Culture25 min read

Build back better: accelerating out of Covid-19 and into the new world of work

As countries emerge from lockdown and some tentatively dip back in, it’s clear that organizations that weathered the storm are readying themselves for a new world of work very different from the one we knew only six months ago.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated change in businesses across the globe, with businesses seeing transformations in weeks that previously would have taken years to spring to life.

But what is only just becoming apparent is that many of these transformations will likely stay in place long after the pandemic has passed.

Gabriel Meneses quote

When it comes to remote work, a 9 to 5, desk-chained approach is finally losing its appeal for many forward-thinking organizations.

As of May 2020, Barclays had 70,000 staff working from home with the bank’s CEO stating that a big city office “may be a thing of the past”. Staff at Twitter have been given the option of working at home permanently and WPP has said that any return to the office would be voluntary and flexible.

Businesses have been forced to operate with greater flexibility and agility or face failure. And it isn’t just scrappy startups that are sweeping aside processes in favour of acting fast. Big corporates have embraced agile working environments.

Usage of MS Teams, Slack, Zoom, and peer learning platforms like Hive Learning has skyrocketed as people embrace technology to keep them connected and help them collaborate with their colleagues at pace and at scale.

The likes of Legal & General implemented new technology to connect their workforce and support employee resilience in weeks, to find their employees embraced new systems and adopted new ways of doing things wholeheartedly.

In their Q1 earnings report Microsoft reported that they had “seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.

📺 Fosway and L&G panel Learning Culture

And never before have organizations so readily helped their employees build resilience and look after their mental health.

So where does that leave us today?

As businesses start to navigate their way out of this crisis, they’ll need to consider the changes they want to keep as we adjust to the new world of work — as well as how to address a whole raft of new challenges our uncertain economic climate is set to create.

As a peer learning business that believes wholeheartedly in the power of tapping into insight from your peers to help us all go faster, we set out to ask some of the world’s most influential people leaders:

  • How well equipped are businesses to accelerate out of COVID-19 and into the new world of work?
  • What are the skills people need to adapt to the new normal?
  • What are the most impactful ways to help your people operate with agility?
  • How do we prevent people from reverting back to older, less productive ways of doing things?

The insights are distilled in this action-oriented report, with insights you can put into practice right away.

P.S. The report should take you no longer than 25 minutes to read, but hey, we get it, you’re busy. (The world is operating at unprecedented speed, right?) If you don’t have time to read it now, sign up for our newsletter and we’ll deliver the report straight to your inbox in bite-sized chunks over the course of the next week.

How do we adjust to the new normal?

When lockdown first began, many thought it was a temporary measure. But the reality has become clear that it’s not. And organizations vary in how well equipped they are to embrace the new world of work.

Not everyone was able to easily switch from working in an office to working remotely. It’s easy to assume that people would enjoy leaving the daily commute behind and be happy swapping the office for the comforts at home, but the businesses we spoke to showed that wasn’t always the case.

In the U.S one study found that almost 43% of workers said that they wanted to work remotely more after the economy reopened. A survey in the U.K found that 62% of respondents said that the increased flexibility in working had helped them focus more on their work

However, now that the prospect of returning to normal is on the horizon, on average the people leaders we spoke to were concerned that around 40% of their employees are ready to slip back into the old ways, proving old habits die hard. Organizations have to focus on behavior change now, rewarding positive behaviors publicly and vocally, and challenging those who resist.

The pace of change isn’t going anywhere and organizations need to be ready for future changes and disruption. Working from home doesn’t come naturally to everyone and if organizations are to maintain high levels of agility with a workforce that’s working remotely for some time to come yet, companies need to make sure they offer employees adequate support.

Leaders can support their remote teams by regularly communicating, even to the point of overcommunicating, and by working out loud. Simple work tools that allow for commenting and collaboration, and encouraging teams to share their working times are easy ways to work out loud and bring remote teams closer.

Working like this is a muscle and one that needs to be deliberately developed.

Nearly every company we spoke to is planning to change the way they work, from “virtual first” strategies to enhanced online collaboration. Now we know we’re in this for the long-haul, forward-thinking leaders are considering how to embed the positive traits adopted in the last few months as long-term habits, like working autonomously.

Leaders will need to work hard to change the mindset of those who are uncomfortable with the new world of work and offer tailored support to their remote, digital-first teams. Digital Q&A sessions are just one way to help people who may be feeling nervous after the announcement of a big change. This support will be important to stop employees slipping back into old ways of working.

Just like working remotely, embracing change is also like a muscle. If people run out of steam and are no longer being prepared to flex it, they’ll get left behind – and so will our organizations.

Ultimately, this means managers will need new skills to lead their teams in an ever-evolving remote world.

