Bringing Poly-Working Down to Four Foundational Steps


By Chris Preston

Whilst there’s a great deal of opinion and guidance on how the future of work will shape up (including our take on the rise of poly-working), many organisations are struggling to identify the foundational steps that will help them move from ideas to implementation.

Our Poly-Working article set out the major factors for the future and now, in this update, we share the four key components that organisations will need to define and execute in order to cope with the next phase of the pandemic; and a longer-term future where everything is up for grabs.

They are:

1. Identifying the vision for the organisation’s new way of working – this is proving exponentially harder than anyone anticipated (see number two). We’ve been spending a great deal of time on virtual calls with leadership teams to help them pick through the myriad of factors that will form their future strategy. 

What’s emerging is that the blend of bravery and commercial reality is the thing to focus on. In the red corner, we have the desire by many leaders to capitalise on the results of the ‘experiment’ that was a lockdown, and free up a workforce to work anywhere and everywhere. There’s a dawning realisation that people can be just as effective at the kitchen table as in the boardroom. This gives a number of possibilities that we’ve been exploring with companies big and small. But, in the blue corner, these options have to be held up against the need to keep a business running, and to keep people connected on a ‘real’ human level. And that’s just your business – bring in your customers, suppliers, stakeholders and the jigsaw of the future gains a few thousand more pieces.

To make this point starkly, if your local supermarket allowed everyone to work from home, your weekly shop would be a disaster. Now, you say, we just move it online. But not all customers want or need that, and e-commerce doesn’t solve every need, nor does it fit for a large number of organisations. It’s no exaggeration to say that these factors are keeping leaders up at night. One C-level leader told us they are losing more sleep about the return than the lockdown. The workshops we’ve held are highly challenging, and see a great deal of angst around the ‘possible and the probable’.

2. Working through the many, many dissonances that the new ways of working will throw up – less time in offices and workplaces will reduce collaboration, fewer people in the shared spaces will diminish the culture, lower exposure to the direct outputs and the ‘mechanics’ of an organisation will diminish passion… the list goes on.

So many senior leaders have shared the issue of diminishing cross-team collaboration, and how they fear that the organisation will be totally siloed by the new ways of working. We’ve been told by ‘talent’ that changing jobs in a virtual environment is an anathema for them. And, we’ve been advising organisations that have onboarded thousands of employees over the last year, who have never once stepped into their work spaces, how to get them ‘into’ the culture.

This second stage is about identifying the levers that leaders and managers can utilise to overcome the dichotomies that poly-working creates. Right now, managers are crying out for practical tools (virtual) that give them the simple tips, stories and reassurance that they are on the right track in managing people in a volatile environment. Our virtual learning content is flying off the shelves at an incredible rate. As organisations realise they don’t have the knowledge or experience to guide people through the transition, they are looking externally to bring it into the organisation. And they need to do this darn quick.

3. Helping teams to find their own sustainable way of working – we are seeing many organisations propose admirably broad, all-encompassing statements that offer people something along the lines of ‘three days out, two days in’ (or vice-versa… or something completely different). Saying it is one thing, but implementing it is another. 

What does it mean if you never actually get your whole team together physically? Or what if you never again have a ‘traditional’ meeting with your counterparts in a different part of the organisation? How will it work if we ‘tell’ everyone the days they can come in. Oh, the problems we weave…

Again, this comes back to conversations and guidance. Managers need the tools and confidence to discuss these, and many other challenges with both their peer groups and their direct teams. Finding local ways to implement organisational policies will need leaders to pass on trust to their managers. Trust that’s shorn up with solid principles that help teams make the right decisions.

For one of our clients we’ve just completed a long series of team conversations to enable exactly this. Turns out, these smart people can quite quickly work out how to make it succeed. They just need some direction and a dose of autonomy. We can give them the former, but the latter has to come from the ‘centre’. Within this exciting mix you’ve got individuals that all have their own personalities and preferences. This should (and can) be factored in as part of a solution that fits everyone. Given this, it’s no surprise that we’ve been running more team profiling than ever before.

4. Re-thinking development for the leadership cohort – whilst this is number four on our list, clever companies are already thinking about this one in earnest. The fundamental truth is simple: no one is equipped to manage the future. That’s likely a ‘gulp’ moment – but it’s true. Just like nature never intended humans to drink cows’ milk, modern commerce never factored in everyone staying at home to do the job. Management development needs a paradigm shift both in terms of content and approach to delivery.

