Position Statement on the Engagement and Management of Organisational Culture for a Post-COVID-19 Workplace
Published May 2020 by Amy Brann, neuroscience advisor and Jez Rose, broadcaster and behaviour insight advisor
Earlier in May 2020, Amy and I ran a free webinar for the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Professional Development), Confessions of a Neuroscientist and Behaviourist, which you can watch again here. A number of questions came up from viewers (which we’ve answered at the end of this article), along with a clear need for clarity and guidance.
The disruption to workplace environments and working practices as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted organisations from all sectors, of all sizes, across the world.
Understandable knee-jerk reactions were made at the time of an uncertain developing crisis, which have created longer term challenges for organisational culture and employee working practices; broader concerns for the future wellbeing, efficiency and efficacy of employees and company values.
This position statement has been written to address our professional concerns that some organisations have been focusing their attention in areas we believe could damage employee relations, development and ability, regarding people management; culture; learning and development.
While predictable that many organisations have focused on the short term to facilitate immediate working environment adaptability; pivot sales models and income strategies, and reduce outgoings and overheads to preserve their current position, we strongly believe that with an understanding of behavioural psychology and specifically why we do what we do in crisis situations and when our security is threatened, leaders, their organisations and the individuals in their charge will all find themselves in a stronger, logical and more confident position, to better understand the opportunities in behaving differently. There is a strong and critically concerning need to look longer term, especially with regards employee wellbeing if we are to continue to demand adaptability and loyalty from them as we all navigate an uncertain future.
Every day we are hearing from organisations reporting a justified position along the lines of: “XYZ was never a priority, so we weren’t in a good position when Covid-19 hit”. The reality, however, is that many of the things that are important today, especially regarding human behaviour, performance and wellbeing, were just as important in 2019. Yet, often things have to get bad before they are noticed and appreciated as being important. Organisations who were already aware of, for example, neuroscientific and behavioural science insights had a significant advantage ahead of this crisis – as they will in any crisis or key period of change, inflicted or orchestrated.
This Position Statement makes clear our specific suggestions on where focus should be to help progress positively:
– Workplaces need to better understand natural, predictable human behaviours in times of a crisis and/or uncertainty in order to better plan, prepare and protect commercial and employee interests
– The need for forward planning is supported by our understanding of human behaviour and what people need in times of crisis (for example: long term goals, consistency and certainty)
– Many organisations are publicly getting this wrong, and acting in a way that is detrimental to preserved workplace wellbeing and employee wellness, the fallout of which will eventually impact financially and structurally
– Organisations need to offer certainty where they can and this is often much easier than it may seem, despite us all living with no predictable future: the perception of certainty benefits the brain and both individual and group performance
– Focus organisational and individual attention on what you can affect
– Ensure you are planning long term now, proactively. Don’t wait for more information; act on what is available to you now to begin to lay plans and make a decision on a path or course of action
– Use this ideal opportunity to develop your people
Responses to Questions asked during the CIPD webinar: Confessions of a Neuroscientist and Behaviourist:
There is such an opportunity in the coming months to job craft, expand real flexibility and focus on outputs rather than hours worked. How best do you think we can avoid a big post COVID snapback? 🤯
JR: This is 2 different issues. The first is something I’d be more interested in exploring because it’s something we’ve touched on briefly. I don’t understand what they mean by a “post covid snapback” so I’ve skirted around that and included what I think in my answer:
Whether it’s due to more working from home practice; changes to your regular work environment back at your workplace, or that many will be requested to take on some of the work from those colleagues who have seen their jobs unfortunately cease; there is an opportunity for organisations and individuals to learn to become truly lean and agile; something so many organisations thought they were before, but that the Covid-19 crisis demonstrated they absolutely weren’t! There are two ways you can perceive this change: as you picking up the slack and being “expected” to do the work of 2 or more people. Or, organisations recognising this, and individuals, too, can be savvier and appreciate and welcome this to seek out individual talents, experiences and skills previously unused by the organisation. How could our roles be more efficient? What systems, processes and working models could we improve, lose entirely, or adapt to make the business more efficient and financially leaner? There could, understandably, be resistance to the idea of taking on more work, but managing this all comes down to trust and communication: Why do we need to change? What opportunities exist for individuals? How does this help us all for the future?