Francis Lake quote

It’s going to take some effort to reimagine how the digital office and company culture will look over the next six months. Economic uncertainty won’t go away anytime soon so pushing an agile culture is critical right now. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to push through and embed culture change in your business. In the words of one leader we spoke to, “never waste a good crisis”. Leaders need to re-engage their teams and be on hand to provide support and lead through change. There’s still a lot of uncertainty right now, but managers can help offset this by checking in with their teams regularly, giving plenty of feedback, and modelling a mindset that welcomes change.

Embracing the new normal in practice:

✅ Recalibrate your mindset. Encourage a growth mindset among your teams. Welcome failure, improvement and learning as part of the process.

✅ Invest in digital-first skills. Give people the skills they need to work in this new world. Provide training where necessary.

“We know we are going to need to reskill these people to help them be able to work in this new environment.” Mark Taggart, Vice President, Group Talent and Development, Electrocomponents

✅ Think about new ways of working. Remember that managing a remote team is not the same as managing people in an office.

“I’ve broadly seen people trying to replicate what they have seen in the office, but we need to think about new ways of working and not just reinvent the old ways.” Francis Lake, Head of Organization Development, Virgin Money UK

✅ Embed the new behaviors and culture change. Don’t let your people slip back into old habits. Model what you want to see and praise those who show positive behaviors.

“When you bring people back from the home office, get them back to the new normal.” Gabriel Meneses, CHRO, Arca Continental

How managers can help their teams stay agile

In some ways the culture change that’s been forced on businesses by this crisis has been positive. Fast-paced transformation that was the territory of scrappy startups has now been seen in larger, more complex corporations where change could be achingly slow. Bureaucracy has been cut and teams can now see what it means to be agile.

“Agility has imposed itself upon us,” Mark Taggart, Vice President, Group Talent and Development, Electrocomponents

Companies have used this time to push through new developments that would otherwise have taken months or years. Remote working policies and new technologies had to be put into place quickly. There was no other choice — for some it was a case of adapt or die.

We have used the crisis to push through changes that could have previously taken two years to achieve. Now they are being done in three weeks. [...] The removal of bureaucracy is key at the moment and it has sped up some massive and key organizational decisions.

The scale and speed of change has led to on-the-fly decision making without having to wait for permission. If this habit sticks it will help firms be speedier and more innovative in the future, as long as leaders don’t let their people slip back into pre-pandemic inefficiencies, or forget how to react to dramatic change.

“Change is like a muscle, you need to exercise it to continuously improve processes.” Victoria Matthews, Executive Director of HR & Communications, Element 6

Managers are keen to maintain the momentum. But there is a serious fear of burnout. The rate of changes we’ve seen over the past few months isn’t sustainable and we can’t expect our teams to keep up this pace without sacrificing their mental health.

To stay sustainable, agile businesses must focus on building trust and psychological safety in their teams. Let people get on with the job at hand without continuously checking on them. Encourage team members to continuously challenge each other, even when they’re not in the same room.

Those we spoke to emphasized the importance of overcommunicating during this time. Managers will need to keep their teams up to speed with the pace of change and regularly check in to make sure that everyone is on board. Some people will be resistant to change and regular contact will help build trust. An increase in communication is another silver lining from this crisis that we’ve heard from people we’ve spoken to that can help companies stay agile.

Gabriel Meneses quote

There’s a slight nervousness among companies that as people split off into smaller groups away from the office they may create unintentional siloes. Leaders can encourage a culture of collaboration by encouraging regular conversations across teams, offices and locations. Working out loud will allow teams to share ideas and information freely, helping everyone work faster and more efficiently. Making sure that employees have a platform to swap ideas with all their peers and easily revisit will help everyone benefit from learning and working out loud.

By grasping the opportunity that the recent changes have brought and exercising change as though it were a muscle, businesses can come out of the COVID-19 crisis stronger than before.

Make the most of accelerated change and agility in practice:

✅ Step up your communications. Over-communicate with your teammates. Share regular updates to make sure everyone feels included and comfortable with any changes.

“When in the office we used to be able to easily have planned and unplanned face-to-face meetings and chats, working remotely means that unplanned events are more challenging therefore we’ve been putting additional communications engagement plans together to make sure that people feel included, informed and engaged.” Rachel Blay, Chief People Officer, RAC

✅ Encourage speedy decision making. Trust your teams to make decisions quickly without waiting for permission.

✅ Use this time to learn and make mistakes. Treat this crisis as a chance to learn and seek out the opportunities for your business.

“Agility comes from seeing the opportunity and adapting your business model to take advantage of this.” Alan Taylor, HRD, Volex

The virus has had a huge effect on mental health. Even as we come out of lockdown the legacy of the virus remains.

