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How are organisations adapting to the ‘new’ normal?

Written by the Senior HR Network 15th June 2020

How will you take your learnings of Covid-19 to unlock the opportunity in your ‘new’ reality?

The Senior HR Network conducted a series of interviews with our extensive network.  Leaders from a multitude of industries both public and private sector, all above SME level, based nationally and internationally took part to understand their recent Covid-19 experience.  Together we explored what life was like immediately after the announcement of ‘lockdown’, their experience thus far and their current thinking around managing ongoing change, transition and the future state.

This white paper captures insights and provides food for thought around things you can do that will support you and your leadership team with an optimal transition to your ‘new reality’.  The paper provides ideas that you can ‘do now’ and ‘do next’ as you navigate your transition to re-orientate your business and people with ease, including our expert recommendations.

What is life like in your business at the moment?

Written by Andrew Carter

It was clear from the responses that the answers are split between (1) those organisations that remained operating as they were considered essential services, (2) those non-essential service who could continue working either normally or had to scale down and (3) those who effectively put themselves into a mothballed state.  The latter was split between those who were required to close by the Coronavirus legislation or because demand for their services had dramatically reduced.

For those in groups (1) and (2) who were able to continue to operate, the immediate concern was following the guidance on social distancing (SD) and working from home (WFH).  WFH quickly became the new normal for many office-based staff, even in public organisations.  To accommodate this, organisations were forced to implement policies that did not exist before and spend on IT equipment to enable the employee to access resources.  For some organisations, this just accelerated a WFH ideology or flexible working policy.  Managing and policing these new policies became the immediate concern.  It was noticeable that most organisations tried to keep a HQ function operational to ensure compliance and monitoring the delivery of processes remotely.

For those organisations in group (2) who had to scale down and those in group (3) who effectively locked their doors, the immediate concern was how to achieve the reduction in staff.  Over the initial period of the ‘lockdown’ and restrictions, the Government recognising the financial impact this would have on organisations and people in general and introduced numerous Coronavirus financial assistance schemes.  The major scheme affecting the people arena was the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (commonly called furlough).  Organisations now had a new category of staff: Furloughed.  This distinct group of employees have required the introduction of new HR policies looking at issues such as initial notice, pay, communication, wellbeing and return to work.

Additionally, the initial introduction of furlough was not a smooth process as the published guidance differed slightly from the original concept, which caused problems in itself.  However, most of the organisations questioned recognised the importance of retaining staff and used the scheme over the option of redundancies.  Notably, by 14 June 2020 after the ceasing of new registrations, around 9.1 million employees in the UK had been furloughed by about 1.1 million employers[1].

[1] HMRC Statistics Published 16 June 2020

What is the ‘so what?’ from this:

  1. The flash to bang for the lockdown was relatively quick, and organisations had to quickly develop plans and policies at short notice. Despite notice from the effect of Coronavirus lockdowns in other countries, many organisations were still unprepared and effectively caught short.
  2. Crisis planning will become a significant focus post Covid-19. Where traditional business continuity plans may have involved some form of remote working, they mainly relied upon relocation to other premises.  The focus now will be for these plans to look at all ways of working, learning from the success or not of the introduction of WFH and SD.
  3. The Government introduced numerous financial assistance schemes over the initial period of lockdown and only time will tell if the furlough scheme will achieve any effect in reducing large scale redundancies overall. However, the scheme was welcome, and employees quickly embraced it as a method to retain staff and reduce costs of doing so, often citing it as a method of retaining cash flow.
  4. For organisations that had international sites, the added issue of country-based regulations and different timings of their introduction brought additional challenges. Operationally this placed challenges on how organisations reacted.

All organisations felt that life after the initial lockdown announcement was hectic, however, what we should remember is that this was the first such event in modern history and thus, despite warnings, caught most organisations cold.  Post Covid-19 most organisations have said that lessons learnt documents will be produced and crisis plans rewritten.  The primary question is around whether these plans should include the possibility that the Government will introduce financial assistance schemes like furlough again or and if not, what are the implications for business continuity in the future?

In the middle of “lockdown” – What are the priorities right now for your business and your people? 

Written by Jo Brooks

The organisations we spoke to had experienced different pressures depending upon which category they were in as described above.