We kept going with our development work during the summer of 2020, and it was incredibly tough. One of our team, an Olympic rower, talks about looking people in the ‘whites of their eyes’ and the critical nature of that connection. The magic is diminished remotely, and the learning dulled.

New routes to development are going to be needed, new attitudes to what constitutes ‘good’ are required and, as the starting point, a whole different focus for the content. 

Actually, when we say different, we really mean a new emphasis. If we were betting people, the key elements for leadership will be Trust, Coaching, Engagement and Resilience. They tell a story – trusting and supporting a far more remote team, and being there for them in ways that overcome the distance that virtual working creates and ensures people continue to work sustainably.. They are not ‘new’ but their application will be.

If they are the top four, then there’s a myriad of components that support them – wellbeing, communication, tasking, individualisation of management… Some of these people are already working towards them, but others, such as 100% remote team management will be a new skill for many. Our programmes for 2021 are exciting and new – we are relishing the task of creating a new blend and experience.

As ever, we recognise that a short list doesn’t do justice to the huge task that the future presents. But, often, to tackle the big challenge, you need to break it into smaller chunks to enable you, and your people to ‘get their arms around’ the requirements and start to make it feel achievable.

Because, the future is on it’s way – we will either get lost in it or navigate our way through it. And, sometimes, a simple ‘you are here’ map is the best starting point.

By Chris Preston

2020 was the year the world ‘broke’ – and 2021 is, for a number of reasons, the year that we put it back together. But, as with the best renovations, the fixes are a mix of returning to what was and adding in new and better. There’s an opportunity here to create a new paradigm that lifts the most positive of what we’ve experienced over the last 10 months and weaves it into a new reality for us all.

Throughout 2020, we’ve focused on ‘climate’ – the short term emotional responses and urgent needs that people have experienced as we, incredibly, went from a world where many businesses were 90% plus office based, to one that was the polar opposite. The rapid ‘climate’ fixes are necessary, but they are short-term and we need to shift gears.

Climate, over time, will force changes upon the culture. Think of it like the sand and the waves. The latter is the climate – changing tempo, energy and impact based on external factors. The beach is the culture – it’s more fixed, but over time will shift. Stormy seas will reshape a beach – occasionally in extreme ways, such as the beach in Ireland that re appeared overnight, having been absent for 33 years. Although, normally, culture takes longer to change and climate is about what people are thinking, feeling and doing right now, they both work in identical ways, influence each other, and can equally face disruptive forces.

A great example of these two factors at play is present in a conversation I was having with a client last week about how the small elements of their culture were missing whilst they were operating in such a remote world, which was having a real impact on how people were feeling.  They had hit a target and would normally have pizza and celebrate in the office (these types of behaviours, delivered consistently, are significant in the creation of culture).  I suggested that we look at our CIA model (which explores what we Control, Influence, what we have to Accept). We came up with the fact that what she could do to create a moment of celebration is get a pizza delivered to each member of the team and ask the local delivery companies to write a message with a sharpie on the box.  Then, have a zoom pizza celebration.  It’s within our Control and little moments like this keep the long-term culture alive by creating the right immediate climate, even if a variation on the desired way of celebrating.

Culture is not purely formed through responses to situations, (well, not formed properly – you’ll get a culture, just not the one that you wanted). The work now is to start being proactive and forward-thinking. A future pattern is emerging. No one is in any doubt about a vaccine, and this offers a solution to many of the pandemic problems. For far too long we’ve managed and led people in a short-term holding pattern – the ‘fog’ of the future being too dense to actually flight-path a way through.

The fog is lifting, and, to keep people focused, on track and engaged, we need to talk about a plan. Organisations that don’t will suffer badly, as their people rail against the ‘denial’ of what has changed and what the new future could be. ‘Uncertainty’ is becoming ‘possibility’ and capitalising on this will be critical. What will be needed is a balancing act between responding to the short-term ‘climate’ needs – the peaks and troughs, the waves and the harder graft of re-shaping the ‘beach’ for a long-term future. Constantly asking yourself and your people ‘what’s the art of the possible’ is going to be a powerful driver and focus for minds. 

So, fast forward six-nine months and imagine the most positive future. The vast majority of your workforce are able to safely travel, meet and commute. But they don’t want to. Why should they? We’ve just spent 18 months proving it’s not needed, so slipping back to ‘the same old, same old’ wont work. We also don’t know the future of the virus, and how we deal with it alongside the vaccine.

