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Pivoting in Crisis: Workplace behaviour change

On Friday 7th April we hosted our first Pivoting in a Pandemic webinar. A panel comprising Nick Chiarelli (Head of Trends,Unlimited Group), Shane ODonoghue (Director,Nelson Bostock Unlimited), Henry Davies (Founder,106 Comms) and Paul Osgood (Global Head of Internal Communications,Clifford Chance) discussed how the workplace is changing in the light of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

How is Coronavirus changing the workplace? 

While Covid-19 didn’t create remote working, it has accelerated its adoption, even if only temporarily. Organisations have been forced to work, act and think differently and the new rules of the road are being created “as we go”. 

For many, the first priority was around ensuring the seamless continuation of functionality but as we’ve moved into weeks 3 & 4 of the new landscape, the emphasis has started to shift to the broader human and societal perspective. 

Redefining WFH as Welfare for Humans 

It’s vital to recognise that ‘Working from home’ will require employers to show a heightened “Welfare For Humans”. 

 For our communications during this pandemic, we have chosen to focus on three key principles. 1 The wellbeing of our people is paramount 2. We have a responsibility to act in ways that do not contribute to the spread of the virus 3. We should continue to deliver high levels of service to our clients. And our priorities are absolutely in that order. Everyone is aware of this and operating on these principles so they can then take the organisation forwards in a way that is caring and professional.

Paul Osgood 

Remote working is a change in mindset that is not merely about the location in which we work. One of the major changes that is underway is a review of the culture of presenteeism which was still a big factor in our working lives. Right now, relatively early on in the Covid-enforced rise of remote working, we are hearing and seeing lots of anecdotes of micro-management of WFH, almost like the remote version of presenteeism, with the inference that employers don’t trust workers to get on with it. Not everyone is acting this way, however – Vodafone’s CEO was cited as saying that they “need to manage by output and not by proxy” and this is surely a sign of changes to come. 

We are all getting information from multiple sources, whether that’s a twitter feed of a virologist fighting the pandemic in a hospital, family WhatsApp groups or government press conferences. We need to ask where does our communications fit in and is it definitely adding value to target stakeholders, external and internal, who could be suffering from stress and anxiety from message overload.Organisations must also ensure visibility of their leaders, to both employees and externally.  The reason that approval ratings for political leaders tend to go up in times of crisis is because people want visible leaders. 

I think availability of leaders is really important to people feeling reassured. The fear is not just of the virus, its also around where is this organisation going? from a business and economic perspective. Having intentions, even if you dont have all the answers about what will happen, is important. 

Henry Davies 

The competitive advantage is about being an organisation that works ‘for people’.  The challenge will be to accommodate people’s different circumstances and to be prepared to keep doing this, flexing as you go, coming up with issues as they arise and finding solutions that work for both employee and employer. For example, there’s the issue of holidays: how do you encourage people to take something akin to a holiday at a time when they can’t go anywhere?  Another example that was discussed was that it can actually be in an organisation’s best interests to legitimise certain WFH activities that can seem counter-intuitive e.g. giving people time to work on their own networks, on the basis that this will strengthen their mood. 

Re-evaluating the workforce 

As well as the lockdown and its implications for working styles, the Coronavirus has also caused a reassessment of the workforce.  We’ve all become used to the idea of “key workers” and Twitter was awash with tweets on this: traders, bankers, and such may not be our key workers at this time, no matter how much they drive economic growth . It is certainly possible that this crisis may bring about changes in how we regard and interact with each other, for example: 

  • A new respect for public services (health, teaching) or for logistics (deliveries, IT infrastructure, etc)? 
  • New protocols for personal interaction and hygiene institutionalised into the workplace? 
  • The emphasis on kindness that we are seeing across society right now playing out in the workplace and across corporations generally. Businesses need to display true human kindness, which can be as simple as having your boss saying, it’s ok we have your back. Coming out of this, organisations will come under increasing pressure to allow their employees to give more of their time to being kind and helping society. 

Black Swan events: Crisis as a driver of accelerated change 

COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to global governments, health services, corporations and individuals alike. Many have likened the current situation to one of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan events, something that couldn’t have been foreseen but the truth is that some businesses either had contemplated the possibility of such disruption, or were set up in a way that allowed for more fleetness of foot in responding to change. 

Anecdotally, there have been some great demonstrations of such agility. We’ve seen 16,000 call centre staff now working from home for one business, Unilever sending laptops and dongles to all staff really quickly. But, of course, we’ve also seen some issues like a bank that has to share staff access to systems because they don’t have capacity for everyone to be on at once. The denial of technology requirements has come home to roost a bit in some organisations. 

The Economist recently described it as a grey rhino rather than black swan – it’s two tonnes and if you don’t move it’ll gore you! Pandemics happen all the time, just with different severity and we have seen many warnings about them. The WEF had Pandemics on their top 10 risks this year and on the financial side the loose monetary policy around the world has been blowing up a giant stock market bubble not supporting the real economy so anyone who says they couldn’t have predicted this has probably had their head in the sand. Other obvious dangers that we are ignoring are climate change and economic inequality. We need to be a lot more mindful of the GREY RHINOS and rather than looking behind us saying ohhh that was a Black Swan, nobody could have seen it coming and wash your hands of it, we need to hold ourselves, business leaders and politicians accountable for the big things in front of them and what they are doing about them.”

Shane ODonoghue 

What is certainly clear is that those organisations that didn’t have a degree of flexibility built into their systems and people are struggling now and will have to catch up quickly if they are not to be left behind. And, of course, trying to catch up, while in lockdown is difficult, if not impossible. As soon as we come out of lockdown we can surely expect a wave of catch up business activity as those organisations who struggled to adapt to Covid-19 seek to futureproof themselves against any recurrences. 

Temporary versus permanent change 

Some people have claimed that “the world will never be the same again” after coronavirus, while others are very much of the view that this is more of a temporary interruption, that fundamental consumer needs don’t change that much, and within a year or two it will be very much business as usual. 

While it may be naïve to expect a totally new reality, it is reasonable to imagine (and prudent to prepare for) a post-pandemic working world that has changed permanently in some respects. Here are just a few of the changes our panel felt we could expect to “stick”: 

  • The timeframes within which we now expect things to happen will contract even further – if we could deliver under pressure during the pandemic, why not afterwards? Leaders and their teams will be under pressure to continue to deliver. 
  • Trust between employers and employees will be strengthened with employees in a more powerful position to ask for things that they’re experiencing now. This will put the onus on organisations to be more agile and support ways of working that enable both wellbeing and productivity. 
  • Leaders must show theyre in it too. Showing real empathy and being transparent, accessible and communicative will be one of the key differentiators of strong leadership. 

 “Im of the school that says this has completely changed the game when it comes to WFH and how it could change peoples lives.

Paul Osgood 

What next? 

Technology has been, and continues to be, crucial to adapting to the business impact of  Covid-19. Explore our second webinar herelooking at the role of tech in connecting individuals with each other and with businesses.  

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group, and originally appeared on the Unlimited Group news page. 

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