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Covid-19: How organisations are adapting

4 May 2020 - Blog, Covid-19, News

Covid-19: How organisations are adapting

It is a truth universally acknowledged…that Covid-19 has fundamentally changed ways of working, perhaps for good. Despite (or because of) the seriousness of the health emergency and economic consequences, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ means people are coming together like never before. Initiatives that would have taken weeks and months to deliver have happened overnight. Working from home that ‘couldn’t be done’ in some organisations or roles, is flourishing during the Coronavirus pandemic. We’ve all become familiar with each other’s kids and pets as formality has fallen from our interactions in favour of a more human, ‘we’re all in this together’ approach. 

At People Insight we’ve heard some great people-centric approaches from our clients to help get them through this crisis. We’ve talked to 30 organisations across the private, public and not for profit sectors. This report looks at:

  1. What are organisations doing to adapt to Covid-19?
  2. What does best practice look like?
  3. What have we learned so far?

Covid-19: How organisations are adapting – best practice so far

Pretty much every organisation we have spoken to so far still has a skeleton staff on site in head offices, factories or warehouses (with social distancing precautions), and all are taking a people first approach. Some employers are deemed essential service providers, such as Sunbelt Rentals – formerly A-Plant (plant, tool and equipment hire for infrastructure across the UK), We Are With You (The drug, alcohol and mental health charity) and Nottingham Building Society (with branches open to ensure people can access financial services).

“We have a critical role in making sure UK infrastructure stays operational. It’s our job to support the people who make sure the lights stay on and keep the wheels turning. We’re continuing to supply our equipment and services that keep the UK going, from the NHS to broadband suppliers, construction sites, police, utilities, refineries and many more.”

Steve Lynas, UK HR Director, Sunbelt Rentals

Many of the organisations we spoke to have some staff on furlough, with several rounding up salary payments beyond the £2500 maximum per month. Of course, whilst everyone has had to embrace working from home, some organisations were well set up for this, whilst others were not.

Leadership culture has changed…. possibly forever

“The CEO is now the Chief Empathy Officer. And this is really happening. 63% of HR professionals believe their organisational culture has improved, 59% believe their employee wellbeing has improved, and 55% believe their employee experience has improved.”

Josh Bersin

The trend in leadership to show more empathy, resilience and caring, as we’ve heard about in a number of client training programmes, couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Our CEO has personally phoned members of staff to discuss their concerns. We think that being attentive and responsive in a personal way has helped us achieve broader positive employee feedback around leadership, pride and the support they have been offered.”

Steve Lynas, Sunbelt Rentals

Leaders have let down their guard and shared information more informally at this distressing time. Clients tell us there is a big difference in the way leaders are communicating with staff – much more authentic, relatable and from the heart rather than via corporate speeches.

“Our senior leaders would normally travel regularly to our different office locations and they are keen to remain available for people during this period. They have started a series of Leadership Calls to include every employee in the organisation. The calls give people have the opportunity to ask questions, request topics for discussion and hear updates directly. These calls have been a real win, with hugely positive feedback from our people.“

Fiona Wallace, Head of Organisational Effectiveness Brewin Dolphin

Informality is popular, having kids, partners and flatmates appear on calls is breaking down barriers and is actually more engaging. A recent survey showed people hope this more human attitude to colleagues would stay for the long term.

Many of our clients have developed their culture and behaviours in the last few years, and this is paying dividends now. Strong purpose and values provide a framework for how to behave that is as consistent now as ever before.

“Our purpose at The Nottingham is “Doing the Right Thing” to help our members save, plan and protect their future, and as David Marlow our Chief Executive said recently; “Never has our purpose been more important.” From the beginning of the pandemic we’ve been purpose-led, doing the right thing for our people, members and communities. This has included; keeping our building society branches open so members can access essential funds, freezing savers’ interest rates for 3 months and helping our borrowers with payment holidays.

 We also committed to a tripling of our CSR investment in support of our communities. In addition to ensuring colleagues working in branches to have teas, coffees and lunches paid for by The Nottingham, we have also supported our self-employed chef, running the cafe at our Head Office who is now being supported by The Nottingham to keep operating and provide meals free of charge for key workers offering central support. The response to this has been really positive and valued by the team.”

