With a quarter of humanity now in lockdown and over 3.5 million cases globally, COVID-19 is having an unprecedented impact on organisations and their people on a multitude of levels. An organisation’s culture and values are critical in driving an effective response; informing how a leader acts in crisis; how line managers guide their teams and how people support each other.
As organisations are beginning to get to grips with how they manage the logistical impact of the pandemic, we are seeing a shift in focus to how they support the emotional preparedness of their employees and use their organisational structures, processes and systems to develop greater resilience with the ultimate aim of improving organisational health.
ORGANISATIONAL HEALTH – WHAT IS IT?
McKinsey define organisational health as ‘an organization’s ability to align around a common vision, execute against that vision effectively, and renew itself through innovation and creative thinking’  When taken in the context of the global pandemic, the vital point here is the ability to renew through innovation and critical thinking. Recent WhartonBC research shows 64% of people believe their organisation is not willing to be public about failure, but how do we learn and innovate if not through failure? As Winston Churchill famously said ‘never let a crisis go to waste’; so how do organisations not only enable their people to develop greater resilience but also identify lasting changes they can take from this experience to improve the overall health of their organisations?
In this paper we outline the steps leaders can take to develop 3 key areas of resilience, before turning our focus beyond the pandemic to the ‘new norm’.
LEADING THROUGH CRISIS
As the crisis unfolds, the way in which leaders respond and the shadow they cast will determine their future success, both as individuals and as organisations. As humans we crave two things; 1. certainty and; 2. choice or our perception of having a choice. If these are taken away, we start to feel out of control, calling for a different style of leadership from those we look up to. So, what do people look for from leaders in times of crisis?
Leaders at all levels need to show emotional consciousness. They need to role model the behaviours they are asking from others. Empathy and trust are critical. Without trust we end up with a high degree of micromanagement which is not only increasingly difficult when working remotely but actively reduces productivity and increases disengagement. This is an opportunity for leaders to show their human side. Take the example of Neil Clifford, CEO of Kurt Geiger who took the decision to suspend his salary until the stores reopen, sending a clear message to employees that they are all in this together.
At times of crisis it can be tempting to pull up the drawbridge but people will yearn for honest and transparent comms, even when you don’t have all the answers. Leaders must provide clarity of expectations on line managers; what role do you expect them to play? How can they role model the desired behaviours? How do they spot when someone in their team is struggling? Creating a support network of managers can be a powerful tool to help them navigate the unknown, share advice, guidance and ideas. As leaders it is important you are not afraid of failure – you should be prepared to ‘fail fast’; test something and if it doesn’t work, try something else.
Through periods of uncertainty Executive teams need to work much more closely together. The speed in which the pandemic took hold has massively increased the need for rapid decision-making; critical decisions can no longer wait for the next scheduled board meeting, hours can’t be wasted debating the merits of each option. Instead, leadership teams need to quickly navigate changing regulation and assimilate into actions. With formal dynamics and the subtleties of informal decision-making being absent in a virtual boardroom, how do we ensure a fair hearing? Clarity on decision making authority is fundamental to making progress, as is effective delegation to enable the headspace to focus on business-critical decisions.
Command and Control, Calmly:
As leaders or managers of people each of us has a ‘natural’ style with which we feel most comfortable. In times of crisis we tend to seek the parent-child dynamic; looking for more ‘command and control’ – seeking clear instructions on what to do and how to do it. When dealing with such an emotive subject of COVID-19 it is critical that this command and control is supplemented with calmness. As noted by Double Olympic Gold Medallist Alex Gregory, when during an arctic expedition the rudder snapped and his boat was sent into a spin; the natural leader in the group took control; demonstrating the perfect balance of instruction, command and calmness in the moment of crisis.
As a general rule command and control is the style people are least comfortable with and therefore it is important to recognise where line managers and leaders need support. Useful tools can include offering on-demand coaching and pairing leaders up with those who have a different natural style to their own.
Leading Through Crisis: Top Tip
At WhartonBC we often talk about critical moments; the small actions leaders take at critical moments that have a disproportionate impact on employee wellbeing and productivity. What critical moments are your employees going through right now? What is one small thing you as a leader could do to drive a positive experience during that moment?
