Across the UK this spring, people have been creative and in touch with each other like never before. A nation of bakers, knitters, gardeners, DIYers, fixers and upcyclers have discovered skills they didn’t know (or had forgotten) they had. Across neighbours’ fences, in streets clapping for carers and on every conceivable digital platform, social barriers have come down and new friendships and alliances have emerged. It’s an odd but pleasing irony that being forced to stay apart has actually brought us much closer together.
This rapid, countrywide mobilisation of initiative is one of the unexpected positives to emerge from the pandemic so far. And it has the potential to permanently re-set the way we live and work. Good businesses are embracing and adapting nimbly to these trends, which offer a chance to breathe new life into their fundamental purpose. A recent article by McKinsey & Company put it succinctly: ‘In a world where there is so much uncertainty, you have to stand for a goal that will matter above all else.’ As so many people have found, reminding yourself about what really matters to you provides the resilience to deal with the difficult and painful things.
While recognising the helpful changes we’re all living through, it’s crucial that we don’t underestimate the challenges that lie ahead. The pressures of a truly global pandemic have widened existing inequalities and ruthlessly exposed how vulnerable low-tax, low-welfare economies like the UK’s are to this sort of shuddering, systemic shock.
When a massive change like this comes out of the blue, our established mindsets and mechanisms for planning and decision-making are dramatically short-circuited by the imperative for immediate action. We’re compelled to leapfrog all the precontemplation, contemplation and preparation steps of the classic, six-stage theoretical model of change, and just respond to the emergency or priorities in front of us.
This can unlock the sort of creativity we’ve seen, but also make the maintenance and termination phases of change (keeping good things going and finishing tasks) much trickier. History also suggests that ill-considered decisions taken in the heat of the moment, have a tendency to bite back later…
My daily conversations with clients in the housing sector (where we do so much of our work) reveal this crossroads of challenge and opportunity in vivid detail. Organisations face instant, practical trials about how to sustain their service; responding to increased unemployment and debts, paused homebuilding programmes, lettings and sales, delayed repairs, threats to community cohesion and managing dispersed or furloughed staff. Some have seen a short-term boost to their cashflow, while others (especially those with significant care and support services) are struggling to keep up. One housing association I talked to last week had just spent half a million pounds on facemasks alone for its care workers, in order to maintain two weeks’ supply.
Leaders with vision and ambition are starting to look beyond these anxieties to big-picture possibilities – such as the likely flood of good-value vacant office, retail and other property adaptable to residential use, and institutional investors looking for secure returns. They’re also working out how future staff recruitment, induction and training and customer engagement can be largely done through virtual channels. Macro-level shifts like these present a one-off opportunity to provide more homes and transform working practices at a scale and speed few could have imagined, even just a few weeks ago.
Only the most agile and imaginative businesses will be able to take full advantage of these new conditions, which is where creativity and communications come into play. While most organisations have quickly got used to online video conferences as the new norm (because they’ve simply had to), the ‘elephant in the Zoom’ is that this sort of contact can lack the emotional depth and subtlety achieved through face-to-face contact.
A number of leaders have mentioned a concern about discussions conducted through a gallery of homeworking faces and echoey voices becoming overly-functional and ‘two-dimensional’. Without those unplanned, off-the-cuff conversations in corridors and being able to see and feel people’s whole body language, true collaboration is that much harder to achieve. What’s missing for many is the extra, human factor that marks out really effective communication. That magical blend of strong ideas, clear expression and unspoken feelings that hits the spot and makes things happen.
So, my three-point call to action for organisations preparing for any easing of social distancing, which have their eyes set firmly on how to make the best of an awful, unwanted situation is:
In the wake of so much tragedy, a powerful creative wave is sweeping the world. Whatever your purpose, be ready to catch it.Back