So do we do nothing? Nope, we do lots. We start planning WITH the rest of the organisation. We have the conversations and propose futures that respond to emergent possibilities and the out-there ‘how abouts?’. We’re working with a large Education Group at the moment and this week we were talking with the exec team about how they can end the term with team conversations about ‘what have we learned in 2020’ and ‘what do we want to intentionally take into 2021 and beyond’ – conversations that would span the way we work, behave and value each other as well as their students. With another senior group this week, we helped them to reflect on what has been successful this year in helping them accelerate parts of their strategy, looked at their plan for the next five years and then took each element to see what had been accelerated as a by-product of the reality, and what had really ground to a halt. 

Eight months ago we drew a diagram of ‘change and retraction’ – looking at which organisations would shrink and possibly disappear because of the pandemic, and which ones were (or could be) innovating and changing to both survive and thrive. How is our prediction doing? It’s a little too early to tell, given the props that various governments have provided to shore up business. However, when we see British Airways resorting to selling the crockery from its retired Jumbos, we may be on to something.

This is (business) evolution, sped up dramatically. The most adaptable survive change, as they flex from one state and one situation to another. The ones that don’t? They are the ones that have a narrow niche, and cannot survive out of it. Survival is being a rat… not a panda.

By Chris Preston

Anyone who has watched Groundhog Day will be empathising with Bill Murray right now – locked in an endless loop of sameness with no end in sight. The irony, of course, with the film is that every day IS different as Murray’s character bounces around the confines of the small town he’s stuck in, trying desperately to elicit change, but with little impact.

Sound familiar? It’s a total dichotomy at the moment – a huge amount of change happening in a paralysed world, where society has moved from high panic to low-energy chronic. The second spike, despite all the warnings, has hit us hard, and we are seeing people sleep-walking into the next phase. For those trying hard to make change happen, this is less than ideal – it’s tough enough at the best of times, but with an apathetic audience, it’s even harder. We wrote about ‘changing change management’ some time ago, and looked at the fundamentals that are critical to factor into any change process.

But now, it’s a case of running the car on empty – we’ve witnessed, first hand, people burning out as they desperately try to drive things forwards and keep momentum. There are far too many people out there that are pushing, pushing, pushing… and it’s damn tiring. We’ve also talked and written about the need to pause, recharge and manage personal energy levels to avoid the inevitable crash. Bringing these two things together – change and recharge – we’ve created a short guide for anyone facing the Sisyphean task of making headway against the gale of COVID and its associated impact. Here are eight things you can incorporate into your approach:

1. Play change like a steel guitar – the two opposite poles of change are ‘technical’ and ‘emotional’. Blend them, and lean on them to get the results you need. Shifting from a ‘it has to be this’ approach to ‘this is why I need it to be this’ rapidly changes the tone and the pace. Don’t stick in one camp, flex and move through the spectrum mindfully. Ask yourself, what do people need right now? Is it certainty and structure or is it understanding and empathy?

2. Make your change local – with so much chaos across the world, the best laid plans of even the cleverest mice will be hard pressed to survive. So work with this reality – think local, think small, be practical and crack the problem or opportunity in bite-sized chunks. One of our clients has parked a major system implementation, not fully – they’ve recognised that only two teams absolutely need it, and the rest can (and want to) wait.

3. Focus on your percentages – how much of your change is reactive? How much is proactive? And, how much is about cultural progression? If the first one is bigger than the second two, it’s time to stop and recognise you are actually leading a crisis. Reactive change isn’t healthy or sustainable – if it’s taking all your time then the necessary work that’s going to create positive change and a stronger workforce won’t be happening. Spotting this is the first step, the second is pausing and assessing where there’s the opportunity to be proactive and to focus on the activity that will reap benefits for people. Find that balance.

4. Don’t get fixated on long-term success – ‘change for now’ is a term to play with. In such uncertain times, it’s a fool’s errand to embed something permanently. Far better to see the work as ‘right for now’ and deliver accordingly. Taking this approach (both attitudinally and practically) creates far less stress and turmoil when things need to adapt, reverse or stop.

5. Decisions and Deadlines, or decisions and deadlines – we make the best decisions we can with the information we have at that point in time. It’s perfectly okay to revisit and revise decisions if new information comes to light. The same can be said of deadlines. However, some Decisions are bigger, easier or more thought through and are made and set in stone, with a capital D – same with some business-critical Deadlines. Make the distinction for your people when you’re leading through change – which is it, something we may need to adjust or tweak as we go, or something we’re saying is foundational?

6. Go with the plan – with so much in flux and so many possibilities around change, there comes a point where we need to just go for it. We once visited a company that had ‘Excellence’ as a value – people hated it, as it was constantly used to stop progress and activity. Sometimes OK is good enough – as long as we know when and how we’ll review it and make adjustments, we can commit fully for the time being.