DEVELOPING ORGANISATIONAL RESILIENCE
With the loss of working hours due to COVID-19 expected to equate to 195m full time jobs  organisational structures need to be adapted to allow for ultimate flexibility in order to maximise performance. In the UK, with 9 million workers expecting to be furloughed  the take-up has been much higher than originally anticipated, providing organisations with the new challenge of continuing to operate with far fewer resources. There are a number of steps organisations can take to respond to this challenge:
Conduct Discontinuity Planning
Whilst the focus to date has inevitably been on crisis planning, teams have naturally been undertaking a degree of reprioritisation. We suggest taking this a step further and actually focusing on what you can stop doing, both in the short-term and indeed when things return to ‘normal’. This is about taking control; planning how to disrupt your own operations – focusing on the areas that will do the greatest good, as opposed to those that are too tricky to fix, or those that are only causing minor problems. Some priorities will need to be shelved, whilst others should be firmly discarded.
Creation of New Organisational Structures and Ways of Working
Organisations are implementing a range of solutions to continue managing operations with reduced capacity and capability following furlough decisions and periods of absence. Consider creating cross functional teams with a clear mission and reporting line, to share lessons learned and best practice. Explore strategies around rotating teams on and off site, between the front and back office.
Critical to all of these strategies are two things; a culture of empowerment and understanding the skills you have available to you. Team rotations and cross functional teams will only work where you have a strong underpinning culture in which people are empowered to take decisions and know when to escalate. Where such a culture does not exist the role of managers as air traffic controllers, coordinating work and priorities across multiple teams, becomes increasingly important.
Secondly, conducting an assessment of primary and secondary skill sets and mapping these to business critical capabilities allows managers to identify where roles can be rotated to cover periods of absence. Supplementing any gaps with the use of contingent workers in another useful short term strategy, however all of this must be underpinned by rapid knowledge transfer through the shadowing of critical roles or regular team rotations.
Once again, to develop organisational resilience communication is key. Expectations around productivity must be adjusted and clearly communicated. Managers should establish daily rituals, agreeing how as a team they work together and providing clarity on objectives, desired outcomes and lines of communication and escalation. Their role should be to cut through the noise from the oversupply of information. Effective communication becomes increasingly critical to inform decision making when losing the ability to have informal ‘water-cooler’ conversations to gather feedback and generate ideas.
Developing Organisational Resilience: Top Tip
When considering alternative organisational structures, ways of working and conducting skills assessments, don’t just focus on the crisis response. Use this as an opportunity to enhance your operating model for the future, identifying activities that should be stopped permanently, and ways of working that will deliver value far beyond the pandemic.
DEVELOPING EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE
Emotional resilience is often quoted as the ability to bounce back from adversity. We believe it is about more than just this. It is, as importantly about developing the ability to adapt in the face of adversity. With most of us having to constantly shift our mindset between that of a parent/carer, teacher and professional we are all going through an adjustment reaction  at our own pace. As leaders we all have a role to play in supporting our teams to develop a higher degree of emotional resilience. Below we outline a number of strategies for doing this:
Consider, Predict and Plan for ‘Triggers’
Various triggers will impact our emotional resilience; across the spectrum of personal circumstances and sensitivity levels, governmental announcements, organisational responses and the oversupply of news. Whilst each individuals journey will to a certain extent be unique, we can identify the likely upcoming triggers and put in place strategies to help soften the impact. For example, a trigger may be the return to work of individuals who had been furloughed. Consider the impact this will have on both those who have remained working throughout and those returning to work after a period of absence. Implement strategies to support both groups and accelerate them through the change curve to ‘moving forwards’.
Coach Managers of Others
Many managers have high levels of emotional intelligence, being able to identify very quickly when someone needs support. But even for those who fall into this category, spotting when someone is struggling can be incredibly difficult when you are not physically able to see them, assess their body language and monitor their behaviour. Add into the mix that it is often even harder for people to admit when they are struggling in a virtual environment and the job of the line manager in looking out for peoples’ wellbeing becomes increasingly challenging. Consider encouraging line managers to;
- Share their own emotional journeys through COVID-19 to build trust and transparency with their teams
- Spend time understanding people’s personal circumstances and building up a picture of people’s signs of stress. Revisiting any psychological profiling results can help here
- Recognise and understand there will be a conflict gap between personal and work loyalties, encourage their teams to keep a divide and avoid being ‘permanently online’
- Promote wellbeing habits such as 30 minutes exercise each day, mindfulness, continuous learning etc. Interventions including activities like regular movement, socialising and finding purpose in life enable plasticity – which is the brains ability to repair its pathways.