People who worked extra hard during lockdown to keep businesses afloat are at risk of burnout. There are also those who are returning from furlough who may be struggling with their mental health as a result of feeling isolated or bored.

Employees who are preparing to come back to the office may be afraid of catching the virus and bringing it home to their families. Some feel disconnected with their work and their colleagues. Those who are staying home may feel isolated and lonely. And of course some will have lost loved ones. In the UK alone up to 23 million people could be struggling with poor mental wellbeing due to pandemic.

Burnout also remains a problem as the news and information surrounding the pandemic changes every day. Colleagues working from home can suffer from feeling that they’re “always on” if managers don’t help them separate work from home or encourage them to take annual leave.

Chloe Lipp Wellman quote

Of course time off is important for handling burnout, but having a supportive conversation (without demanding answers) is just as important. Leaders can empower their managers to enter discussions about mental health with an open mind.

The sheer amount of changes brought about by the pandemic is enough to raise the stress levels of even the most relaxed people. Leaders are working to build resilience in their people to help them better manage their mental health and navigate uncertainties during this time.

“When recruiting we will need to look for different areas of capability, like resilience and self-motivation.” Jen Usher, Head of L&D, Computershare

The leaders we spoke to recognized that support for mental health would look different now compared to when their employees were in an office.

Leaders need to understand that people working remotely will face different challenges and need appropriate support.

Staying connected is more important than ever for our mental health. In 2003 after the SARS outbreak, studies in Hong Kong found that increased social connectedness neutralized the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic. By staying connected with regular video calls leaders can help their teams stay mentally well.

That said, so-called “Zoom fatigue” is a real issue. Support, whether via phone calls or web chats, mustn’t put extra pressure on already stressed colleagues. Shorter, more social chats in smaller groups or one-to-one can help here, as well as encouraging regular screen breaks.

We can stay social while working remotely by agreeing on how we communicate together. A video call might work best for some people while others prefer a WhatsApp group chat. Teams can also let each other know their routines, when they’re feeling chatty and when they need quiet time. A constant barrage of calls isn’t the answer to combat loneliness experienced while working from home — that erodes trust. Instead consider other people’s preferences for how they work and create optional social spaces online.

People find it hard to talk about mental health at the best of times. Now more than ever it’s important that managers have the tools to open up a conversation about mental wellbeing.

This doesn’t have to be a big, scary conversation, nor are managers expected to have the expertise of a psychiatrist. Leaders can start with a light touch, and let their teams know they’re available to listen.

Another way to encourage people to open up about their mental health is for companies to encourage a culture of vulnerability and empathy. Vulnerability builds trust and can be done in a simple conversation. Everyone can put this habit into practice, from the CEO to the latest person hired.

Put mental wellbeing front and center

✅ Are you all set up to work remotely? Be aware that not everyone on your team has the ideal setup for working at home. Find out what support they need from the company to stay resilient and make this a success.

“Senior leaders may be more resilient and are likely to be wealthier, they may have a larger house or more space and possibly better internet connectivity. This might not be the case for staff at all levels, which may affect how easily they can adapt or cope in a virtual working environment. It is important that senior leaders do not make assumptions about colleagues – just because you can make virtual working work, it might not be as easy for others. Leaders making decisions about the future blend of work versus home based working need to be curious and empathetic to understand the context, constraints and needs of individuals to establish whether longer term, virtual working is viable for people.” Jen Usher, Head of L&D, Computershare

✅ Start a conversation about mental health. Reach out to your colleagues with simple one-to-one conversations to ask them how they’re coping. Be proactive rather than relying on them to self-report.

“We started doing simple conversation sessions for 10 colleagues at a time which has been really powerful. This creates that informal, peer-to-peer sharing of ideas that is lost when working remotely.” Francis Lake, Head of Organisation Development, Virgin Money UK

✅ Watch out for burnout. Ensure that you and your team take regular breaks during the day, and take your holiday allowance.

✅ Do you know what to look for? Learn to spot the signs when you or your teammates aren’t coping.

Embed lasting behavior change

Based on research and insights from running over 3,000 behavior change programs and what leaders in this report have told us, we’ve found the secret to embedding lasting behavior change is made up of four key factors.

✅ Help people understand practically what positive behaviors look like.

Psychological research has shown us time and again that positive reinforcement is the most powerful tool in your armory for producing and maintaining desired behavior.

For example, many people will shy away from talking to someone if they’re worried about their mental health. It’s a sensitive subject and people may be worried they’ll say the wrong thing or make things worse.

It’s OK to feel nervous. But there’s no need to build this up into a big scary conversation. You can start with a light touch. Keep the conversation confidential by having it in a one-on-one session. Let your team member set the pace, start with “tell me how you’re feeling” and take your lead from them.