All organisations we spoke to indicated that their priority was to be able to work safely and to plan how they would approach the restoration of their business, when ready, while protecting the emotional, physical, and financial welfare of their employees.

An immediate focus of those businesses adversely impacted by Covid-19 was the preservation of their cashflow to remain sustainable and to protect jobs wherever possible.  These organisations had prioritised measures such as reducing non-critical spend and renegotiating contracts.  Many had placed controls around investment in recruitment, training and any other third-party spend and many were seeking to optimise their use of the job retention scheme to retain employees while working to return to their usual “run rate” and the associated generation of income over time.

Where a longer-term reduction in income could be foreseen, many businesses were undertaking rigorous financial planning and option appraisal exercises to formulate a coherent plan and identify the measures required to continue trading safely while remaining financially viable.

For those businesses at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19, such as public services, there was a stretch in resources while diverting activity and resource into addressing Covid-19 and knowing they would need to switch on “business as usual” activities when able to (or directed to). Funding and infrastructure had been provided by the Government in some instances, and a priority was to understand how long this additional support would remain in place and/or what actions were needed to secure the additional resources for an extended period if possible, to smooth the transition when needed.

The businesses in our survey reflected that they needed to think beyond their internal pressures and work at a sector or macro level, understanding the impact their supply chain could have on them and recognising the knock-on impact that decisions they made now might potentially have on other businesses/communities in the future.

There was evidence in our survey group of the importance of identification of immediate resource and skills gaps, prioritising development and upskilling/reskilling of existing employees and recruitment to key roles, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. While Covid-19 was still in the mix, availability of critical workers to meet demand would remain a challenge as employees naturally continued to contract the virus or need to isolate for the safety of others. Continued access to Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to support staff to travel and remain at work, if their presence was essential to delivering services, was highlighted as a key concern.

Some business sectors indicated a cyclical recruitment and retention challenge posed by Covid-19, for example, education, and therefore the need to attract enough new business to derive the necessary income to remain sustainable for 20/21 and beyond was paramount. Their success would not only be impacted by their actions but by external influences such as service-user perception and behaviour.

Generally, most businesses had recognised that supporting their employees during this period was vital, whether at work, working from home, well, unwell or furloughed. Managers and leaders had responded differently depending upon their own experience and developed skills for leading and managing during change. Most respondents shared their reflection that the pandemic has impacted individuals on all levels, personally and professionally.

Some organisations had been quick to employ improved communication and support frameworks, including leadership coaching and counselling, to promote trust, empathy and flexibility as their key cultural values and behaviours to support navigation through the disruption.

Overall while the Covid-19 pandemic was not something businesses would have asked for, many acknowledged they had already adapted to new ways of working and wanted to encourage retention of the gains made, by restoring their businesses in a modified form so as not to lose any positive changes which had come about as a by-product of this unprecedented circumstance.

What is the ‘so what?’ from this:

  1. Even in times of considerable uncertainty, employees have worked over and above expectation, adapting to different ways of working and finding solutions that might not have been imagined before.
  2. The combined impact of fear and uncertainty has required managers to lead differently and brought to the fore the importance of a good communication framework, trust, empathetic leadership, and support.
  3. To retain (and gain from) the best of the circumstances and to engender a lasting change in culture and a sustainable future will require businesses to lead by example, optimise technology and consider more flexible ways of leading and working.

What do you think your priorities will be when your organisation comes out of the immediate crisis?

Written by Johanna Hooper

The emerging themes can be grouped into two major categories: short term (next 3-6 months); and longer-term (six months plus).

In the short term, many organisations are planning for the safety of staff returning to the usual place of work and managing their safety and wellbeing.  Many organisations who have become busier during COVID-19 are considering how they can “decompress” tired and overworked employees while still delivering their services.  Those that deprioritised non-crisis related service delivery are now starting to plan how they reinstate those services, if at all.

Other organisations shared their anxiety of returning to previous levels of delivery while at the same time managing unplanned workforce reductions.  With such a large number of employees Furloughed, many organisations are seeing staff seeking employment elsewhere in the meantime.  This is particularly prevalent in organisations deemed to be more ‘vulnerable’ such as in the retail industry.

