The COVID-19 Experiment: How organisations and their people are coping with the “new normal”

How are you doing during the COVID-19 Pandemic restrictions? What about the organisation you work for?

Several weeks ago, life and work were very different. Riding the lift to your company floor didn’t fill you with anxiety and the idea of conducting team meetings with children popping their heads over your shoulder and dogs barking in the background was unthinkable. And yet, here we are.

The new normal is working from home. GHD Digital’s Emma Jones (and furry friend) in a team meeting from her home in rural Victoria, Australia.

Adjusting to our new reality has not been easy for many of us.

The truth is, much of what we take for granted as bedrock in our lives has shifted beneath us, exposing previously unimaginable vulnerabilities, individually and collectively.

So, how are we coping with this sudden reality check?

Why survey people and organisations about change

When I saw a reference to the Kübler-Ross change curve a few weeks ago, I found it really valuable in explaining different emotional phases (and phases of ‘new normal’ acceptance) and I wanted to know how people in my network were doing, both from an individual and organisational perspective.

With the help of my team, I posted a survey on LinkedIn and the responses gave me a window into very real human experiences and needs that people have right now.

Who responded?

Although this was an informal study, my hope is the responses will spark more discussion on adapting to change and lead to a more formal study down the line.

In answer to What support would make a difference to you right now?

“A crystal ball! So much uncertainty makes it hard to plan. Some certainty around what work will continue and what will stop, extra hours in the day to get through all the work…. because I spend most of the day on the phone, any work starts at night.”

Understanding the stages of change

In answer to What are you dealing with? What pressures are you managing?

“Potential lay-off. Demands to be more billable. Insomnia. Stress.”

The Kübler-Ross model was originally designed in 1969 by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In her book On Death and Dying the Swiss-American Psychiatrist proposed that there are 5 stages of grief people move through when they face death themselves or the loss of a loved one.

The scale has since been adapted to describe how people respond to sudden change, such as that caused by the Coronavirus. In the change scale we used, there are seven key stages:

  • Shock is when someone cannot process the reality of their situation. They are surprised or may even feel blind-sided.
  • Denial is when a person questions the reality of their situation and goes looking for evidence to prove the contrary is true.
  • Frustration is when a person recognises things are different but goes looking for someone or something to blame.
  • Depression is when a person wallows in thoughts and feelings about their current reality. Their mood is low and they lack energy.
  • Experiment is when a person engages in what has changed and starts to share about it with others in a bid to understand it. They may also go looking for a way out or a solution.
  • Decision is when a person finally comes to terms with and starts navigating their new reality. They feel more positive and start taking action.
  • Integration is when changes become the norm and the new reality is considered the ‘new normal.’
The 7 stage change curve based on the original Kubler-Ross grief curve.

Overall results: COVID-19 drives organisations to Experiment

Logically, most organisations are experimenting with technology solutions that help their teams to be productive and connected to colleagues and clients while working remotely. For many who have staff that can’t work remotely, there is experimentation with new work rosters and processes.

In answer to What does this stage look like for your organisation?

“Adapting to the new normal, trying to understand what the future looks like in different geographies so that we understand the business that we need to sustain when we come out of this, working through how we can best support our people, thinking about what of the new normal will permanently change how we work.”

Lastly, some are already planning for a post-COVID-19 world and trying to anticipate what that could look like. Where there is organisational frustration, this is generally around lack of success in redesigning work processes and also managing staff who are worried and have reduced productivity.

Organisational challenges that respondents reported included:

  • IT departments not being sufficiently responsive for the sudden transition
  • Uncertainty maintaining revenue and business continuity
  • Employee retention
  • Remote customer engagement, both existing and new
  • Maintaining staff productivity and morale
Overall results for individuals and organisations that participated in the survey showed that most organisations were in the Experiment phase and most individuals were in the Decision phase.

For individuals, there was a clear trend towards experimentation and beyond again, although this is tempered with mixed feelings in many cases, including Depression or Frustration at the remote working situation and managing the practicalities of that.

In answer to What are you dealing with? What pressures are you managing?

“School aged children at home, workplace shift in working environment, spouse working as nurse in hospital environment, trying to convince elderly parents of the importance of breaking most of their social routines and take the potential health threat seriously, Telecoms companies not responding to faults in terms of connectivity from isolation that forces me to interact more physical sense rather than remotely which is my current preference.”

Other factors feeding Frustration and Depression included a loss of face-to-face personal interaction, feelings of disconnectedness from colleagues and clients, fluctuating workloads, uncertainty about the future and lack of job security.

Water industry remains cool in the crisis

In answer to What is the biggest challenge for your organisation right now? What support would help you?

“It’s hard to know what external support would help but thankfully our small company is pulling together in a spirit of cooperation.”

At an individual level, water industry employees have personal feelings of Depression and Frustration about their situations that may differ to where their organisations are at on the change curve.

In the water industry, responses indicated most organisations and individuals were in the Experiment stage.

Key findings: Organisation stage telling about employee morale

In answer to What does this stage look like for your organisation?

“The looming shutdown is making people panic about their work. Can I complete this task before I’m not allowed back onsite?”

Upon reading the individual survey responses, one particular thing stood out for me.

When an organisation was considered to be in the Experiment phase or beyond, the employee generally also reported being in a similar phase. Depression responses were quite low for these people. Conversely, when a respondent thought their organisation was in Denial or Frustration and not dealing with the situation very well, the employee reported being Depressed more often.

So, those organisations that accepted the situation and moved forward with adapting to it, and bringing their people on the journey with open and regular communication and clear leadership, appear to be faring better, at least in terms of their employees’ perceptions.

Key takeaways: Experimenting leads to optimism

In answer to What does this stage look like for your organisation?

“Our sales and business development teams are trying to develop ways to engage with customers by way of conferencing platforms and conducting webinars. Early stages but this is looking promising.”

Generally, circumstances have forced people to move very rapidly toward Experimentation, regardless of their own personal circumstances or feelings. There has been mixed success in doing so, but people’s sense of optimism about their situation is largely driven by the organisation’s ability to act fast, mobilise new solutions and communicate effectively.

Collectively, people are worried about work continuity, ongoing productivity and maintaining personal connections through virtual means. As a result, they are receptive to solutions that will help to alleviate these worries in particular.

After the immediate crisis is over, I am optimistic that we will see a lot of positives come out of this situation. If some of the forced changes that we have made can move from purely short-term experimentation to long-term integration then I think people will value personal contact more, we will be more agile and flexible as a workforce, there will be long-term productivity gains and, most importantly, people will have a better sense of what is really important in life.

Originally published by Saskya Hunter on LinkedIn.

About Saskya

AquaLAB is shaping the digital future of water.