7. Celebrate and reward the things that help – milestones are great, but they are miles apart. People need quick-fixes of success at the moment, and an easy way to do this is to place as much value on the ‘how’ as the ‘what’ of your work. We may not be there yet, but we are working ‘just fine’ – that’s got to be worth acknowledging.

8. Don’t even call it change – trying to change things at this very moment can feel like tipping a cup of dye into a raging river and expecting a colour change at the point of entry. Rethink what you are doing, and get others on-board with this. Don’t call change, change – it’ll just make people cry. Call it ‘support’ or ‘response’ or ‘progression’. Make it something that feels helpful and is answering the problems of the moment.

It’s not an exhaustive list – we can go on and on, but it’s a start, and it’s aimed at helping those ‘chronic’ situations. People are tired and down and need good-will, patience and human kindness – but it’s hard to give these ‘gifts’ when we ourselves are low.  And that’s our rule-breaking ninth point – 9. Give yourself a break from change – you are no good to anyone if you are exhausted and empty. Find out more about our approach to unplugging, and see what personal changes you could make to help you through.

A hot topic right now is the future of the office – what does it look like, who will work there and are we likely to be managing a more flexible but increasingly fragmented workforce? 

We’ve been collaborating on an Office of the Future blueprint alongside Objective Manager, CBRE and Intelligent Office, to help professional service organisations plan for the future of work.

Watch this space for a series of pieces to come as part of this project – first up is a great piece of insight from all of the project partners, in the context of the latest government advice, that considers the future of the workplace, specifically for professional services firms.  

If you’re currently discussing your return to the office strategy, exploring a possible reimagining of your office locations or are scratching your head wondering where to start with it, then it is well worth a read.

Click here to read the first piece of the series.

By Chris Preston

The world is dragging our leaders into uncharted territory – and already the toll is beginning to show. We are hearing more and more from the senior managers on our virtual leadership development and coaching programmes that they, and their peers, are working to the edge of burn-out… or beyond. Some may say this is where they earn their keep, but I doubt any of them were told, at the job interview, that they would need to handle a pandemic. Probably only the WHO candidates got that sort of briefing.

Of course, they are not the only ones, many of us are under huge stress right now and there’s no clear end in sight – the looming threat of a second spike meaning we cannot flight-path back to normality. But back to leaders. Right now they are making some of the toughest choices of their careers, which are literally life or death in some instances. We need them to make the right calls and to be there to keep doing so – they need support, they need it damn quick and organisations who invested early in replacing face to face development with virtual development, virtual coaching support and more for their leaders will reap the rewards in the coming weeks and months.

Virtual development for leaders and what effective looks like in the current reality

Over the last few years there has been a hockey-stick growth curve towards on-demand, online learning content. It’s economical, increasingly of high quality, and can be refreshed very quickly. Does it work? Mostly, is my conclusion and, when applied correctly is a great way of creating the foundations for individual growth. Is it what leaders need? That’s more debatable. 

Let me talk about baking for a moment, to bring to life the challenge. We have two ways to learn, and I term them ‘book & baking’ (don’t judge yet). When we cook, we usually start with a cookbook – learning the basics of a recipe – ingredients, preparation, timings etc. Read enough cookbooks and you become a theoretical chef.

But, you also have to put the learning into practice, and this is the second way we develop any skill. Now we are exposed to the ‘art’ of cookery – actually doing it. Then we realise it’s not as easy – burnt or soggy cakes abound. Baking, like any practical learning, is an iterative process – we take feedback and advice from others on how to improve the skill. 

Both are needed – with just one you go hungry, with just the other, you end up with far more failures in the trash bin.

And, right now, leaders need that second element. They are deep in the woods of this current mess, and it’s a lonely, scary place to be. The most effective ones are those that are casting around for advice, feedback, ideas and course-corrections. Therefore, the most vital three leadership development interventions for our senior managers right now are the ones that give them that input (and can be done totally virtually) – coaching, mentoring and peer review.