Some organisations shared a more fundamental level of survival.  Revenue regeneration was top of their list of activities if they were to continue operating at all.

In the longer term, a large number of organisations shared how COVID-19 has accelerated the implementation of planned transformation projects.  This is especially true of technology-based transformations.  Many shared their understanding that there was no “going back to how things were” and that they were focussing on capturing and implementing learning gained during the last three months.

Many organisations indicated that they were conducting operating model reviews; this was both for cost management purposes but also to ensure viability and relevance now that “going back” was not an option.  For some, this was a necessity for survival.  For others, COVID-19 was seen as an opportunity to make changes that would have been unthinkable before.

What is the ‘so what?’ from this:

  1. Seize the day – we would strongly encourage organisations to make those difficult changes while things are still in a state of flux. Employees, leaders and shareholders are already in an “unfrozen” state (Lewin) and therefore more likely to be responsive to transformational change, particularly where there are clear links to survivability and profitability.  So “carpe diem”.  Review that operating model.  Revisit that Organisation Design.  Refresh that culture.  Really notice what you have liked and loathed as a result of the COVID-19 learning.  And then do something about it.
  2. Be good at change – duh, right? But here’s the thing.  If you want to avoid ‘change fatigue’ (although, the jury is out on if that’s even a thing), businesses have to get good at change management.  Especially the people side of change and by this we mean: communicating; engaging; facilitating; empowering; inspiring; motivating; collaborating; listening etc.   This is paramount to keep everyone whole and with you.  Despite the name ‘change management’, this relies on good leadership, not management.  So have a look at your leaders and do a mental inventory on those verbs above.  If the ticks are sparse, rethink your leadership development.
  3. Plan, where you can – we know that projection feels hard right now, too many “unknown unknowns” (Rumsfeld). But surely it’s better to be half right than totally wrong?  Dust off those workforce planning documents so you can see whether those unintended losses are regretted or helpful.  Create several scenarios about what the future could look like and run the sums on what the size and shape of the workforce should look like.  Have a clear line of sight between business output and role.  Build confidence that every person makes a direct contribution to the business outputs.  And understand where you might have more resilience if you have to make further efficiencies.  

How do our leaders think they will need to change?

Written by Kirsty Brooks

While we can’t predict the future, our leaders had a consistent message when asked how they think they will need to change post-crisis. Very simply, leaders are going to have to gear up with a short, medium and long term plan, both economically and how they lead their workforce, the responses we received were split into three main areas:

Bringing our workforce back to a safe environment

How organisations and leaders have responded during this crisis and how they will bring their teams back to the workplace will be remembered for a very long time, and reassuringly for the leaders we talked to, safety was a number one priority.

Our survey found that in the short-term leaders have to tactically plan, where employees are unable to work remotely leaders are preparing for the provision of social distancing in the workplace, gaining access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and flexibly rotating their employees to allow for the additional space needed to provide a safe environment. Leaders will need to consider the employees who may have a fear of returning to a social work environment and consider turning the dial up on empathy and managing varied emotions through change, while also maintaining their own emotional responses.

For some leaders, they are having to manage a large proportion of their workforce that has not been into a workspace for over ten weeks and who may be considering their future options in working flexibly or differently. It is expected that a high number of employees will request flexible working, shorter hours or even just not return to the workplace at all!

Technological transformation

Before the Covid-19 crisis, many businesses were pursuing digital transformation programmes to allow for a more flexible workforce, greater collaboration and improved stakeholder experience. This was a self-paced transformation that has now become an urgent priority. For some that we surveyed, digital transformation and remote working had been, in the past, a low priority and the traditional mindsets to working and delivery were still evident.

Our workforces and customers have mostly been given an opportunity to ‘try out’ and get ‘accustomed’ to digital consumerism, working, and collaboration all at once. The movement towards a digital business model in such a short period of time will become the new normal, and leaders will have to accept the change, innovate with their teams to keep pace and learn to collaborate in a very different way.

The technological shift, coupled with the restriction we have had on travel both locally and globally, will present a challenge if our leaders don’t keep up with their teams preference to use technology more and travel less, in particular, this will be prevalent in the more traditional sectors.  The paced move to digital transformation and the new ways of working must be viewed holistically by leaders, maintaining focus on the human side of digital transformation at least as much as the technological side.

