COVID-19 has been an unprecedented crisis for society, for governments, for communities, for families and for individuals. It’s also been an unparalleled time for organisations, their leaders and their employees.
The pandemic has dramatically impacted the way millions of individuals work. Many are now working remotely for the first time, separating employees, managers and leaders previously bound together by centralised locations or structures.
It’s been an understandably stressful time for newly remote leaders, managers and frontline workers, many of whom are balancing their job commitments with child or healthcare responsibilities.
Yet in our dealings with clients and the wider business community, we’ve witnessed the emergence of some hugely positive trends from the depths of crisis.
From our experience, organisations either excel or crumble in times of crisis. For those that are excelling today, their experiences, attitudes and capabilities should become long-term lessons for business leaders everywhere.
If the new normal ahead means that we need to change some of our business behaviours for good, the learnings we outline below offer an excellent starting point for organisations to embrace – not just to survive the crisis in the short term, but to recover from it and accelerate back to growth in the future.
The rise of empathy
The pandemic has put individual employees and their families and friends under huge pressure, economically, health-wise and psychologically. But, for the first time in our study of leadership and employee engagement, we have seen a strong rise in the levels of empathy being shown between organisations, their leaders and their frontline employees.
The scale and nature of the crisis seems to have encouraged leaders to shift their focus away from pure financial targets towards a deeper empathy with the challenges their people are facing.
In a recent pulse survey we executed, nearly 90% of employees from a FTSE 100 financial services client agreed that their leadership team had shown they care about the challenges that “people like me are facing personally during this time”.
Elsewhere, the empathy, fairness and compassion of Henry Ward, CEO at technology firm Carta, as the organisation was forced to lay-off over 160 of its people, was clearly evident in an open and honest communication he shared to encourage other leaders to behave similarly.
Necessity is, as we know, the mother of invention. We’ve noticed a strong shift towards greater agility in many organisations, even those where, through tradition or culture, things have usually moved more slowly.
Our client, the London Fire Brigade, is a case in point. In rapid response to the crisis, it adapted the critical roles being conducted by its frontline employees. As well as establishing a blue-light partnership, allowing 300 firefighters to assist the London Ambulance Service and paramedics during the height of the crisis, the LFB also joined a new specialist Pandemic Multiagency Response Teams to respond to suspected Covid-19 deaths in the community across London, collaborating with police officers and health services staff.
It then deployed employees even more widely, helping with the delivery of over two million pieces of PPE equipment to the NHS and care homes across the city, and delivering medicines, care packages and food to vulnerable Londoners.
More widely, leaders across our client organisations and beyond have reported significantly shorter meeting times and faster decision-making taking place in sectors as diverse as entertainment brands, financial services and public sector bodies.
During the crisis, teams who often sat together have been flung apart by the need for home working. Yet we’ve seen much deeper and more effective collaboration emerging despite this.
Given the fast-moving circumstances under which businesses are having to operate, improved collaboration has been essential to keeping up with changing customer demands, a shake up in product development and a step-change in consumer behaviour.
A global media brand we work with has demonstrated significantly enhanced collaboration across different functions, all striving to keep the launch of a major new product on course despite the pandemic. Marketing, technology, finance and production have all worked faster together despite physical distance to keep the plan on track.
In a different sphere, engineers and clinicians at UCL and the Mercedes F1 team have collaborated in a totally new direction, working at high speed and around-the-clock to reverse engineer a new breathing aid that could be manufactured rapidly to support the global COVID-19 response.
The rapid and fundamental changes in the way the world operates have driven organisations to innovate at an increasing rate.
Companies which have adapted most quickly in terms of their business model, or have been able to innovate in the development or delivery of products and services, are enhancing their chances of survival and recovery exponentially.
At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, one of our global Fintech clients adapted its supply chain finance business to help key workers get paid more rapidly. Usually, this fast-growth business has focused on helping suppliers get paid more quickly, but with the help of a recent acquisition and investment in its rapid expansion, it is now helping nurses, cleaners, porters and other vital UK hospital staff access the pay they earn every day, as soon as their shift is over. The service incurs no fees or charges and uses a ground-breaking instant pay app to ease the financial worries of key workers at this critical time.
At consumer level, food retailer Pizza Pilgrims has developed ‘Pizza in The Post’, allowing its loyal customers to continue to enjoy their fare at home while restaurants are close. The company has also diverted the proceeds from this venture to keep as many employees as possible from being furloughed during the crisis.
Singular customer focus
While many firms have been innovating, others have been demonstrating a laser-like focus on customers to help them maintain customer loyalty and emerge stronger from the crisis. As the threat of a global recession persists, customer centricity is likely to be a key differentiator of firms that not just survive but can grow their way out after the pandemic recedes.
Focusing on what customers need in the short term in order to hold on to long-term relationships is critical, as neatly demonstrated by our client HBO. By offering nearly 500 hours of free programming through its HBO Now and HBO Go apps, the organisation is giving customers and their families a crucial entertainment lifeline while under stay-at-home orders during the pandemic.
Similarly, bookseller Waterstones has adapted its entire sales model to ensure it continues to serve customers who are unable to go into its 300 stores. The company has met a 1500% increase in online sales by shifting its service centre to fulfil online orders instead of shop deliveries – the net result of which is a sustained customer base.
Questions to drive your new normal
With so many examples of organisations turning a global pandemic into an opportunity to make organisational improvements, take the chance to learn from them. Ask yourself three key questions:
What long-term lessons can we take from our own and others’ experience of the COVID-19 pandemic?
What have we learned in terms of what we’ve done differently and better and what have we stopped doing that we don’t want to return to?
How can we make sure we maintain these long-term lessons from COVID-19 so that we can survive, recover and prosper as a business?
The answers will be the key to equipping your business for the changed future that lays ahead.
By Dr Andy Brown, CEO, ENGAGE