Making a plan for the three critical virtual leadership development support elements:

  • Give every senior / key leader a coach for the coming months, and be part of the initial conversation to set the agenda around the support they will need (this is something we always try and feature – the initial trio conversation is critical for success)
  • Arrange a series of leadership development interventions with people who talk a lot of sense. It could be a 30 minute chat with a subject matter expert, or a masterclass from a respected business leader. We are being inundated with requests to provide rich content for leaders right now – so don’t starve yours
  • Buddy leaders and managers up, and give them a structured approach to supporting each other (think: action learning, positive critical, problem solving) – really make it fly by asking them to regularly share their outputs and learnings with others. This is a vital part of ongoing leadership development

The critical role of conversation in virtual leadership development

There will always be a role for e-content – this is not about saying it adds no value – any course of action needs a plan. But what’s critical is to turn up access to people that talk a lot of sense. These can be internal or external and come from a wide pool of backgrounds. And, because we are looking for conversations, they totally lend themselves to a virtual situation.

In the past, having these interventions remotely via a call or video-call has felt ‘second best’. Now, with the whole world Zooming (other platforms are available), it’s suddenly seen as the standard way to converse. The only thing stopping leaders from seeking out these sources of challenge and inspiration will be… pride.

Yes, pride. As simple as it sounds, only leaders who can step aside from their egoes and ask for help will be the ones that get through this situation successfully (read: with themselves and their organisations intact). Pride is the achilles heel of resilience – ‘standing firm and resolute’ when the world actually needs you to flex and change shape. It’s why mighty oaks fall during a hurricane, yet palm trees just shed a few fronds. 

I remember working with a senior leader in Sony a number of years ago and, during a very tough situation, he was asked for guidance on what to do next. The room went silent and everyone looked at him with anticipation (me included). This highly respected executive paused in thought, took a deep breath and told us exactly what to do: “I have no idea,” he said. “So let’s find someone who does, and listen to them.” Cue one stunned room. But we did, and the advice they gave worked.

So, if you are a leader who is presenting an iron-clad exterior whilst desperately reading the ‘How to…’ book under the bed covers then you are far more likely to fail. But, if you are being open, humble and asking for help, you are going to make it. Keep going – keep ‘baking’ and asking people how it tastes.

Find out more about our virtual leadership development programmes or get in touch with the team to discuss your requirements.

By Chris Preston

Lockdown and remote working has begun to feel like the norm for many of us now and although things are slowly starting to change, remote working for many is here to stay. Many of us will have experienced the flurry of Zoom calls, team huddles and more to stay connected in those early weeks. The longer remote working goes on, the more important those connection points become – so if they’ve fallen away a bit in your team, re-invigour them again. 

Despite stats being reported in the media about how many people are feeling like they are being productive whilst working from home (which is fabulous by the way!), we know there are many for whom this has been and remains to be a real struggle. If that’s you and you’re wondering how on earth you can keep this up – one of these tips might just make the difference. 

Top tips for staying connected and energised when remote working

So what can we do to stay connected, motivated and energised as this remote working continues for many (and help our teams do the same)?

1. Daily goals – set yourself three daily goals that give you energy – could be a chunk of work that will make you feel fulfilled, a friend you want to call or an article to read that gives you a new perspective

2. Positivity – start meetings with a good news story or a shout-out to someone – remember to say why that person deserves a shout out

3. Move – put a post it on your laptop with three different exercises a day and make sure you do them (maybe one at a time, not all three together) throughout the day

4. An act of kindness a card to a loved one, some flowers from your garden on the doorstep of a vulnerable neighbour or a message of support to a colleague.  Find acts of kindness you can give each day – they’ll fuel you, whilst also making someone else’s day more positive

5. Little moments of learning – it’s so easy to turn to the web and browse without learning anything. Make it a goal to go onto a quality site once a day, read a five minute article and grow your knowledge – maybe set a learning theme each week and share the outcomes at one of your team huddles

6. Tick lists – whenever you are on a call, have a list of participants and, everytime one of them talks, give them a tick. Watch out for people not talking or talking too much, and make sure you give yourself some ticks

7. Colour your days – think about the week ahead and give the days colours – red days are high energy and achieving, yellow – contemplative, blue – chill, green – creative etc. Make your own colours and use a mix that makes sense for you

8. Simplify your media – more people are telling us they’ve ‘got back into’ radio, and audio books are hugely popular right now. They are great for focus, as you cannot as easily ‘flick channels’ or end up following random links and have bad news appear

9. Identify your ‘crazy’ buddy pair up with someone and agree to be each other’s ‘go-to-person’ when things get tough and they/you just need to vent. Agree a format – five min chat, no judgement or advice unless asked and high emotions are allowed

10. Keep perspective – if you are reading this article then you are still a functioning individual that’s connected to the world. We’ve mustered a global response to the pandemic, and you are contributing to the effort by doing what you are doing. Keep it up.