Recovering business performance and workforce planning

All indications are that for many sectors it will take time to recover from this crisis, adding additional elements of pressure to how leaders approach their workforce plans to meet short, medium and long term strategic plans and stakeholder expectations in an uncertain and volatile global economy.

While business performance will remain a high priority, leaders must consider the retention of skills, talent and balancing how they bring back the right workforce to deliver on customer demands while stabilising financial performance. Without a shadow of a doubt, for some organisations, a planned restructuring and reduction in workforce is imminent, particularly where government support has allowed flexibility in retaining employees. Initially, an element of reactiveness will be observed in both restructuring and recruitment needs to meet financial challenges and the fluctuation in customer demand while also accommodating the new ways of working. Each role, service or product will be scrutinised for the value that it brings to both the organisation and the customer in the future world.

The trickiest element for leaders managing a post-crisis strategy will be distinguishing between crisis-induced short-term changes and what is a more permanent shift, leaders will need to manoeuvre from crisis management to a creative and innovative mindset when considering workforce planning. The more traditional organisations and leaders will need to make sure that they fully engage in this shift rather than risk disruption that could leave competitors with an advantage.

How do you think leadership in your organisation will need to change?

Written by Richard Frost

There was a remarkable consistency in the response to this question.  When the crisis was in its initial few days, management skills utilising ‘command and control’ abilities were advantageous, so short-term measures to keep staff safe were actioned quickly.

Once safety measures and initial actions were implemented, the leadership skills required quickly changed. There was a consistent feeling amongst all that the game has irreversibly changed for leaders, certainly for the foreseeable future.

Respondents felt that their organisations had pulled together, and it had been a team effort across all functions.

While, for the obvious reasons, respondents have not enjoyed the last few months, they have stated it has in some ways been an engaging professional experience. An example is that they have seen employees given the opportunity to be more empowered in their roles due to the loosening of managerial control often from not being physically in the same location. Also, there is a feeling that there is no turning back to the new business reality of flexible working. Many respondents felt that COVID-19 had increased the pace of change in these positive areas.

What is the ‘so what?’ from this; and the fundamental changes our interviewees are predicting for leaders:

  1. Trust. An essential leadership skill before COVID-19 but it was felt that it would become more critical as teams interact with each other virtually. There is less opportunity to build and maintain relationships when not interacting face-to-face. A suggestion is that leaders should enthusiastically develop themselves to learn the leadership skills of empathy and actively support the devolving of decision making across and down the organisation.
  2. Empathy. Is related to the skill of building trust. Examples would be that leaders will need to be empathetic as people return to work. The reactions to COVID-19 amongst teams and leaders have varied enormously, and so leaders will need to manage this with empathy and caring attitudes. This will not be a natural skill for many leaders and may have a lasting effect on processes like the identification of high potentials in the future.
  3. Task management, not presentism. The horse has bolted for those leaders who did not approve of their people ‘working from home’! This opinion is not only dated but, if it was not before, is now obsolete in the 2020+ workplace. This shift raises the need for leadership skills like trust, empathy, team building and decision making. The feeling is that COVID-19 has accelerated the already identified leadership need for these skills.
  4. The logistics of work changing. While you could argue this is an obvious observation, it will be interesting to see how it evolves for companies, teams and individuals. A lot of the interviewees we spoke to were familiar with virtual working and an international business environment and understood travel, for instance, will be minimal for some time. However, the way we work and how we work is an area where organisations will put significant leadership focus ongoing. The potential impact on mental health, wellbeing, team effectiveness are not known, and it could mean a rapid change in how we all work moving forward, it’s not just about what you do but how you do it more now than ever. Respondents recognised these potential changes and were ready to act as the future becomes apparent. This could mean a gradual relaxation of current laws but also further ‘outbreaks’, may require ongoing tightening of work practices. The main observation from the interviewees is that they know it is a fluid situation and remaining vigilant will continue to be necessary. 

Are you worried about managing this change, and what does that look like for your team?

Written by Tina Jennings

Leaders were under “No illusion” expecting the change and transformation of a future state to be ‘difficult’ at times.  It was clear that the most significant issue was around sufficient funding moving forward to enable current programmes of work to be completed posing the question as to whether the continued investment would be available and a priority to pursue future developments.