What would be the main risks (if any) of the current situation as we are gradually going back from lockdown considering what has been captured by the recent catchphrase: “Same storm, different boat”? (If risks how to mitigate them?)
In other words some people may not necessarily feel the “togetherness” as they may focus on how the current situation has affected people differently.
Amy: I think there are always risks when peoples experiences vary. Being compassionate and understanding of these differences is a good first step. As always, drawing attention to what we want people to focus on is wise. So in this instance focusing on returning from lockdown and what opportunities that brings could be sensible. Also focusing on that togetherness and what that offers.
JR: Our greatest addiction as humans is our way of thinking; our mindset. Organisations will see the benefit of focusing on the positive aspects of returning to work and re-aligning workplace culture in a sensitive manner. Use some of the elements from lockdown that have appealed to the masses and society as a whole, to help bring people together at work: maintain an NHS celebration, for example; encourage a baking sharing day, or create a “Top Netflix Finds” leader board: a “business as usual” approach will be alienating and patronising. These are exceptional circumstances that require thinking about engagement differently, and more sensitively.
How can you support people that are facing an isolated working environment where they live alone and have little to no human contact?
Amy: Train them to understand what is going on in their brain when they perceive they are isolated. Living alone in itself isn’t harmful. Having little face to face contact with people doesn’t have to be harmful. But if a person isn’t finding any ways to release oxytocin, process life and be in positive states then that can be bad news. There are many ways to be healthy while being isolated and an individual confined to achieving this the best suit them.
JR: This is a tricky one as there are so many specific variables, however, with whatever communication is possible, aim to bring those individuals closer at every point possible. Where they can’t join a conference with video, they shouldn’t be excluded from joining via phone; or lose the video option entirely for calls with those individuals and simply use tele-conferencing. Small things to help those individuals feel included are going to be important because exclusion is subjective. If you are concerned, don’t assume that it’s a problem for them: many individuals have found the introversion, silence and peace of being alone a surprisingly positive part of the lockdown. Seek to discover what, if any, elements make them feel isolated and find ways, including regular routines, to help support their wellbeing in a positive way.
Moving from an office based environment to home working, how do you get that ‘engagement’ when people don’t want to use video etc.
Amy: Engagement is an inside job. It does need deliberate thought though when people are moving from one environment to another. Typically we don’t consider how we have been working well in one environment. What the ingredients were that made the desired end result. Engagement isn’t depended upon whether individuals see others face to face, in person or through a screen. The ingredients to engagement don’t need to include video. I go into lots of detail about how to create ‘engagement’ in my book ‘Engaged’. You can find resources and tips here: www.engagedbrains.com
JR: Definitely read Amy’s book! I’m a fan of not using video conferencing and it’s about time we stopped this nonsense that it’s important, in some way better than tele-conferencing, or critical to have eye contact. It isn’t. Communication that is effective, in any form, is important – it doesn’t matter if it uses video or not. Forcing engagement based on your interpretation – or agenda – is never going to end well and in order to get maximum engagement from individuals, everyone needs to feel comfortable and willing. Let individuals decide how and when they want to engage, providing that the way they opt does ultimately result in them engaging fully.
What’s the best piece of advice you would give on how to engage a workforce that has not worked in months?
Amy: Easy. Reconnect them to the contribution that they will be making. This is always my starting point for engagement. It has a range of other benefits too though! When people are connected to the contribution that they are making it creates a really positive brain environment. This could help excite people and motivate people upon returning to work.
