and sense of focus and purpose going forward.

Anxiety & loss

In counter to that, there is also a pervasive sense of anxiety which is distracting and tiring. This may well come from trying to avoid thinking about the enormity of what is happening, and its potential long term impacts. One consequence of this is that many people talk about the need for focus. Organisational messages, unless directly relevant are not making it through the filter of “is this an immediate priority for me”, and the levels of anxiety are typically higher for those not working and who are missing some of the daily structures, routines and connections.

Just as soberingly, many people have experienced significant losses- either of loved ones, or acquaintances, but also profound changes to ways of life or finances, jobs, dreams and plans. They will need help to process these losses appropriately.

How we recognise, deal and respond to widespread uncertainty will convey our true values and concern for people:  the quality of connections matters

We are noticing a real hunger for connection and community: people want someone to genuinely ask how they are and listen to the reply. This is particularly true of those who have not been at work, and who may feel they have lost connections and relationships that were important to them. Creating space for conversations about what they are feeling, seeing and experiencing, and what sense they are making of it, will be really helpful,  and from this many answers and ideas about what will be useful and appropriate will emerge.

Now more than ever there is potential for big dissonance effects on staff loyalty and brand if there is a gap between the espoused values and what is demonstrated. This applies particularly to how the “back to work” is planned for. While the focus can easily be on how many masks to distribute, and all the operational and financial decisions that need to be made, what stands out for us, is just how important timely, well designed and well facilitated connection building conversations are. These could take many forms- a back to work debrief, a weekly team check-in call, a well-designed  and facilitated strategic planning session, but there is something in drawing attention to the importance of this and supporting and equipping leaders to create and host these conversations.

The key trap to avoid here is defining what “normal” will look like- without paying attention to how you are creating it right now, and whether people have a voice in creating it.

Some useful questions are:

How broad is the involvement in planning for this? Could it be broader?

Do you know who has experienced loss and needs support?  

How can you equip managers to support their teams, knowing that one size does not fit all and that many decisions are best made locally?

How much attention is being paid to connection building in your organisations?

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