Seven themes from talking to leaders about Covid

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During our recent Government-funded research, Making Change Happen interviewed 38 leaders from across a range of industries. From this work, we can understand what is happening for teams right now.  We found that seven common themes emerged for companies. 

You may recognise some of these themes within your organisation. As teams are usually at different points along their Covid-recovery journey, some will be more pressing than others.

This work equips us with a unique set of data. Using the data, we have developed our own behaviour change programme. This approach helps organisations develop the innovation capability to deal with challenges such as Covid. As well as climate change, sustainability and whatever else may come next. 

Seven themes from Covid-19

These are the seven themes from our analysis of those 38 leader interviews.

1. ‘People issues’ are more of a priority

Most leaders were surprised by how well their organisations had coped. Yet, the impact of Covid-19 on their people is a concern.

The priority is survival and staying in business, and that teams can cope emotionally.  So sustainability investments are focused almost entirely on people for the next year. Strategies are being put in place for effective team working, collaborating remotely, promoting wellbeing and improving connectivity. Environmental concern and gender equality are definitely still there but less prominent in the order of priorities as people feel they have to cope with survival.  

For some organisations, the response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a greater focus than Covid-19.  It has been a considerable driver for change in industries such as film and TV, where there is a representation of the social voice. Leaders in these industries want to embed new thinking and innovative changes to address the challenges of diversity and representation and working out how to achieve this.

However, what they are finding is closing the action gap on both BLM and environmental change is difficult. Organisations continue to face considerable challenges in these areas.

2. Limitations of the one-year view

Leaders told us how well their organisations had reacted to the crisis. Many leaders see a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ kicking in. They are now reflecting that the organisation may struggle more with the period after. Effectively, how to come out of the crisis and normalise the needed new ways of working.

Teams across the board met their daily needs as challenges arose. And felt this is tackled well. The silo structure of teams means being able to support immediate short-term responses. However, what teams were more unsure about is how they address any strategic changes that need to happen. Teams need longer-term ‘people processes’ to support a different world of work. This requires innovation.

Yet, there is little room within operational teams to make long haul changes. This is relevant for Covid but also applies when looking at wider sustainability or innovation goals. 

Few teams have the remit to look ahead.  Planning rarely falls outside a one-year timescale. Instead, teams kept things moving in their small part of the jigsaw. Team decisions and choices focused on today’s priorities. And they didn’t know who would look at those bigger questions that could reinvent what they do and have a greater impact on challenges. Questions like how the workplace changes post-Covid? But also how they address sustainability, environmental challenges, automation and any future challenges? Long-term innovation is someone else’s job but they weren’t always sure whose.

Most front-line teams don’t get a chance to think at a systems level about the wider long-term social and environmental impact of their decisions. 

If organisations can find a way to build in the capacity for that longer-term innovation into the lifeblood of teams, then they could make some big positive changes to the workplace.

3. Sustainability is concentrated in specific teams

For the majority of organisations in our research sample, sustainability was concentrated in pockets. This is where there was then a specific responsibility attached. Organisations have sustainability teams or specific areas like the supply chain. These teams have highly informed awareness of the environmental impacts of their decisions. 


A few organisations extend this into the wider DNA of the organisation. This is largely achieved by having one annual sustainability KPI.  However, in the majority of organisations innovation towards sustainability goals isn’t seen as a team leader’s responsibility. And wider employees ability to contribute to sustainability targets is through minor initiatives like supporting paperless offices.

There is potential here to allow all teams to think about this wider contribution. Thinking through challenges, encouraging creative thinking and experimenting collaboratively could unleash more power to see what businesses can achieve together. 

Organisations can achieve impactful action by looking at major challenges through a wide systems approach. This will unleash the power of all teams to innovate. 

4. New mindsets are needed for collaborative team working

During Covid, innovations are happening across the board. At the same time, middle managers are managing the teams in the same way as they did in the office.

To some extent, teams weren’t quite sure how to reinvent their processes. It takes time to mirror the responses of their organisations and messages being cascaded down. 


Constructing a new world of work with resilient teams needs an overhaul of how that work is viewed. Organisations are rethinking how they work through how they collaborate with others. 