Many experienced cost cuttings and reductions in personnel before COVID-19 and thus a theme that further ‘efficiency’ will need to be applied not only to ‘who does what’ but also to ‘what’ and ‘how’ we do it moving forward.  Resources are tight and stretched; how resources will be deployed in the ‘return’ will be under scrutiny to meet high expectations around ongoing performance.

Teams have responded well to change.  Adaptability has been impressive, engagement levels are good, learnings are being captured and initiatives to engage. Support staff seem to be at an all-time high with the organisation’s we spoke to, and they are sensitive to exhaustion, post-traumatic stress, mental health and wellbeing, all being paramount. Work patterns are being considered, and several businesses spoke about the opportunity to ‘rest and rotate’ to ease return and minimise burnout.

New policies and reward structures were being implemented that recognise change and ‘old-fashioned’ practices were being abolished, a move forward to the future of work and rapid progress.

Overall there was a general sense that leading with an open mind, knowing that change will not be easy but that a collaborative approach to any adjustment to strategies and decision-making, working side by side with employees and stakeholders alike will be essential to a full recovery.

So far, so good, but what does this mean for the transition and what do these insights tell us about what we should be thinking about in our forward planning.  Getting this next phase right will be fundamental to a smooth and productive transition back to a ‘new reality’.  A reality where businesses can balance tight cost controls alongside designing cost-efficient, lean operationally strong business that gets the most out of every resource moving forward, especially its people.

What do you need to handle the change? What resources will be required is it time, money, people?

Written by Jane Baalam

In previous questions we saw concerns about returning to previous levels of delivery while at the same time managing unplanned workforce reductions and the implementation of planned transformation projects.   Many organisations indicated that they would be conducting operating model reviews; this was both for cost management purposes but also to ensure viability and relevance now that “going back” was not an option.  For some this was a necessity for survival.  For others COVID-19 was an opportunity to make changes that would have been unthinkable before.

In response to these themes, we asked what resources leaders would need to handle the change.  There were three key areas of concern:

  1. Personal Resources – Personal resilience, and time are being pushed to their limits. Resilience is a recurring theme and we have noted that leaders are now more likely to express concerns about their personal resilience, perhaps in response to the need to get staff to ‘open up’ about their issues.  Pressures on resilience are often linked with the concept that time is of the essence.  “Headspace”, or ‘time to think’ was seen as crucial, but there is no doubt that this will be in short supply because organisations will want/need to move quickly once the lockdown is lifted and leaders must develop a rapid response approach to handling workforce changes and future responses to crises.
  2. Operational Resources – In addition, there was also a recognition that not all leaders have the breadth of skills and technical expertise in their current teams to support their organisations in developing future responses. Workforce planning was a key issue, with a sudden focus on what needs to change to make organisations viable again – everything from ensuring that critical roles are identified and succession planning developed, through to managing and modelling the impact of response scenarios and ensuring engagement with change.    Other resources included services that are often linked with HR at a leadership level, for example facilities management or health and safety.  For those that saw money as a critical area, there is also the recognition that cashflow may not be forthcoming and government funding will be reduced.
  3. External Resources – We also saw a recognition that the government has some part to play in enabling the response; for instance, organisations want increased clarity with regards to guidelines/regulations and managing social distancing for smaller offices or on public transport that was seen as a problem and barrier for returning to the workplace physically. Another area of concern was the long-term availability of financial assistance and the impact when the current arrangements are withdrawn.

Our recommendations for adapting to the ‘new’ reality at pace

Our research identifies that leaders know their limitations and recognise that they will need to seek resources/input from external sources to deliver expected changes.  What is not clear yet, is whether circumstances will allow our leaders the time to reflect and plan before stakeholder’s demand responses.

