Is driving change within an organisation during a global pandemic a smart move? Or should organisations hit the pause button and start playing the waiting game before they resume planning and implementing for a post-Covid business landscape?
To help us unpack the intricacies of change management during the current pandemic and to give us a strong starting off point in terms of planning for the future, we’ve enlisted the help of Change & Transformation Leader, Toby Lovern. With his wealth of experience and knowledge in change and transformation, he was our first port of call when choosing guest speakers to delve into this particular topic.
Toby kicked off the roundtable by delving into what has happened to change management and the economy over the past three months and what could be on the horizon as we start to gradually move forward. He explained that this is a dynamic situation with three key stages; flatten, fight and future.
While the economy has started to move out of the flatten stage, which involved remote working and a UK wide lockdown, Toby explained that businesses will now continuously oscillate between the fight and future stages. As future lockdown periods are a strong possibility later this year, organisations will need to be able to respond to Government restrictions and WHO recommendations as and when they happen for the foreseeable future.
Toby then went on to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on various drivers for change, ranging from economic downturn to sector distress. According to his research, more than 50% of companies expect a shrinking top line due to drop in consumer demand and 39% of companies have refrained from any large planned investments since the start of lockdown. He also explained how the Bank of England has forecasted the fastest and deepest recession in the UK for over 300 years, which could be harder to get out of than any recession we’ve experienced previously.
While it might seem like a bleak outcome at the moment, Toby clarified that there are some positives and used USA’s unemployment rates as an example. After the lockdown was implemented, the US experienced a significant jump from 3m unemployed to 44m in just six weeks, however, this has since dropped by 2m. He commented that if the UK can get people back into work and reduce the number of jobs being lost, we’ll see stronger consumer sentiment which could potentially have a positive impact on the rate of change across our key sectors.
After highlighting that many businesses are have been able to adapt quickly to keep up with the speed that all of this has happened, Toby also commented that a lot of business leaders won’t be in any rush to make any major decisions until they have a clearer picture of what their revenue looks like. He explained that business leaders should be focusing on how they can protect their people, build resilience in supply chains and develop structural moves to maintain customer focus before committing to any major transformations and programmes this year.
When the roundtable was briefly opened up to attendees, many of them agreed with Toby that their businesses have currently hit pause on any major decisions, and they intend to shift their focus and ways of working. However, one attendee disagreed that everything needs to stop because of the pandemic. She explained that her organisation is integrating with another organisation, which hasn’t been stopped by Covid-19. But she did go onto say that the past few months has made them realise that they needed to reshape some of the structures within their organisation to ensure this integration was a success.
When asked which programmes he felt are most likely to drive change management, Toby admitted that cash related programmes, such as Order to Cash, E2EC and structural cost reductions, were likely to be top of the list for many businesses due to financial anxieties. While he praised organisations on adapting to virtual working during lockdown, he did note that skill gaps need to be addressed through capability and upskilling programmes for employees. Toby also predicts that we might see an acceleration of intelligent automation and AI-led transformations in the future as organisations seek further automation opportunities, particularly those that protect employee health.
But what impact could all of this have on change management in the future? In terms of organisational change management, it’s too early to tell what is likely to come next. However, Toby was able to use his experience to offer his own predictions into what he feels will help organisations to reorganise their activities and stakeholders. As well as mastering virtual ways of working and empowering online teams, Toby explained that business leaders will need to start reducing internal stakeholder management in order to accelerate change within their organisations.
From the Government’s furlough scheme to remote working to workers having to social distance in the workplace, there’s no denying that Covid-19 has forced many businesses to alter the way they work. When implementing these forms of behavioural change, Toby commented that many organisations were not quick enough to act and have been forced to work processes out on the fly, without sufficient planning.
He said “Many managers and leaders didn’t focus early enough on clear rules and principles- the rule book just couldn’t be re-written quickly enough in most cases. But hopefully many will learn from this experience and move forward with a stronger focus on communication and employee health and wellbeing. Change management should always focus on fit for purpose- not perfection.”
One of the biggest challenges regarding behavioural change is maintaining productivity and engagement with employees who are working remotely. Recent figures have discovered that employee engagement levels started to decrease since lockdown began. To tackle this challenge head-on, Toby advised organisations to always consider how their change programmes will increase productivity and engagement, promote process standardisation and provide greater autonomy.
From an IT-enabled and Process change perspective, Toby commented that we need to get back to some sense of stability in operations and that continuous improvement principles will be what drives this change in the right direction. Run remote has become the de-facto principle for processes within many organisations during the pandemic, so much so that where people work is starting to matter a lot less. Toby commented that as organisations alter the ways in which they work, a new standard of work needs to be developed to act as a foundation and to clearly state how things should be done and by whom.
As the roundtable was opened up once again, Toby asked the participants to share their insights into what impact Covid-19 has had on their own organisations change management. One attendee admitted that she worked for a relatively traditional company, but that being forced to implement remote working has helped to build trust with their employees, whilst also giving them empowerment and increased control. However, she felt that if they wish to continue working this way going forward, defining a new set of working guidelines was essential.
Another attendee echoed this point by saying that even though the circumstances surrounding why many of us are now working remotely were terrible, seeing her organisation become more adaptive to ways of working and receptive to new ideas has been a silver lining and an opportunity to drive things forward.
However, there were attendees who had experienced poor management techniques, such as leaders driving personal agendas and a lack of engagement amongst employees since lockdown began.
One attendee shared that he had seen separation and a “building of small islands” amongst his organisation’s leadership team, particularly amongst those with a more traditional management style. Toby suggested that these managers will need to adapt and invest more time in engaging with their employees each day, as they can no longer grab them at their desks. If they aren’t able to evolve to new ways of working, we may begin to see a trend of higher turnover of leadership teams develop.
There may still a big question mark over what the business landscape could look like over the coming years, but its abundantly clear that more change management, across IT, organisational and behavioural processes, will be required within organisations as opposed to less.