Our journey to making sustainable change happen

 In Change management

Making Change Happen has been working on a UK Government-funded project for the past three months. The goal is to research and develop tools that help organisations introduce long-lasting team behaviours centred on sustainability.

During this time, we have researched team behaviours which create pro-social and pro-climate ways of working. We’ve looked at how organisations are approaching sustainability now. And what help they need to rebuild with sustainability in focus, whilst adjusting to the fundamental changes caused by Covid.

A Social Identity Approach

Current issues

How we behave is driven by our need to belong to a group and the groups we join. Our research used a social identity approach as the basis to examine how to change team behaviours at work. 

Even working remotely, we take on the group identity of our workplace. That unspoken identity dictates how things are done. This includes the actions we take, our behaviour in meetings, and our attitude on video calls. Shared social norms in our team determine the choices we make at work. 

These social norms exist in every group, providing a rule book for behaviour. Our current rulebook of ‘the boss knows all’, is based on an industrial age blueprint. It is an operating model largely built around a traditional 9-5 workplace. However, working today presents more complex problems.

COVID has demanded a rethink of working practices. Organisations face fundamental questions such as: 

  • Does the relationship with the Head Office change? Is Head Office a building, a Slack Channel or a focus to bind people?
  • How can we be creative and collaborate across organisational boundaries?
  • If people are working remotely, how do reward and recognition operate?
  • And how do we take care of people, especially new starters, to make them feel part of the culture?

These are immediate challenges which need creative thinking about how the work is carried out.

Long-term challenges

Yet, bigger and long-term challenges remain. Climate change and wider socio-economic shifts need rethinking and reimagining. Businesses have great potential for finding innovative solutions to these challenges. However, it is people who discover solutions and make change happen. So, we need new team behaviours to equip them for work in this changing environment.

To switch teams to an appropriate behavioural blueprint for BOTH immediate and long term challenges, workplaces need a new set of social norms where teams: 

  • Recognise the impacts their working practices have on the business and the wider environment. 
  • Use the transformative, long-term positive impact their work can achieve.
  • Demonstrate wide-reaching sustainable ways of working.
  • Operate openly whilst supporting each member of the team to achieve goals. 
  • Work within an engaging, flexible and tolerant environment.
  • Have mutual trust, respect and tolerance in a non-judgmental environment.
  • Encourage, welcome and celebrate change.

These social norms will form the foundations for new ways of working. This will create the long-lasting group identities needed for current and future challenges.  

Our customer research

We conducted customer research to understand the current needs of organisations. And to see how much ‘sustainability’ featured in their priorities. By listening to leadership teams and employees, we learned what life is like within businesses during COVID-19. And by asking about the investment focus for these organisations, we had a solid starting point to produce the tools to affect long-term change.

Customer research was conducted in two ways, through talking to leaders in one-on-one interviews. And through focus groups and surveys with employees. This gave us both a top-down and bottom-up view of the current situation.

Listening to the leadership

38 senior leaders across sectors were interviewed. Common pain points and the drivers for behavioural change within teams were shared in these discussions. 

Leaders told us that Covid 19 was sudden and all-consuming. Therefore, priorities changed overnight towards survival and supporting their people emotionally.

Yet, Black Lives Matter raised challenges that almost surpassed COVID-19 in some respects. Representation and diversity became paramount, particularly in the entertainment industries which present our ‘social voice’.

We also found that COVID highlighted the short-term nature of organisations. Many leaders can react well to a crisis – even thrive on it. Long-term planning, however, lacks the time and space for teams to think innovatively and find solutions.

Many organisations said that climate change issues and sometimes even well-being required the ‘privilege of time’. Operational priorities took precedent. Daily thinking leaves very little room to consider the future or wider impact of decision-making.

Focused sustainability

Sustainability tends to sit with a focused team for most organisations. Usually, this team can create initiatives, such as a paperless office. But a wider reach within the business is limited. This gives us the potential for building behavioural change within the company.

By embedding sustainability actions within the work culture, and the social rule book, you create a system-wide approach.  Businesses can look to other aspects of working and social life to offer future fruitful partnerships.  There is an opportunity to construct a new world of work. One with resilient, agile teams able to respond and adjust to incipient major challenges. This requires organisations to acknowledge innovation, creativity and collaboration, across the board. Teamwork must be real and effective in practice, together with an openness free from fear of retribution.  

Opportunities from COVID

When things are going well, we don’t want to change. When change is forced on us, we are allowed to embed new behaviours. This includes fostering innovative thinking around long-term challenges. It gives space for the design of new workspaces, involving sustainable skills. 

Presenteeism is an example of this. Leadership conversations confirmed that middle managers are the gatekeepers of work culture. When we moved to remote working, people’s innate distrust to do their work unseen did not disappear. No matter how incorrect this assumption may be. When the manager models that being present is the way to show you’re working hard, the team will follow.

Change this part of the chain, and organisations can normalise new ways of working. And the behaviours you want to see in your team. Managers need to be trained to manage differently. But crucially to permit them to act and do their job differently. 

Listening to the employees

We ran three one-hour focus groups with employees and collected survey responses from those who couldn’t attend. We found that employees believe they can do little to impact environmental sustainability through their work. 

Additionally, Covid added pressures of job security and paying the bills. Furlough and risk of redundancy compound this. This creates a perfect storm for the mental health and wellbeing of employees. With remote working, it’s hard to gauge how people are feeling from a short video call. This has a subsequent effect on interactions and engagement. 

Yet, teams look to each other for support and to provide solutions to homeworking problems. Such as working from bedrooms or kitchen tables around the rest of the family. It has blurred the boundaries between home and work. And this presents a different set of wellbeing challenges.  

Remote working disconnect

In both groups, we found that contact amongst peer groups had increased. Leaders felt closer to their peers and could get hold of them more easily now that commuting was removed. Therefore many were positive about the closer connections that had formed from the removal of “workplace armour”. And senior leaders found bright spots had occurred, such as the extra time at home without the commute. However, at the employee level, a more complex picture of wellbeing emerged. 

If people had the space to work well at home, then the experience was good. But for those who didn’t have space, the wellbeing implications were immense. Reimagining the workplace needs to address moving the office into people’s homes.

With remote working, connections between teams increased. Yet, connections across teams have diminished. Teams lost spontaneous conversations. The staff could no longer bump into each other in the corridor or at lunch. And this reduces the space where ideas can flourish. 

We saw a need to look at leadership.  And at how organisations can address complex wellbeing challenges as they emerge from Covid. 

What we’ve learned

We can use the same tools to address an organisation’s needs post-Covid to address long-term challenges like Black Lives Matter and climate change. Using social identity to create the change, we have a structure in place that can cope with future challenges.

Understanding how group identities play out and how they can influence behaviours is the key to unlocking the potential within your team.  This research has created the strong research basis for our behaviour change toolkit to help businesses address the challenges they face today.

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