Articles / Driving Change in Post-Pandemic Corporate Environments
January 25, 2022
The pandemic has likely been the biggest change management challenge many of us have ever faced. This article explores what’s different in today’s context; which people priorities have become amplified; and how organisations can create a resilient workplace environment for the future.
We’re currently in an ultra-marathon of tackling the challenges created by COVID-19, and there’s little prospect of respite from the volatility any time soon. But there are exciting opportunities being created by current trends influencing the world of work. For example:
To take advantage of these opportunities and compete in this ever-changing environment, organisations are re-designing the way they create value. For example, professional services firms have switched to a digital model instead of sending consultants around the world; airlines started operating cargo-only flights; and hotels converted rooms into day offices. So, what are the leadership capabilities and priorities needed to remain competitive through the foreseeable recovery phase? In the America’s Cup sailing race earlier this year, the UK team led by Sir Ben Ainslie suffered an embarrassing defeat at the pre-event. But from rock-bottom, they pulled together a rapid response; making significant changes to their set-up and experimenting with different configurations on the boat. Some of these modifications could take the boat out of action for weeks, so they were under pressure to weigh up the potential performance gain against time off the water. The team adjusted to the new way of operating even the through difficult weather conditions that had hampered their performance in the pre-event, and made a huge comeback to win their opening races.
Similarly, businesses that have fared well in the battle against the impact of COVID have built resilience through creative and responsive systems as well as careful risk management. As Ben Ainslie did, organisations need to build a culture of agility and innovation – underpinned by trust and willingness to fail and learn. Ainslie designated his tactician a free role which enabled him to constantly assess the wind shifts affecting their course. Despite the pair being former Olympic rivals, they fostered mutual respect and trust to help navigate the boat through turbulent waters.
A fundamental element of leading organisational change is implementing the strategy on the ground, and tackling challenges and opportunities as they arise through bottom-up decision-making. An example of this was demonstrated at IBM when a self-organised group of employees collaborated with leaders to facilitate a smooth transition to remote working, by delivering a company-wide pledge that thousands of them posted on an internal social media channel within a matter of days, which helped the company transition to productive remote work very rapidly. Business leaders cannot afford to wait out the impact of the pandemic: they must act now to align their teams and co-develop a resilient strategy to help the company succeed.
While the fundamental elements of leading business transformation may be the same, in the current context different priorities have become amplified. The primary challenge organisations are currently facing around implementing change is doing so virtually. Without the workforce all together in the office, creative solutions are required to maintain the culture and employee motivation that are essential for sustainable change.
Technology is enabling more opportunities for employee empowerment and the bottom-up decision-making that’s so important for managing change. For example, at Canva, all staff are able to have a virtual chat with the founders. But as many of us will have experienced, the accelerated pace of work and constant connectivity to the workplace has blurred the boundaries between work and home, and this is threatening employee wellbeing. Companies need to gain a better understanding of the impact of technology on their people.
EngageRocket ran a survey in Singapore this year measuring the Employee Experience one year on from the start of the pandemic, which looked at how employee resilience and mental wellbeing might have changed since 2020. The results showed a 17% decrease in employee confidence of the future of their organisation – down to 64% this year. And only 44% said they are able to avoid burnout at work (whereas last year, just over half felt their stress levels were normal, all things considered). This indicates a long-term impact of COVID on employee resilience and wellbeing.
Other research by the CIPD and Nottingham Business School shows that providing opportunities for employees to have a voice – whether feeding ideas ‘up’ to help improve ways of working, or raising personal concerns – is a key driver of outcomes including well-being, adaptability and innovation. Employee listening is imperative not only for fostering well-being, but to create alignment and buy-in for organisational change.
My current work with Nottingham Business School is exploring the impact of the pandemic on mental wellbeing. One of the factors emerging as critical for enabling employee voice and mental wellbeing is psychological safety - defined as ‘the belief that the workplace is safe for interpersonal risk taking’. It also describes a work climate characterised by mutual respect, one in which people are comfortable expressing their differences. Going back to the sailing example, Ainslie’s tactician felt safe to make his own judgements and raise any issues as they happened, so that they could be tackled immediately. Similarly, employees will only share their thoughts and ideas openly if they believe it is safe to do so without risking their progression opportunities, or relationships with colleagues. How can leaders and managers build the right climate to instil psychological safety, particularly in a hybrid working environment?
McKinsey conducted a global survey during the pandemic, which found that few business leaders demonstrate the behaviours that foster a psychologically safe environment. The factor that had the biggest impact on psychological safety - particularly during a time of significant change– was a positive team climate (in which team members value each other’s contributions, care about each other’s well-being, and input into the way the team operates). Leadership style also notably influences the level of psychological safety: command-and-control leadership behaviours can hinder perceptions of safety (since challenging authority is not seen as acceptable). Meanwhile, supportive and transformational leadership signal openness and trust, which help create a positive team climate.
Leaders can encourage an environment of psychological safety by sharing their own challenges and demonstrating vulnerability. In the Great Place to Work 2020 report, one of the factors highlighted in the Philippines’ Best Workplaces is that staff feel empowered to speak up because management is approachable and genuinely seeks and responds to their input.
Amongst the challenges of working in today’s hybrid, technology-driven environment, there’s a unique opportunity for organisations to re-evaluate the way they deliver value not only to customers, but also to their own people. Prioritizing employee listening and wellbeing will drive successful change and performance in the long-term. Measuring and understanding these elements of the Employee Experience are important for developing an environment that enables them.