Chris Roebuck, Leadership Speaker

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Covid insights for future success – World of work

Covid insights for future success

Covid has changed the world of work for ever. Whilst many of the impacts of Covid were significantly negative on both people and their organisations some of the responses from people and organisations to those were proactive, positive and show how we can be more successful in the future. 

Disruption impact. Organisations operate in established ways which are designed to meet the needs of the environment they are in and, for the top performing, predicting what that situation might be over the next few years. However Covid was an environment which was totally unpredicted and of unrivalled speed and depth of impact compared to other events since WWII. It heralded an unprecedented level and length of uncertainty and stress for both individuals and organisations. There was no organisation I know of which smoothly accommodated Covid in with existing operating models. 

Covid is inherently different to the disruption caused compared to the problems which usually impact organisations, be they financial, technical, process, or reputational. Covid impacted multiple key areas all at once; employees, the market, customers, investors. In addition it impacted globally not locally like many of the usual unpredicted events.  

Lost jobs: Too often discussions about the world of work during Covid dive immediately into developments such as the rise of remote working and AI but it’s important to focus first on the greatest impact of Covid, the number of people forced out of work, or having to leave due to their family circumstances.

Many people were made redundant or put on furlough due to the massive drop in demand as societies closed down. This reduction in employment ranged from around 10% + in Australia, 20% + USA, UK and European counties to a staggering 46% in Mexico. On top of this hidden non business impacts meant many had to leave work. The closure of schools meant that children had to stay at home, and potentially continue to be taught there. This required one parent to stay at home and, if both parents were working, one had to leave work. This was often the woman. The number of women leaving work due to a Covid impact of some type was 1.8 times that of men, women making up 39% of global employment but 54% of job losses. 

For people fortunate enough to still have a job their working hours, and thus pay, were reduced on average by around 15%, and there was the constant possibility of losing their job through redundancy or the organisation going bust.  

Key questions: Covid impacts and organisational responses were inherently different between sectors, from shipbuilding to financial services and healthcare to mining. Not only that but there were sectors which flourished due to Covid despite the impact on their workplaces, such as online retailing and healthcare. It’s impossible to cover the vast array of responses that were specific to individual sectors but there were consistencies in responses and what delivered success across them. The key questions were to what degree:

  1. Can our pre-Covid operating model be easily adapted to meet the relevant health requirements, eg social distancing and lockdowns.   
  2. Can we respond to the potential market changes driven by Covid hitting us in due course, eg the significant reduction in demand caused by lockdowns and lack of customer confidence. 

In terms of 1. Every organisation will have had different assessments, eg an engineering factory where machines were already distanced for safety reasons has less of a problem than a hospitality venue. But even within organisations significant differences between groups became clear, the construction company with workers well distanced on building sites outdoors versus their office staff close to each other inside in open plan offices. 

In terms of 2. In many cases lockdowns forced complete closure, primarily those services could not be delivered at all within health guidelines, eg hospitality. But others, such as online retail or healthcare, had increased demand for services.          

Initial responses: One factor which did appear consistent was an underestimation of how bad it could get. A combination of natural human optimism bias seen in management groups and the misreading of some of the scientific projections led many to assume Covid was a short term “blip” that would all be over in 3 months or so. This led to a “sprint” mentality when in fact organisations were just entering a “marathon”. That created a 2nd wave of disruption and uncertainty when the short term survival measures designed for the “sprint” were unsustainable for a “marathon”. Here repeat and  significant transformations were needed. It was this point where short term uncertainty with an assumed end date was replaced by open-ended and potentially long term uncertainty. That’s a much more toxic challenge for organsiations and individuals both practically and psychologically. 

The key driver of change within organisations was the removal or reduction of face to face interaction which is what makes organisational delivery go smoothly. Where interaction with customers was also critical to success the same applied. Organisations had an immediate challenge, how to adapt existing operating approaches to do “business but not as usual” as quickly as possible. The speed and effectiveness of this adaption determined the degree of disruption organisations suffered. 

Remote working was hailed as the solution. Pre-Covid for various reasons, from organisational culture, poor systems, or just lack of trust in employees by leaders,  remote working had never reached the level technology has long made possible. Digitisation had already made remote working technically possible from the early 2000s as those like myself in global organisations who were able to work and communicate from anywhere via network connections can testify. 

But Covid forced remote working to be rapidly scaled, in some cases successfully, but not always.    