JR: Great question! Value and purpose – our “why” – are critical. It’s why we get up in the morning; why we continue through difficult times; why we continue to the end of the day, and return! Embrace the metaphorical “reset” button we’ve all had to press and draw the positive benefits from that; one of which is the ability to realign and almost start afresh. When you’re busy and all-consumed in a task, it’s easy to forget why we do what we do.
How do we get leadership and HR BPs to practice what they preach and not overwork?
Amy: Talk in their language. What do they value? What changes their behaviour? Is it bottom line results? Is it imagining their daughter was being asked to put her health in jeopardy? Is it reducing sick leave? There will be something motivates them. Your job is to find out what that is and then speak to that.
JR: Bringing people together, for strength in numbers and truly working as a team, very often means sharing best practice; sharing values; sharing time; sharing resources – encourage a very open “we’re all in this together” way of working that is transparent and focuses on the team element makes everyone’s way of working transparent. This, coupled with expressive permission or direction from senior leadership teams to be a part of this and to specifically not overwork is critical. Don’t forget how valuable and important education is as a tool: explaining why overworking is not a good idea right now and being reminded of truly effective time management practices, coupled with workplace wellbeing messaging, is especially effective.
Would be interesting to hear more how to ensure we resist knee-jerk survival mechanism-related pitfalls, e.g sending daily e-mails, such as fight and flight mentioned earlier, but also fawn and freeze if applicable.
JR: Workplaces models are changing; some out of necessity but some out of choice as organisations and individuals embrace the opportunity of a new landscape for working models. For so many, this is an opportunity to start afresh; realise what didn’t work so well before and change. Very often change has to be expressly given permission for in order to see it – we habituate to those things that do not bring us fear, threat or danger and so continue to work in the same ways for safety and positive affirmation, or at least avoidance of negative consequence. Create a new working model, or workplace landscape to work to: ban daily emails and offer alternatives; offer up better time management tips and more efficacious ways of communicating (does this need to be a lengthy document, or could it simply be a 2 minute video with the salient parts conveyed quicker and in a more human way?), for example.
The painful lesson for many people just as it was when people returned from the war is the value called loyalty that currently makes people “not go to the toilet” or “work into the night” when working from home will in many cases not be rewarded with a worse case scenario of some made redundant. What is the preparation we should be doing for this situation?
Amy: be open and transparent. It is actually quite rare to find organisations that are genuinely open with their people. If you’re treating your workforce as trusted adults then it won’t come as any surprise if people need to be made redundant. If there has been transparency then it’s more likely, although not guaranteed, people will re-frame in their minds the discretionary effort they are giving. Rather than giving for the sake of receiving back they are giving freely with no expectation.
JR: This is a great question. The so-called “Dunkirk spirit” we referenced in the Webinar is finite. There is only so long that we can be asked, or expected, to over perform and deliver through stress before psychological burnout. There’s a fascinating physiological impact from a neurological perspective with regards the massive depletion of serotonin during prolonged periods of negative input. Loyalty should be expressly acknowledged, if not rewarded, and a clear and sensitive plan for how the organisation expects individuals to behave laid out: you must be clear and permissive. Take breaks away from your work stations; take full lunch breaks and eat well; exercise or take a walk outside.
We are finding it difficult to encourage employees to take more leave days. Is there a way we can push this? We are worried that employees will burn out.
Amy: there are lots of novel communication strategies that we’ve worked with organisations on to help nudge particular behaviours. I suggest this falls under that category but to give specific advice without knowing various things I wouldn’t be confident on you getting the desired result. But be encouraged that there are fantastic behavioural norms that you can utilise to help people to take action that is in their best interest.
JR: I’d second the idea of calling it out: be honest that few people are taking leave and that you want them and need them to. We all need a rest; you’ve supported us and leave is there to support you. Perhaps a communication around the most creative or interesting ways to use leave, or a sharing of examples the ways others are using their leave, to start the conversation, normalise the concept or using it and filter people into a group example.
It would be great to hear what books that you recommend around some of these opportunities?
Flip the Switch – Jez Rose
Engaged – Amy Brann
Inside The Nudge Unit – David Halpern