Find loads more tips for high performance remote working in the recently published Bank of Me: The Remote Working Edition

Our team is currently with organisations across the globe on high performance remote working cultures in the wake of COVID-19. Get in touch if you’d like to explore how we could support you or your business.

By Chris Preston

It seems the key word over the past few months has been ‘curve’ – we have been doggedly following them hoping for the much anticipated drop in COVID-19 cases low enough that it signalled the return to something close to normal…if that was ever to exist again. We, more locally, particularly in our consulting work, have also been tracking the curve for energy in organisations, which started high – a mix of fear, excitement, worry and camaraderie, and then slowly dipped into more of an accepting state that many of us found ourselves in.

With the consistent lowering of the key COVID-19 metrics, we have seen easing of restrictions and are starting to see glimpses of recovery. This brings with it a whole new conversation – the future of work. Over the past few months a repeating conversation has been the opportunity that the global lockdown, and reboot, offers us in terms of forging a new economy – one that’s more resilient, flexible and purposeful.

In previous weeks, we have been dealing in theory. Whilst much of the world was confined to their homes, and organisations were running in survival mode, we could do little but talk. Things are now changing and although there may be no firm plan for the future of work, each business/institution will now have to go through a series of stages that will help them identify what their future is.

The stages to consider for the future of work 

Right now (hopefully) we are emerging out of the first stage – Lockdown is shifting and the work has been done to support people through this tough time. A great deal of effort has been made to grow new skills and connections at this time – building on core technology that supports virtual working and adding a social & community focus that tackles the biggest challenges presented during this time.

Forward focusing organisations are now moving towards, or are already in, the Learning & Planning stage, in preparation for the future of work, however that looks. This is a critical element and should not be underestimated as part of moving forwards. It will provide the elements of ‘the plan’ to move back to near-normality and bring people together in conversations about what these learnings mean for the next phase of the business.

With the move to bring people together physically, there will also be a need to focus on Transition & Reconnection. This will be a balancing act between our collective desire to have a degree of normality (and certainty/security) back in our lives and the boundaries still placed on us by the virus. Asia, which is way ahead of the world in this area, has already been through the ‘day one’ barrier and we’ve seen a great deal of targeted, purposeful activity to help people negotiate a new set of circumstances. The effort is to accelerate a return to sustainability within the organisations, to stabilise people and re-connect them with each other and the wider organisation. In a nutshell, bringing the energy curve back up for our workforce. As a business we’ve put a lot of effort recently into supporting organisations in this area – helping leaders plan their own agenda for return (as well as the wider future of work) and building the framework for teams to connect – starting as simple as tea and cake and building up to organisation-wide reconnections.

The trick will be not to let this stage become the end point, as tempting as it will seem. To create a viable future, most organisations will need to build on the temporary stability of an eased-lockdown state and begin to re-shape to fit both the realities of a protracted pandemic and to grasp the opportunities offered by the radical shifts in working practices that we’ve all adopted in the last few months. This Transformation stage will be the most challenging one, as it requires organisations to step into the unknown and find new ways of delivering their work in a future of work that remains uncertain.

Brave decisions in a new future of work 

Already we are seeing companies such as Twitter announce that their employees can choose to work from home forever if they so wish. This is probably the most simple response to the Pandemic that we will see, but it does raise a thousand linked challenges that we all need to negotiate. The world is like an old mattress – press down in one area and the whole thing moves – facilities, transport, hospitality, shops, entertainment (the list goes on) are all impacted if we decide to stay away from cities.

The Transformation stage will be incredibly difficult, as it needs to incorporate both new ways of working and new ‘whys’. Some businesses may not survive because the why, what and how of their business model simply no longer works.

The stark reality of very few people travelling could be the death knell for many airlines – an industry we are already seeing tens of thousands of lay-offs being made. Others will change because they have to for survival and, hopefully, many will change because they can see a better way of delivering what they do. Our purposes (we have many) are already being re-evaluated and the strength of feeling around shifting to a more ethical approach will be one of the major deciding factors in the future of work.

The return of growth as part of the future of work

And there, at the end of a long tunnel is the blazing light of the last stage – Growth. It almost feels like a dirty word at the moment, but it will return. As a species we are incredibly resilient, adaptable and determined – we will hold society together and find a new, positive normal. Getting there is going to take time, and the journey for some organisations will be tough as they have to initially retreat into a slump or contraction phase. Classic change models all point to the ‘chaos’ of the mid-point during change, when the journey to a new future is still long, and the temptation of the old ‘safe harbour’ of how things were is very tempting.

