New findings and analysis on the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on working lives
Tom Robinson, Managing Director, Talent Tomorrow
When the COVID-19 pandemic eventually subsides, we will see that much has changed. The crisis has resulted in tragic loss of life, escalating public health emergencies, skyrocketing unemployment rates and the disruption of supply chains across the globe. Despite government stimulus packages and interest rates dropping to near zero, the pandemic is still affecting every industry – especially travel, tourism, leisure, retail and hospitality. And we’ve not even touched upon the potentially catastrophic effect of a no-deal Brexit.
There are more people working at distance, with less job security, rising national debt and a looming economic downturn. The equality gap is also widening, with more ethnic minorities, women, those who care for dependants and economically disadvantaged groups being disproportionally affected by the impact of this accelerating change.
The post-pandemic world is a perfect breeding ground for unethical behaviour. The CIPD’s report Rotten Apples, Bad Barrels and Sticky Situations highlights the way high-pressure, high-stakes situations often result in poor ethics. We can see this play out today, as organisations demand people return to work when they’re not ready, pressure supply chains, provide insufficient protection, and treat people like units of production.
Organisational development (OD) practitioners should use this opportunity to help organisations ditch some of the ‘bad’ behaviours (profit at the expense of people, a lack of connection, long commutes) for good ones (supporting people, a clear purpose, overt values, a renewed focus on wellbeing).
A light through the clouds?
Although the outlook is bleak, this could be an extraordinary opportunity. OD practitioners should take the time to reflect and think about how to change current operating models. Change is inevitable and needs careful management.
Globally, employees are stepping back and asking themselves if they’re leading the kind of lives that they really want to lead – whether the current model is working for them. The nature of the relationship between employer and employee is being challenged. For the OD community and people professionals, this is our chance to ask ourselves if there’s a gap between stated organisational priorities and the priorities of the people working for them. We have the rare opportunity to help reshape organisations so that they serve all their stakeholders and their communities.
Leaders play the most crucial role in shaping the future, supporting people and achieving organisational objectives. In order to support them to do this, a new set of OD and leadership skills will be required.
The changes in organisational development
Those who work in the world of OD know the discipline is complex and varied. No OD role I’ve ever seen has been the same. Some OD practitioners may ‘look after’ recruitment, diversity and learning, whereas others may look after talent, reward and internal communication. An OD practitioner should take a systems approach and consider all the knock-on factors in their work to make the most impact. Each of the component parts of OD will be affected in a range of ways.
In most workplaces, OD has seen a number of significant changes due to COVID-19. The ways in which we attract, retain, develop and engage the workforce have shifted, with the events of 2020 being the tipping point.
Transitioning to new ways of working will require careful management and the right balance needs to be struck between using in-house, interim and contract labour. OD practitioners with experience in culture and behaviour change will find themselves a sought-after resource.
One of the fundamental parts of change management – planning – simply hasn’t been possible. Most, if not all, of the pandemic-related change has been forced. Operating processes have been thrown out of the window. Even those willing to embrace new ways of working have been strapped to a rocket. The goal of cultural and behavioural change, however, is managing the knock-on effects, such as lower morale, different leadership styles, fragmented communication and lower productivity.
It will be vital to understand where the workforce is on the Kubler-Ross change curve, as timing and communicating the change will be as important as the change itself. Talking to a network of stakeholders in finance, IT, marketing, and so on, will ensure nobody’s needs are being neglected. Delaying or cancelling non-critical projects will ensure the right resources are allocated to the right initiatives. Using the excitement of early adopters will also help transition to new ways of working, as will partnering with stakeholders, customers and your supply chain.
The change management rulebook has effectively been thrown out. Previous industry rivals are now collaborating, unexpected new products are being created and fresh markets are being explored. The only way to successfully navigate this change is to have a clear idea of the intended business goals, retain a people-first agenda and experiment with agility.
Learning and development
In the field of learning and development (L&D), the boundaries have completely shifted. There’s a need for significant upskilling and reskilling of the UK workforce, as the ‘old’ ways of doing things aren’t stacking up. The use of digital learning solutions has been growing for some time, and the pace of change will only increase.
However, in the drive for cost savings and efficiency, L&D needs to be wary of digital overcorrection. Simply putting learning content online or facilitating on Zoom won’t cut it. The focus should be on solving problems, not on delivering learning. The skill of facilitators will also be tested. They must provide engaging, rich, textured experiences that produce meaningful results. There is often more impact in moving away from formal learning and towards informal systems, such as buddy programmes, mentoring, reverse mentoring, coaching and skill-sharing schemes – paired with learning resources that can be accessed in the flow of work.
Crucially, organisations must be skilled in new approaches to leading and communicating. Forward-thinking leaders should invest in these intangible skills and resist the temptation to cut L&D budgets. L&D should be ready and prepared for the changing landscape.
Competency and performance management
Post-COVID, we may see changes in the way people professionals measure how well people are doing against organisational goals. The first challenge will be identifying good and poor performance, as people become more decentralised. We will be unable to witness people shining in the same way, when we can’t see them doing their job across a desk.
Measures of success need to be defined quite carefully – making sure there are a raft of non-financial results woven in. Traits such as resilience, empathy, relationship skills, trust and innovation are increasingly desired competencies, but the empirical data needed to quantify them is quite difficult to come by. That can be addressed by using more peer, team and customer feedback, rather than through line managers alone. Another solution is to rely less on traditional assessment methods like nine-box grids and appraisals – and more on supporting managers to have regular, cyclical performance discussions.
