What happens next? For individuals, business leaders and government, this is perhaps the most prescient question of the day.
In this month’s Navigator Forum, we enjoyed a thought provoking discussion led by Prit Buttar, a British GP with more than 25 years’ experience working as a doctor, as well as a second career as a prolific writer of history books.
In his keynote speech he laid out facts about the landscape that we now find ourselves in, after more than a year of the global pandemic. He asked what we have learned and how we can use that information to create more relevant businesses, better customer experiences and better leadership decisions moving forward.
In addition to developing a new vocabulary over the last 14 months, collectively we have learned new ways of working and operating. While that process has been turbulent for many reasons, lots of businesses and individuals have also found that they have gleaned valuable insights and been forced into practices they were either slow to embrace before or did not realise were an option.
Participants were asked to consider the following:
- What have we done during the pandemic that we want to continue?
- What can we learn from the experiences of the last year to help us moving forwards?
- What practices do we want to stop or refine in our organisations post-pandemic?
The internal perspective and change management
The impact of changes to the internal structure of organisations and its effect on employees, was clearly occupying the thoughts of leaders.
Getting employee engagement right, having appropriate processes in place and implementing long-term structures to allow for new ways of working, be it from home, in the office or a mix of two, are all up for debate. While this is clearly a high priority, it’s also important to recognise the impact it can have on customer experience.
Working from home with Zoom or Teams meetings clearly works very well in many ways and for many people. However, the question of who that’s right for, where and how, as part of a long-term infrastructure has highlighted some issues that weren’t previously obvious. For example, a large pharmaceutical company decided to keep the work from home structure for administrative staff and to adjust its property portfolio accordingly. They found there was a latent impact on the mental health of the workforce that provoked serious reconsideration.
The discussion noted that there’s a complexity in change management that had not previously been fully thought through.
Employee wellbeing and employer responsibility
The wellbeing of employees and management of teams moving forwards seemed to be at the forefront of leaders minds as well.
The impact of different individual needs and experiences and the nuanced impact on personal as well as collective wellbeing was discussed. For example, a workforce at a small airport had profoundly different experiences amongst staff members, with some having been required to work on the ground throughout the past year while others worked from home. The net result was a very different approach to risk amongst team members, that customers are also likely to reflect as they return to physical spaces. It was felt it is a unique moment in time to express recognition that everyone’s situation has been affected differently by the pandemic and everyone’s circumstances need to be taken into account.
An area that wasn’t explicitly discussed on the call, but that we felt starting to emerge was the balance between personal liberty and the right to choose (e.g., to be vaccinated or not) versus our wider social responsibility to our colleagues, customers, and community. How will organisations balance this so that they are protecting customers and employees as well as recognising people’s rights?
Most organisations have recognised a wellbeing responsibility but there’s a question as to how far that goes. For example, Pimlico Plumbers made headlines in January when they announced plans to rewrite their workers’ contracts to require them to be vaccinated against coronavirus.
A unique moment for company culture
The pandemic has pressure tested culture in organisations. There was a feeling that those who had a culture of trust amongst their teams prior to Covid-19 have been better able to adapt, innovate and act fast in response to the changing environment.
However, in those where there was a lack of employee empowerment, and where managers had been trying to micromanage their teams remotely, organisations have come up against increasing issues with employee dissatisfaction. One contributor mentioned a company that, because of this issue, had seen its highest rate of attrition amongst employees in 2020, despite the unfavourable job market.
Prit thought that the pandemic has been an opportunity to change culture in organisations. He referred to the NHS, whose historically poor record at taking care of its people is reflected in its staff retention rates. He related the need to address this with the wider cultural need to have a greater healthcare capacity moving forward for further inevitable pandemics in the future. It’s something that all companies can consider in relation to their own future-proofing needs.
Collectively, it was suggested that these areas can be addressed with a need to look beyond immediate costs and towards the long-term health of an organisation and its team. Ideas included a ‘people first’ approach with investment in training, allowing individuals to have a voice and permission to give people the working conditions they want. For example, HSBC is amongst the organisations giving employees the choice to work from home or come into the office, with around 25% choosing to return to the office at least part-time and 5% opting to return permanently.
While there was no singular answer to the challenges pertaining to cultural change, the conversation focused on clarity of communication with employees, a need to renegotiate the continuum between pseudo-democracy (pertaining in lockdown) and command-and-control (prior Covid), and the impact of communications and company culture on customer confidence in organisations.
The human-to-human vs. human-to-tech interface
The debate around digital vs face-to-face communications and the effectiveness of each has been ongoing throughout the pandemic. Technology has clearly presented a lifeline and a great opportunity in many areas, but there is a sense of loss in others.
Areas for consideration were a feeling of isolation amongst some employees and the intangible value of human connection between people who have a shared experience. For example, conversations at the end of the workday and the proverbial talk around the water cooler. The question of training was also raised, with a need to look at how people learn, especially when it comes to informal skills development.
The question around customer interaction was also raised in relation to the emotional intelligence generated from a face-to-face interaction and how that’s impacted not only in digital communication but also with the use of face masks. How can that barrier be addressed, and even if ‘normality’ were to resume, is there a measurable impact to interaction between clients and colleagues that can be assessed?
All of that said, there was also a feeling that in some ways video calls had increased that human connection by bringing people into our home environments. Where meetings may once have been held formally in a boardroom, it has become normal to see colleagues and clients in casual clothing or to hear families and pets in the background. For some, there has even been greater permission to balance home and work life. For example, going to doctors’ appointments in the afternoon or attending to home schooling, thereby normalising a more flexible approach to working hours that might have previously been resisted.
Discussions questioned if there were inadvertent barriers to change in our old world, and it was suggested we need to think about a ‘reset’ approach as opposed to ‘restarting’ where we left off.
How need has improved agility and efficiency
Necessity is the mother of invention and many felt that, in the case of the pandemic, the need to act fast had not only allowed decision making to happen quicker but often better as well. Prit mentioned the setting up of local NHS Covid hubs, which were achieved in a matter of days where historically similar activities would have taken months. It was found afterwards that the quality of processes, engagement of staff and the handling of their concerns was done much better than usual, perhaps because there was less time to prevaricate or knock barriers into the long grass.
Others felt that many companies had similar experiences, where actions normally undertaken as a matter of habit rather than need had been stopped out of necessity, and where decisions that had historically been pushed down the organisation had been handled directly through supporting team members and giving them the autonomy to act. The challenge now, is to make sure that redundant practices don’t creep back in without the pressure of a pandemic.
Summing it up, Pritt quoted German General Staff Officer, Hermuth von Moltke, who said: “Decisions are almost always best made by the officer on the ground, but the quality of his decision making is immeasurably improved if he both understands completely and approves of the intentions of his superior.”
Where is innovation for a new way of life?
During the pandemic we have seen a lot of digital innovation addressing short-term requirements. Some has worked well, and some less so.
Apart from the well tried and tested home-delivery models, there was little input in discussions regarding further opportunities digital innovations could present as part of an ongoing lifestyle shift, should post pandemic changes become more permanent. As we start to come out of lockdown, there’s a sense that customers should be more involved in the conversation around designing experiences that meet their needs. With an overarching reverence for people in organisations – both employees and customers – innovation as part of the customer experience is an area that needs to be addressed.
In conclusion, the discussion highlighted that in the emergency context of the pandemic companies have been more free and dynamic in the way they operate. However, as we rebound, the questions opening up are about how we can measure customer experience in this renegotiated mode and make sure it meets human needs sustainably in a post pandemic world.