All of these phases will have to overlap if we are to move to a new, positive paradigm. Lockdown will impact us for many months and the transition will be an up and down journey that will frustrate all of us. And transformation is never easy, if it was, more companies would do it successfully. The further along the transformation curve we push, the bigger and more audacious (read also: terrifying) the change becomes. But, sadly, the reverse direction is a shorter, deeper journey of loss.

Within these stages there will be key levers for change that we have to be in control of – ambition, purpose, business models, people, customers – they’ll either be anchors to the past or imperatives for the future. What’s clear, therefore, is every business needs a plan, and the right people, in the right mind-set, to deliver it.

Find out more about how we are helping organisations with the future of work or get in touch to discuss how we could help yours.

By Chris Preston 

First there was Brexit, then there was COVID-19 – it’s fair to say the uncertain times are set to continue for the UK and around the world. For business owners and leaders, this continues to create a perfect storm of unsettled customers, panicking suppliers and a workforce that remains worried about the future.

Advice on managing uncertainty 

Working From Home

The Culture Builders team is regularly asked for advice on managing uncertainty (never more than in the last few months!) so here’s ten ways to keep people focused during the current uncertainty.

1. Look to yourself first

Uncertain times can bring out unhelpful traits in managers and leaders. Withdrawal is a frequent response, with lots of self-justifying stories about ‘why I need to be out of circulation’. Conversely, we see some managers desperately trying to paint a rosy picture of the world, blithely stating that it will be ‘fine’ with little to back up this view. Make sure you are ready for the task, sense-check what you are doing and are planning to say and challenge yourself to step-in far more than normal.

2. Consider what is needed and when

Whatever happens on the other side of all of this, there’s no doubt we’re heading into a change curve with a difference. As a business leader or people manager, being flexible, nimble and quick to respond to the evolving situation is key. Right now, in the face of such uncertainty, your people need a pilot, a respected role model instilling calm and keeping trust. As things change, your leadership role will too.

3. Unite people around a powerful purpose

One thing that definitely unites us all right now, across the world, is fighting COVID-19. Galvanise this community spirit by reviewing, redeveloping or re-focusing on the organisational purpose – has your purpose already captured the hearts and minds of your people? If it hasn’t, create something that does. Also think about working with your team to come up with some new collective, short-term goals to focus on during this period of change.

4. Help people to focus on what they can change

As we all prepare a plan A, B and C for possible outcomes in the coming months, there will be a lot going on behind executive closed doors that employees have no control over. Help your people to think about what the organisation can be certain of and what role they can play in that. This is a great way to channel nervous and anxious energy into something positive and productive.

5. Be honest and straightforward

In any crisis, there can be two approaches to employee communication – the woe and doom scenario and the ‘too early to say’ approach. The former creates further worry, the latter, generally, eases a lot of tension. Good leaders craft honest, non-emotional responses to potential impacts and share them openly. It’s self-delusion to think that people won’t worry about them, and things quickly descend into a Basil Fawlty-esque farce if the message is ‘oh, it’ll be fine’.

6. Focus on now

Focus on the now as much as you can. To quote Shameless anti-hero Frank Gallagher: “Worry is like a rocking horse, it’ll keep you busy, but won’t get you very far.” Looking ahead at uncertainty achieves nothing – delivering results day-to-day does. The clear message should be one around the need to be as good as possible today to face any future. Yes, respond to the worries, yes, give them more time, but also yes, do focus minds on what’s possible to control now.

7. Keep communicating

Tumbleweed is not the order of the day right now. If you’re a business leader, try to make information readily available and keep a dialogue with the people. If you’re a people manager, get your people together virtually as often as you can to talk about their concerns and just be honest about what you do and don’t know. You can’t give a firm response to everything during uncertain times but you can show that the issues are clearly on the radar and the organisation is planning them into the mix… and keep showing it, time and time again.

8. Look after your people

Change and uncertainty often means more work and added pressure – especially if people are working from home and finding it hard to switch off. Many people will find it a very high stress environment. Be mindful of your people and the extra demands scenario planning or crisis management will have. Ensure employees are managing themselves (getting enough sleep, rest and fuel for example) to perform in the way you need them to right now. Dial up the appreciation. 

9. Create a reason to be cheerful

Try and get your people to crack a smile by catching them off-guard with something funny, uniting them in pleasure with a virtual new work perk or surprising them all with a delivery to their homes. In such particularly tough times, creating ongoing reasons to be cheerful, however small, is essential. 