Talent and succession planning
Organisations requiring exceptional leadership will need talent and succession planning teams to step up, to quickly identify critical roles in regulatory, technical and transformational positions (especially C-suite roles). Large-scale redundancies and the resulting ‘brain drain’ can be mitigated by using interim replacements for key roles.
As the task of leadership becomes even more complex and nuanced, rigid hierarchies become obstacles that slow down innovation and flexibility. If you operate a linear-style hierarchy, talent teams should consider a more agile approach in the short term. If certain leaders show themselves to be absolute superstars, consider seconding them to other teams, experimenting with job-sharing, or temporarily increasing their responsibilities. Bear in mind that more inexperienced (or emergency) successors should be provided with double the usual support, as ‘survivor’s guilt’ and ‘imposter syndrome’ can equally affect the person who’s stepping up.
Internal communications content will be squeezed into half its usual channels, presenting a major headache for communication professionals. The crowd of messages in email and Zoom may see apathy set in. More creative channels will have to be sought, with many businesses using short videos from senior leaders to share success stories. The glossy, corporate style might now seem a bit artificial, being ditched in favour of a more raw, personal feel. As our communities feel smaller, more effort will be required in communicating between departments, helping people understand what different ‘silos’ in the business are up to. Content-light, ultra-relevant communication (such as bulletins, top tips, infographics, and so on) will help line managers to keep their own teams connected and up to speed.
Reward and recognition
The pandemic has forced many people into uncomfortable situations, balancing home, work and often childcare requirements. People’s individual situations have been thrown into sharp focus, and the way people are rewarded and recognised should mirror the level of their individual contribution. In the same way as ‘Clap for Carers’ rightly put a shining spotlight on healthcare professionals, organisations should recognise the contributions of front-line workers, those who can’t work from home, supply chain workers and subcontractors.
OD doesn’t stop there…
There are other disciplines, not limited to those listed above, that OD practitioners will need to consider (as changes to one business area will have a knock-on effect on another):
- People who work in recruitment will need to adapt quickly to digital means when attracting, interviewing, selecting and onboarding talent. Video interviews and AI screening will become more commonplace. Great efforts will need to be taken to ensure this doesn’t create a terrible candidate experience.
- Organisational design practitioners will face challenges around structures, agile decision-making processes and changing to different organisational models.
- Colleagues working in values and ethics, diversity and inclusion, or corporate social responsibility will see a huge (and rightly renewed) focus on wellbeing and equity within their teams and will need to help their supply chain to do better. They’ll need to approach this from two different directions: overt policy and communications from the top down, paired with encouraging grassroots conversations and action from the teams.
- Those working in outplacement will need to think carefully about the way the organisations treat those with whom they part company, doing so with respect, decency and support.
The future skills required
OD practitioners must bear in mind three fundamental objectives, wherever they work within the organisation:
- Support exceptional leadership
As the very foundations of organisational change, the previous ‘norms’ of hierarchy, stability and power structures will be challenged. As organisations fight for their lives, the natural tendency for leaders is to be more controlling and less open. To avoid this, OD teams must help managers to develop skills around setting expectations, managing performance, communicating with impact, setting goals and having effective feedback conversations. The notion of trust and control will also be challenged when teams become less visible. Organisations will have to trust workers or use other control levers.
Managers will also be expected to be expert facilitators, creating direction, connection and cohesion. They’ll have to run meetings, coach and develop others, and manage and communicate change. For this, they’ll need deeper skills in empathy, relationship-building, listening, delegation and empowerment. OD practitioners play a key role in supporting these skills.
- Focus on wellbeing as a default
The world of work has been turned upside down and employee wellbeing is suffering as a result. People are concerned about job security and money; a recent CIPD survey of employees found that 22% of workers think it’s likely they’ll lose their job in the next 12 months. Key workers have struggled with the challenges of working on the front line throughout the crisis. Those employees who have been working from home are concerned about returning to the workplace and travelling on public transport. Many of those on furlough are struggling with the psychological impact of not working and are worried about the future. And there are those who are desperate to get back to the gravity of an office, finding working from home a major challenge. Many others are struggling to maintain work–life balance.
OD teams can help to provide critical wellbeing support. This could involve helping organisations to get to know their teams on a deeper level, ensuring employees are provided with necessary resources, enabling people to refrain from returning to the workplace if they’re not ready, or instigating flexible working and childcare provision.
- Help build relationships
At distance, serendipitous face-to-face chats will happen less often, with fewer water-cooler moments. Periphery figures in the organisation will become invisible, as regular collaborators become closer. What we may see is the organisation shifting from meta-societies to stronger, smaller communities. OD practitioners can create the systems that support this new model – for example, curating digital communities, cross-functional teams and social events. As ‘quiet’ work is conducted more at home, collaborative, ‘noisy’ work could take place in the office, when it is safe to do so. OD can help create the communication, training and support for this to happen.
Where to next
COVID-19 has accelerated and forced changes we hadn’t planned for (and, in many cases, didn’t want). But it also gives us the opportunity to reflect on how things can be done better in our practice in the future.
Organisations have huge power over local policy – arguably even more so than governments. They are the anchor for morals, the catalyst for values and they can even make decisions against the stronger will of society. Organisations haven’t had this much influence since the end of the Second World War. Through interacting with the economy, they have the power to affect huge social change – and OD professionals are central to this. They’re the engineers of change, the influencers of behaviour, the architects of systems and the shapers of policy.
This once-in-a-generation crisis is a genuine once-in-a-generation opportunity… an opportunity to build back better.
Tom is a multi-award-winning talent professional. He has spent over 20 years in senior roles, in behavioural and cultural change – identifying and solving issues relating to people and culture.
He’s the managing director of Talent Tomorrow, a learning and organisational development consultancy. He lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and two children.
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