But this only applied to a minority of employees. A majority cannot do their jobs remotely, they have to be present, from bus drivers to hospital clinicians. Remote working capability is determined by your tasks not your job title. Despite the visible publicity remote working was a solution for only about 25 – 35 of employees, and less in non advanced economies where a greater percentage of work is practical not information based. 

However even where it is practical it poses some significant issues taking it from being theoretically possible to being effective. The challenge was the scaling of the tech to apply it to many more people, to educate those people in how to make it work, both technically and personally and changing the culture to get both employees and leaders to embrace it. However again other Covid impacts came into play, with remote working for parents being made more difficult where they were caring for school age children who were at home due to school closures.    

There were also a range of activities which could be done remotely but which were better done in person, where more than transactional activity occurred, primarily around relationship building, giving advice, support or counsel. Here remote communication cuts out a majority of the non-verbal signals we use to make such activities more effective. So yes these can be done remotely but only as a last resort. The impact of this became more obvious as the pandemic continued and long term isolation from work bosses and colleagues, even with video calls, started to impact.      

So what were the key success factors during Covid? 

From my discussions with leaders across a range of sectors and evidence from studies both national and global the following have played a key role in those organisations who have adapted best during Covid.  

Keeping it simple – organisations who rapidly adapted to simplify how things were done, in particular with decision making with the number of people involved and length of process, were able to adapt faster. Decision making was often quickly restricted to a minimal group of key people to be effective, but interestingly over time successful organisations recognised that there can be too much concentration of power to be effective as well as agile and pulled more people back into decision making using the tech available. Effective decisions require all those with relevant information to be able to contribute as much as practically possible.

Agility in everything – decision making, how people work, where people work – linked to “Keeping it Simple” – the mindset and ability to put aside existing operating approaches, think entrepreneurially and move to a more Covid appropriate ones further speeded adaption.   

Increased autonomy – many factors driven by Covid from faster decision making to remote working required employees to be given more autonomy to work effectively. Successful organisations gave that increased autonomy often based on a culture of trust which they had created pre Covid. The ability to move decision making down to the lowest practical level removing consideration by multiple management levels higher up was another hallmark of the most successful, but it required greater autonomy and empowerment. Here faster decision making was possible as decisions were cascaded to the lowest possible level for that decision, ie on the spot, by ensuring employees understood the big picture and the purpose. This removed the previous operating models weakness where decisions were often escalated to higher levels than were practically required. 

Organisations which were slow or begrudging in giving more autonomy suffered through being unable to either adapt quickly or to deliver to customers needs within a reasonable time frame. Not only that but it caused frustration amongst employees who felt that they weren’t trusted.  

Interestingly this greater autonomy and taking decisions down to the optimal decision level is a critical principle in how military leadership adapts to dynamic high risk environments.      

Increased Tech application – some industry experts say that potentially 5 years of tech adaption and development was squeezed into under a year as a response to Covid. That’s the development but the application, which often required human engagement, was key. Successful organisations had both the capability and mindset to quickly embrace expanded tech application as a tool to meet the needs of the Covid environment.    

Increased engagement and purpose  – the initial period of Covid produced a rise in engagement where everyone felt it was right to “pull together” in a heroic response to the crisis. The overriding purpose all aspired to was survival. As the impact dragged on and, in many countries got worse, the successful organisations were able to maintain engagement by creating a more long term purpose all could aspire to. This was facilitated by putting in place the best possible support to employees be they on site or remote working.  

People focused leadership – over 15 years I have found from groups of leaders around the world one of the things they value most in a boss is that the boss genuinely cares about them as a person and supports them. That encourages them to reciprocate by giving their best efforts. As my military experience demonstrated as stress and pressure increase this reciprocation becomes even more critical to maintain task delivery effectiveness.  

Covid ramped up the pressure to levels unprecedented in many organisations. Organisations who were more successful had leaders and a culture where employees felt their leaders genuinely cared and the leaders put in place proactive ways to support their teams even if remote working. All the feedback I have had from around the world is that if Covid did one thing in their organisation it was to clearly distinguish the inspirational leaders from the rest.      

Team and individual Resilience – often the use of the word when applied to making organisations “resilient” refers to systems and structures, much less to people. Creating resilience in people is a much more complex task based on numerous factors all, several of them being invisible and unquantifiable on a day to day basis. Linked to all of the above, in particular people focused leadership, resilience is greatly enhanced when physical and emotional support for employees is in place. 

Multiplier effect – All the above create a virtuous circle of success where each component acts as a multiplier for the others. As each of the above components is put in place and enhanced it makes the application of the others easier and more likely to be more effective. Thus those organisations who thought about Covid challenges and their solutions holistically were able to understand how the different success factors above needed to be used as a system for success not just discrete activities.       