10. Be adult, be calm, be seen

Overall, what’s my message? Keep it adult – remain the person in the room (the virtual one right now) that’s not panicking, isn’t sharing ill-thought-through opinions and the one who knows what needs to be done to weather any storm. And absolutely vital is to be seen (even if that means virtually right now) – visible and honest leadership is key.

Find out more about how we can help with managing change and uncertainty or if you’d like to find out we could help you get in touch.

By Chris Preston

I’ve been watching the debate around Artificial Intelligence (AI) for some time. We are seeing it pushed heavily into our lives, from the raft of circular devices that are capable of holding conversations with us (albeit slightly Lewis Carroll ones), through to the emerging tools that businesses are using to deliver core processes.

“Replaced by a robot!” is a headline that appeared in the late 80s and has re-emerged recently as the summary response to emerging smart tools that functions such as HR, finance and project management are turning to. More sensationally, the recurrent headline has now changed to ‘Sacked by a robot!”. Strange days indeed.

Artificial Intelligence is smart but on an IQ level not an EQ (emotional intelligence) one

The Emotional Brain

Yes, we are going to see far more of this in the future. Smart tools that can quickly identify a person’s needs and find the right solution are going to continue to develop, to take on more tasks and become a regular feature of our lives. They are a response to a world that’s data-heavy, one that experiences change at an incredible pace and one where we don’t have the time to sift through reams of content to get a solution. But should we worry?

Probably not, is my finger-in-the-wind conclusion. Why? Let me tell you a story. A friend of mine is a retired school headmaster, hugely respected and with an incredible career behind him. In one of his last roles, as the principle of a prestigious education establishment, he was faced with a pupil that was inconsolably upset about a recent incident. The hard and fast rules were ‘you do NOT make physical contact with pupils’ – normally for good reason. However, my friend, faced with a sobbing child sat across the table from him, did what I hope every decent human would do – he gave him a hug.

And there’s the challenge. You can’t write a programme or app that will break its own rules – it’s a contradiction in terms. AI is a structured, rule-following system. Had a machine been sat across from the child, it would have handed them a tissue. AI is smart, but on an IQ basis, not on an EQ one.

As much as I hate to spin a ‘future gazing’ message, I do believe that we will soon live in a world where far more tasks are taken up by automated or smart processes. Positively, it frees up humans to do other, more rewarding things. Negatively, it removes humans from some processes where we need them. There’s no simple answer to this and we are going to have to hold a (hopefully brief) AI Revolution similar to the Industrial one, where we work through the pain of change.

All this points to a new professional standard. Already, qualifications are becoming secondary to attitude and life experience – the only solid differentiators when looking at high performing people. But we’ve been here before. In the early 2000s the phrase to talk about was Emotional Intelligence – EI/EQ – it was proving a reliable factor in identifying talent and successful relationships. But it’s also complex and not an easy one to reward or develop. “Back then” it was exciting and different but also confusing, perhaps now it’s the critical factor that will make us stand out and add value above the automation.

The valuable currency of emotional intelligence

We are increasingly hearing that the skills now needed to succeed are creativity/innovation and emotional intelligence. Put another way, we need people who can do the things that the machines and programmes cannot. Here then is the new currency for us to trade on – our ability to be fully, and effectively, human. The best companies seek to bring out their people to their fullest potential. Again, it’s not a new concept but it’s one that we will need to own and curate personally if we are to stand out and succeed. Sound unlikely? Well, let me share a stat with you – 80% of millennials state that emotional intelligence is an area they actively target as part of their own career development1.

Finally, some good news for a beleaguered demographic. Millennials are way ahead of the curve on this, and, looking at the group behind them, the ‘Polite Generation’ we are seeing people with even more social and personal awareness and control. There is hope yet.

Practically, for employers, this should kick-start a major rethink in recruitment, reward and development. Hiring for skills to today’s problems is blinkered and expensive. Seeking people who bring empathy, inspiration, flare, social awareness and personal accountability will future-proof an organisation. As the old adage goes: ‘it’s not what we respond to that matters, it’s how we respond to it.’ Helping people build these skills will also become essential, as we (sadly) are not all Millennials – but we are still keen to learn, grow and flex new emotional muscles.

What of my friend? It all ended well – the pupil worked through their problems and the family was hugely grateful for the way the situation had been handled. I believe he displayed morals when he hugged that child – and morals always trump rules. And, as science is finding, it’s damn hard to teach a robot morals.

For more infomation about the work we do in Emotional Intelligence with leaders, managers and organisations get in touch.

Levo Institute, 2017