As well as asking line managers to take a more pastoral role, there are a number of strategies organisations can take to support employees to build greater emotional resilience. Consider segmenting employees into different groups and designing strategies specifically for each group; those on furlough, on site, off site, front line workers etc. Strategies can include providing access to professional support hotlines; virtual wellness platforms; deploying mental health first aiders in a different way; setting up call free zones to ensure people switch off etc. Consider extending existing strategies to family members and providing coaching to assist line managers in having difficult conversations or supporting their teams during challenging times.
Developing Emotional Resilience: Top Tip
Developing emotional resilience whilst mid-crisis can seem overwhelming. Instead of focusing on the big picture encourage your teams to focus on building tiny habits. Research by B.J. Fogg found that making change tiny is the best way to create lasting change . The formula can be boiled down to three simple steps; reduce big goals into small actions you can perform easily, find an anchor moment, and celebrate instantly. One example might be turn all devices onto aeroplane mode whilst making your mid-morning cup of coffee (anchor moment), sit down for 5 minutes uninterrupted and focus on your breathing, celebrate your moment of mindfulness by drinking your coffee in peace before returning to work.
PREPARING FOR THE ‘NEW NORM’
Experts are already beginning to predict the impact of this pandemic on organisational priorities and the way we live and work. The AA, for example is already anticipating a permanent reduction in the demand for travel, and numerous individuals including John Goldstein, head of the sustainable finance group at Goldman Sachs have reported an increase in the connection between sustainability, ESG and delivering true value .
Whilst on the whole organisations are still grappling with how to best navigate COVID-19, it is nonetheless important to start thinking about how we take the learnings from the way our organisations responded to the crisis to inform the new norm. This is about new ways of operating, changes to organisational and team culture and letting go of ineffective ways of the past. With recent WhartonBC research highlighting that 77% of people in the insurance industry think flexible working is seen as evidence of a lack of commitment and ambition, we should use the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the pace of change.
When planning for the new norm it is important to again consider not just the logistical preparedness but also the emotional preparedness:
Based on the discontinuity planning and capability assessments undertaken during COVID-19, identify what skills and capabilities are needed to excel in the new norm. Which roles can be performed remotely versus which need to have a physical presence? How can teams be reformed to be more effective? Where can services be provided in a more flexible way, using contingent workers, the gig economy or third party services?
Planning for the Return to the Office
Consider a phased approach, how the office may need to be reconfigured to comply with social distancing, and what additional health measures may need to be put into place to reduce risk. Understand your people’s feelings towards returning, many will be fearful and want re-assurance that social distancing measures are clearly signposted.
Enhancing your Culture
For most organisations ways of working and underpinning culture will have shifted during COVID-19. Identify the cultural strengths you should look to amplify in the new norm, analyse lessons learned to identify best practice and celebrate these sharing real examples to bring them to life.
Once again it is easy to underestimate the impact returning to the office may have on people. We will all go through an adjustment reaction at our own pace and it is the role of leaders and managers to continue to support people through this stage.
Preparing for the New Norm: Top Tip
Ask people at all levels of the organisations for their personal learnings. It is critical to have open conversations, asking for feedback about what has worked and what could have been better. Consider the balance required for the future and how you can build these learnings into the new norm. Be open about where things didn’t work and celebrate where they did – use this as an opportunity to re-ignite your organisation through innovation and critical thinking to improve your organisational health.
 ‘Organizational health: A fast track to performance improvement’, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2017
 ‘Loss of working hours to equal 195m full-time jobs, UN agency warns’, Financial Times, April 2020
 Resolution Foundation, using the latest figures on take-up of the scheme from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). BBC News, 8 April 2020
 ‘Adjustment Reactions: The Teachable Moment in Crisis Communication’ Peter M. Sandman, 17 Jan 2005
 ‘Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything’, B.J. Fogg BBC News, 8 April 2020
 ‘Covid-19 May Change Corporate Sustainability as We Know It’, Bloomberg, 8 April 2020
This paper was commissioned by the Association of Foreign Banks (AFB) to support their members during COVID-19.