Don’t assume they’re suffering from a mental health issue straight away, or push them to talk about something if they aren’t ready. A face-to-face conversation is ideal, but in these socially distant times, a video call works just as well.

Why not start a virtual team lunch or quiz using video conferencing? No work talk, just a chance to socialize and banish feelings of isolation.

✅ Technology alone won’t create lasting behavior change.

Lasting behavior change doesn’t just come from new digital technology — you need to give people practical activities and exercises to do with their teams. To embed behavior change you have to focus on action.

Legal & General, for example, talk about helping their leaders ‘pay forward’ what they’re learning on their leadership programs. They’re doing this by asking their people to build their learnings into their meetings, pass them on to people who don’t have time or access to that same learning, and even share it outside of work with family and friends.

We’re focusing on giving people concrete things they can apply — that could be a breathing exercise or a guide to having a particular conversation in real life. We want them to go beyond the screen and apply what they’ve learnt to real life.

At Hive Learning, we use workouts to help teams learn new behaviors together. These are session guides that include everything a leader or manager would need to run an interactive session on a given topic with their team. For example, our workout on building trust and psychological safety gives leaders the tools — like checklists, talking points, additional assets like handouts, etc. — to actually build psychological safety together as a team.

✅ Get people learning TOGETHER in a group

It’s important to make sure everyone goes through the same program at the same time so you don’t have any mismanaged expectations on what good and bad behavior looks like. This is also a great way to help people understand how to give feedback and call out bad behavior.

A bonus is that group learning = better learning retention. As global industry analyst Josh Bersin says, “When you study alone, you typically remember 28% of what you learned after two days. When you repeat the material, you remember 46%.”

Why? Because actually conceptualizing, recalling and using the information you learned creates “memory pathways” that stick in your brain — so when people learn together and from one another, a culture of learning is created must faster.

✅ Use nudges to drive continuous action

Remember people are busy — so make sure you cut through the noise and use nudge theory to embed learning as an everyday habit.

Nudge theory is a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. It’s driven by the fact that often we know what’s good for us and we know what the right things to do are, but often we don’t make the easiest or most obvious choices.

The theory describes a nudge as a way of altering people’s behavior in a predictable way — and most importantly, it must be easy to do.

Some examples of simple digital nudges include emails or notifications to ask people if they’ve practiced the desired behavior yet. On most Hive Learning programs, we find that at the beginning around 80% of sessions are driven by a notification while after just three months, more than 50% of participants log in automatically without being prompted, proving that they’ve formed a learning habit.

Our organizations have withstood an incredible amount of change already in 2020 — but we’re still in uncertain times, and what employees need now and what they need in the future will be different.

It’s going to take time and committed leadership to get every employee used to the new way of working. Organizations need to keep hold of the mindset that allowed them to be agile during this time, without putting their employees at risk of burnout. When managers and leaders commit to behavior change now they can ensure that everyone is on board with changes in the way we work and no one gets left behind.

Businesses can come out of this pandemic stronger than ever before by modeling the actions they wish to see in their employees and putting agility and mental wellbeing at the core of their values.

Make sure you’re listening and adopting your strategy as you go. Make learning purposeful, deliver it quickly and at the point of need. Help your people learn from and support each other during this crisis. That way you’ll be able to adapt, change and move forward faster together.

With special thanks to our contributors:
Rachel Blay — Chief People Officer — RAC
Sarah Gretczko — Senior Vice President, Chief Learning & Insights Officer — Mastercard
Francis Lake — Head of Organisation Development, Virgin Money UK
Chloe Lipp Wellman —Associate Director of Wellbeing — Sprinklr
Paul Lomas — HRD —Bibby Financial
Gabriel Meneses — CHRO — Arca Continental
Mark Taggart — Vice President, Group Talent and Development — Electrocomponents
Victoria Matthews — Executive Director of HR & Communications — Element 6
Alan Taylor — HRD — Volex
Jen Usher — Head of L&D — Computershare
Deirdre Allen —Global Director — Employee Experience — Compass
John Gaunt — CHRO — Synechron
Tracie Sponenberg — Chief People Officer — Granite Group
Lisa Sharoni — Director of Human Resources SE Region — OHL North America
Gemma Lines — Global head of growth, learning and recruitment — MS Amlin
Richard Fletcher — Director of Training and Development — Krystal
Gabrielle Botelho — HR Director, South America — CGG
Ali Bovillie — Group Head of Organisational Development — Drax
Susan Brodie — Head of Talent & Development — Baillee Gifford
Rachel Turner — UK Head of Learning and Development — SIG plc
Michael Brown — VP of People — Cogo Labs (Former VP of Talent — Toast)

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest posts in your email