We have mentioned a number of ‘so what’s’ above our recommendations that all businesses need to think about include but are not limited to;

  1. Cost, identify your current and expected trading patterns and consider opportunities to invest, divest or diversify your business model to capitalise on changing or new markets and mitigate for failing markets. Review and eliminate unnecessary practices and costs going forward to enable greater financial resilience and agility should we see a future surge in COVID-19-cases (or another disaster).  Cost controls, and options around what you can do to improve efficiency?  How do you get clarity regarding your workforce planning?  Being able to use this process as a strategic tool to focus on the right resource at the right time on the most significant opportunities will be a win.
  2. Future of work undertake a review of the impact of Covid-19 on your business and consolidate your learning in case of future local or national lockdown activity. Think about not only the ‘what’ but the ‘how’.  How will you take the virtual working learnings and ensure that your organisational design is optimal? Plan your workforce based upon predicted need, hiring, reskilling, or upskilling your workforce accordingly.  Eradicate old cumbersome ways of working and fully embrace a slicker more productive way that opens up cost-saving opportunities, develops streamlined processes, decision making and improves capability all targeted to optimise and build your operation, it is essential.
  3. Mental health and wellbeing will be fundamental. Staying close to the health of your people will enable you to safeguard your investment but also ensure that your human resources can be as high performing as they can be mentally and physically.  It is great to have the design optimised, investing further in wellbeing, looking after your humans, will naturally ensure they look after you.
  4. Employee engagement invests in your management and leadership, to enable them to weather the impact of the ongoing pandemic and to lead your business back to a sustainable future position. Retention and development will embed change. When your organisational design is right, the wellbeing of your people is on point, having your human resources fully engaged unlocking their best self, their strengths and developing those capabilities will reap long term, sustainable, benefit, not only to the individual but their role, your team, customers and bottom line. Having the right tools, development planning, methods will be fundamental.
  5. Culture, collaboration and learning together and cultivating a winning mentality will be essential to a sustainable new reality and future growth. Tapping into your core values to drive performance and create the right behaviours to make the most of every opportunity, this is the finale where investment in time will reap huge returns if done well.

If you feel time is potentially getting away from you and that you will need to source extra resources to support you in developing your plans, talk to our experts at the Senior HR Network.

There is much to think about, but nothing is insurmountable, the senior HR network has the skills and experience to support you in one or all of the above areas where we can help guide and deliver robust transition plans that will speed up and bolster a seamless return and a sustainable future making the most of your new reality.

Get in touch to see how. 

About the authors

The Senior HR Network was set up to provide senior HR practitioners across the UK and across disciplines to share knowledge, learnings and experiences and expand future thinking in people and organisations.

Andrew Carter, Reward Risk Management Limited

35+ years in HR operational environment within the Public Sector and Armed Forces.  experienced with transformational change at the organisational and operational level.

Telephone: 07904439172

Email: andrewc@rewardrisk.co.uk

Jo Brooks, Aligned HR Services

Experienced senior operational leader and HR Director, public and private sector. Chartered Fellow of the CIPD, Jo consults for clients across a range of sectors.

Telephone: 07788278295

Email: joanna@alignedhrservices.org.uk

Johanna Hooper, Limitless Peak Performance

Strategic Workforce Planning consultant, specialising in skills management and the future workforce/workplace.  Also, leadership coach helping organisations set the permissive conditions for success.

Telephone: 07713196730

Email: johanna@limitlesspeakperformance.co.uk

Kirsty Brooks, People Perform Consulting Limited

Kirsty is an experience talent management professional working in multiple sectors. Heading up People Performs coaching & development function delivering both individual and team coaching and development to organisations across the UK and internationally.

Telephone: 0333 577 1319

Email: Kirsty@peopleperform.co.uk

Richard Frost, People Perform Consulting Limited

Richards passion and experience is all things people process and data. With international experience in talent acquisition, L&D and change, working across sectors, Richard heads up the business efficiency, workforce planning and Talent Management consulting for People Perform.

Telephone: 0333 577 1319

Email: Richard@peopleperform.co.uk

Tina Jennings, Cosán Cróga Limited

Culture change and transformation specialist, helping leaders to unlock the power of their people, improving costs, efficiency, performance, and culture.  A Chartered Fellow CIPD, 24+ years leading Organizational Design and Development across EMEA in a variety of industries.

Telephone: 07765 060298

Email: tina@cosancroga.com

Jane Baalam, Reward Risk Management Limited

30+ years in HR and specifically Reward Management.  Developing reward strategies and implementing reward programmes that support transformational change and align to business objectives.

Telephone: 07415 974004

Email: janebaalam@rewardrisk.co.uk

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