What are the lessons for future success? 

It’s interesting that the success factors above which enabled organisations to create optimal world of work during Covid are also probably the ones most people would quote as how to make an organisation perform well at any time. It’s just that Covid forced wider and faster application of these as the alternative was failure. Pre-Covid it was possible not adopt these principles and escape significant negative impact, other than being restricted to average performance levels.   

One benefit of Covid is that this forced adoption has shown how beneficial these changes were. Once adopted hopefully there is unlikely to be any significant “unadoption” as we return to normal. But as with any behavioural change the potential of return to old habits is always present. From the neuroscience perspective the longer you can maintain the new way of working or thinking the greater the chance of it becoming habitualised and replacing the old way for good. 

So I would suggest that the lessons for the future for organisations and the world of work are, reflective of the success factors during Covid:    

Keep things slick – no return to bureaucracy, talking shop meetings and over complex decision making. Work on the principle that every additional step in a process which isn’t critical to a successful outcome is a potential waste of time, effort, resources and increases risk. But don’t use that as a justification to cut out people who need to be involved.    

Trust the tech and use it – the rapid expansion of tech across organisations to enable decision making, delivery and interaction demonstrated how much tech could make benefit performance. We need to proactively apply the principle let tech do what tech does best and let humans do what humans do best. Then we have the best of both.      

Engaging, effective, ethical and entrepreneurial leadership – The pressures ofCovid made people aware of the difference between good leaders and average ones. The good leaders engaged people in what needed to be done, showed they cared, they had great professional and task skills, they behaved ethically and they were entrepreneurial in adapting to Covid and seeing opportunity for change and improvement. Now the benchmark has been set all leaders need to get to this level for the future. Covid fundmentally changed how employees at all levels think their organsiations and leaders should support them. In a large UK survey 72% of managers said that it should be a key priority of their managers to look after their wellbeing at work.     

Focus on purpose – Covid forced a singular purpose on most organisations, initially change or fail, subsequently adapt to get through to the end. In so doing people often experienced for the first time in their careers the power of an aligning purpose for them and those around them. It gave their work greater meaning and focus. Purpose must still be made as clear to all as much in the future as it was to get through Covid. 

Give freedom and build trust – where decision making was cascaded to the lowest practical level the outcome was often greater speed and adaptability. Despite the fears of some leaders that this empowerment would lead to disaster it didn’t. Not only that it made employees feel trusted and thus more committed and motivated. Greater empowerment is proven to improve overall individual, team and organsiational performance.    

Inspire & enable innovation, agility, creativity – too often cultures, particularly blame cultures, block innovation, agility and creativity. Either on the basis that when employees do these things leaders often don’t take them seriously or if it goes wrong they get blamed for suggesting the idea. Innovation, agility and creativity were vital to Covid survival, but they are just as much vital to future success.  

Optimise remote working – studies suggest that where it is possible and there are benefits for both employee and organisation up to 25% of the workforce could work remotely 3 -5 days a week. The clear evidence is that many employees enjoyed remote working as it enabled a better work to family balance. Not only that but with well supported home working performance went up for many individuals. That’s now translated into a majority of employees wanting to work from home.  

One British community bank, “Nationwide”, is now closing its Head Office, moving to a smaller one and allowing employees to work from the office, home or a local bank branch. In their employee survey 56% wanted to work from home full time and 37% 2 – 3 days a week. 

Remote working should be a standard offer to all employees where possible. Employees like it and it saves costs for the organiation. But whilst 5 days might be a possibility my perspective is that for leadership, team effectiveness, relationships and development reasons every employee should come into be with their colleagues one day a week. 

Finally Be human & deepen relationships – above all Covid taught us that success for our organisations and at work is about accepting that those around us are humans like ourselves who have needs, hopes, fears and aspirations. That when we recognise and understand what those around us want to achieve, help them do so, support them when they need it and show we care by creating a “we not me” culture then success will follow. Such an environment unleashes the full potential we all have in terms of capability, motivation and action.     

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” Isn’t a statement of modern employee engagement. It’s an observation from Aristotle 500 BCE. The Ancient Greeks got through a pandemic as well. Maybe it shows that despite all the “progress” since then getting the best from us as humans to make our organisations a success hasn’t really changed much at all.

Chris Roebuck ⁠— Keynote speaker on high performance, leadership and transformation

Chris Roebuck ⁠— Keynote speaker on high performance, leadership and transformation

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