The ability to find creative solutions to complex challenges means that innovation and collaboration are vital skills for today’s world of work. Teamwork has to be real and effective in practice and the organisations need to see a network of teams replace a silo structure that sits within organisational boundaries. Collaboration with other businesses can be more constructive and businesses need to find ways to do that as it’s a very different approach to the previous more competitive landscape. Exploring how this could happen is part of that reinvention of work.

5. A window of opportunity to re-imagine the office

Only one organisation stated explicitly that they plan to return to the office five days a week. Other respondents believe workplaces will fit a hybrid model with the average prediction being two days a week in the office.

Organisations are already thinking about how to reimagine the workplace. And this creates a real opportunity to reinvent behaviours and get people involved.  

Here there is a change project opportunity. Using this time to introduce new group norms (that’s the way we do things around here’). And allow teams to work differently. 

Teams can apply some creative and innovative thinking in this space. And design a workplace full of new sustainable skills.

After all, it is at times of immense change that the most behaviour change happens.  We let go of old habits and new ones form. 

The opportunity to include sustainable habits within that change is there.

6. Middle managers hold the key to cultural change

Middle managers are gatekeepers to the work culture.  However, businesses train leaders to manage to a particular model of presenteeism which in many ways organisations have seen transfer from the office to zoom calls.

The reason is those shared expectations of what it is to be a ‘manager of others’ have endured, we haven’t reset them yet and middle managers are still doing their job – checking people turn up. An innate distrust of people is still hardwired. Yet in most cases, that sense is based on incorrect assumptions and has been proved invalid. 

There is a close link here to workplace identities and what the unwritten but well-understood guidebook says about how those identities (like middle managers) behave.  

Organisations need help to train managers in how to manage differently. By creating a new rule book, you give managers permission to lead in ways that allow wellbeing initiatives to come to life.

Middle managers provide space for new behaviours that are key for sustainable teams. Many organisations are looking at how to achieve that end. Middle managers are the ones who can normalise new ways of working.  And if organisations focus efforts on helping them think differently about their role, a wider culture change will follow.

7. Wellbeing is linked to working from home

Many leaders were surprised to find they were enjoying being at home. Their commute had reduced, they felt closer to peers, and they benefited from increased availability of other leaders. 

Talking to employees reveals a more complex picture of wellbeing. What we found across every sector was that there were clear correlations between home set up and wellbeing. Essentially those that could work from home easily tended to have adjusted well but for those that couldn’t this was a very hard time with massive impacts on wellbeing.

Leaders are aware of the difficulties for more junior employees, new starters or those struggling with homeschooling. However, the switch to remote working means that social interactions that come in an office are reduced. Teams are more insular as a result.

Engage employees across all groups is a big challenge for most organisations 

And how to meet the wellbeing needs of their different employee groups. The full impact of Covid-19 on team wellbeing is yet to be felt within most organisations. And a varied approach to wellbeing is necessary to address these needs where wellbeing is approached with both an organisation-wide approach linked to mindfulness but also with targeted packages tailored to the different needs that will emerge from different working conditions.  

Creating a new world of work

As the UK starts to reopen this summer, we have a chance to embed new behaviours and culture within our teams. From our conversations with leaders, very few want to return to how things were a little over a year ago. We don’t have a set approach for doing this so the opportunity is there to talk to teams and see what comes from those conversations. to find out what ideas come out of those discussions about how to build back better and to do in ways that give us a great relationship with work. One that employees can respect and thrive within.   

How Making Change Happen can help

At the start of this article, we said that Making Change Happen has built tools to address the challenges businesses face today.

Through our conversations with leaders, research of over 100 academic papers and our work with the senior leadership community at British Airways we have developed a set of tools to help teams create sustainable change. 

Our toolkit helps teams understand where they are now and where they want to get to so that they can create the conditions to benefit from everyone’s input.

Using online modules that help teams to:

  • Improve sustainability awareness
  • Maximise their connections and how they collaborate with others
  • Build the psychological safety and resilience that enables a diversity of thought
  • Give permission for curiosity and learning

Our approach diagnoses the cultural climate first, exploring the different identities at play and how they pull people towards or away from sustainability, before narrowing in on maximising innovation capability. All based on the latest social identity approaches

To understand how this can work for your team, book a call here


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