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Beyond the Catastrophe: How COVID-19 is Reshaping the Future

By Francis Lake, Head of Organisation Development, CYBG

When I was young my step-mum had a tea-towel that said “choose your rut carefully. You’re in it for a long time”. Roughly forty years later, I finally understand it. 2020 has transformed work more than any year in modern history, yet many of us have drifted into new work routines, rather than choosing them carefully.

That’s not just been on a personal level. We know people get more short-term focused in crises, and we’ve seen that across businesses and the HR profession. At a time when people management is being utterly transformed HR teams are wrestling with lockdowns, furlough, social distancing and health and safety. There’s not much space to focus on creating a new human-digital world of work.

It’s not surprising–it is tough to try and change a paradigm that is so deeply programmed. From the age of around 5 we learn that work is a place to go, Monday-Friday, 9-5. This becomes our “normal”, and our brains default back to that. HR practice reinforces it–contractual hours, full-time, all those employment policies. In March 2020, we largely moved to work remotely, replaced physical meetings with virtual ones and carried on.

However, we were unable to test whether it is effective or assessed long-term consequences. There’s clear evidence that pandemics damage mental health (see The Psychology of Pandemics by Steven Taylor). There are also new challenges–there’s been no longitudinal study of the impact of work by video-call, but there must be an impact–we’ve replaced sitting around tables with meetings where everyone stares at each other (our amygdalas must be going crazy!). If someone gets angry then that’s happening in our homes—our safe spaces. I worry that without paying attention to all of this we’ll be dealing with the psychological fall-out for years.

"We’ve also got a wealth of evidence of what works well and what doesn’t, and the pandemic has given us a licence to experiment in ways we haven’t before"

So far so gloomy. Hopefully you’re still reading, because it’s going to get more optimistic. This is the bit where HR swoops in to heroic music, making life and work better.

As a profession we have all the skills, knowledge, expertise and tools we need to make work more engaging, more inspiring and more productive than ever. We’ve also got a wealth of evidence of what works well and what doesn’t, and the pandemic has given us a licence to experiment in ways we haven’t before.

This works across all people practice, but let’s take a look at three examples that we are exploring.

Leadership has transformed to a huge degree this last year. We’ve the opportunity to help leaders move away from directive and controlling leadership. If you want to be mischievous with an old-school leader, then I recommend asking them “how do you know what your people do when your Teams call ends?” Responses include panic, suggestions of monitoring software, more team meetings or similar. The more expansive leaders will talk about simple things like “I trust them” or “I ask them”.

There’s huge opportunity to support leaders in shifting their practice now. The beauty of modern people practice is that when tech-enabled it generates masses of data. At Virgin Money aim to combine data relating to performance, learning, engagement and recruitment activity. Using Tableau or similar tools allows us to combine and analyse data, see where managers and teams are struggling or the environment just isn’t right. We then pick up with those managers, to provide specific help for them.

The second, related element is performance. Traditional annual performance management with fixed scorecards, calibrations and year-end outcomes does little to motivate and raise performance, and quite a lot to destroy it. Moving to an ongoing, improvement focused approach to performance is transformational. We’ve been working with Clear Review for three years, and it has left us with far more empowered and self-motivated colleagues.

The third example is the real change in how people learn and how they develop. It’s been one of the biggest areas of focus for our colleagues over the last year. We’ve been rolling out a learning approach feeding work teams with twenty-minute learning conversations every week. It creates learning in the flow of work, tightens team bonds, and creates a regular learning practice. Where a particular subject prompts colleague interest, we have playlists of stretch learning.

None of this is earth shattering in its complexity. What we really try to take a look at is – what are we trying to achieve, and how do we do that in this new world of work? There’s often a desire for more activity, new interventions or programmes, but getting the most of our performance approach, our learning approach and our curated learning resources we’ve got, would give us the fastest developing workforce in Britain.

There’s a world of opportunity to reinvent people practice, and create something that really motivates and engages people, and HR has enough credit in the bank from the last year to be bolder. However, with all that in mind, my absolute favourite piece of work that combines human and digital to drive wellbeing, engagement and performance is this: a weekly team Spotify playlist. That creates more connection, conversation, and inspiration than anything else.

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