Anne Leivers, Head of People & Development, Nottingham Building Society.

“We only just launched our new set of values in March when we launched our new Sunbelt Rentals UK brand. Our values include Teamwork and this is already being demonstrated by the sheer amount of working together and getting things done across the whole company which has been amazing.“

Steve Lynas, Sunbelt Rentals UK

“The wellbeing of our employees and clients has been central to all senior leadership decisions and our company values of Genuine, Expert and Ambitious have underpinned all our actions.” 

Fiona Wallace, Brewin Dolphin

Leaders feel the strain and drain

Whilst the leaders that have been getting it right have earned great feedback, the pace of change and sheer number of decisions made is taking its toll. Leaders have bent over backwards to ensure their colleagues are supported, but may now be experiencing ‘strain and drain,’ so who is supporting them? Coaching support should right now be high on the agenda for leadership teams – as well as paying attention to the organisation’s own wellbeing messages.

Feeling under pressure? There are some great resources over at Harvard Business Review for managers and leaders: How to refuel when you are drained and How to handle the pressure of managing people right now

We can move with urgency, agility and pace when we have to

Almost all of our clients have spoken about how the move to working from home happened almost overnight and this ‘test’ has actually been positive. Employees who hadn’t embraced WFH tech are now remarking how much easier it is than they thought. People who were told their jobs couldn’t be done at home have proven otherwise. Making a successful, significant business change like working from home is giving organisations confidence that they can be more agile,

“It’s been a massive transition in a very short period of time.  In two weeks, we moved all staff (except essential staff) to remote working, with a new IT platform capable of supporting this unprecedented volume of remote access from both students and staff.  We’ve learned how agile we can be, and look to taking our learning forward to any future changes.

Rachael Rowson, Associate Director of People (Operations), University of Bradford

Of course, there have been learnings. Nottingham Building Society worked quickly to enable around 300 team members to work from home or remotely, in addition to the rapid rollout of MS Teams.  Anne Leivers noted,  

“We had to establish ‘rules’ of communication quickly around whether to use Microsoft Teams, text messaging, WhatsApp, calls or emails for different communications.”

HR have shown tremendous agility in policy shifts

Akin to scrappy marketing and agile principles,  HR is moving and responding at pace to support new ways of working for line managers and broader teams. At Nottingham Building Society, to support managers not used to managing remotely, they introduced ‘principles’ rapidly in response to the evolving situation.

Other organisations have been quick to enhance policies around working from home, parental care, extending the period in which people can buy additional leave, and seen an increased culture of manager discretion to handle requests.

Be on the front foot if you want your people to trust you

Organisations have shared an important crisis comms principle:  Being ahead of the questions. Early on, one executive team made decisions on pay and communicated them – before uncertainty could take hold.  This ‘on the front foot’ behaviour has meant people trust their leaders, as borne out by the feedback they’ve received. It also makes it easier to manage questions raised, which become specific and transactional rather than anxious and strategic.

Watch out for over working

The concern that people will ‘skive’ when working from home appears to have been disproven in the organisations we’ve spoken to. On the contrary, ensuring staff don’t overwork is more of a concern. As Fiona Wallace from Brewin Dolphin put it,

“We’ve had to ensure the working day doesn’t overspill excessively into personal time. The absence of travel time meant that people started to book in meetings earlier and later in the day, which may work for some people but not for others, perhaps with caring responsibilities. So we have guided our managers on role modelling the right behaviours and reminding them to look out for employees who are falling into this pattern of behaviour.”

Communications are rapid and broad

More is more seems the successful strategy for most organisations regarding communications. Whilst the amount and speed of change has currently stabilised, organisations have found a variety of ways to communicate successfully with staff on and offline, within and without the usual systems. There’s a lot of information to manage: official safety guidance, operational and structural change, coupled with support and good news stories. Support provided includes wellbeing, financial help, and highlighting the support available from government and other sources.

Communications with our people include consolidating the Government updates, with working from home and wellbeing advice from the plethora of information out there in to an easy to digest email. We’re trying to help people not have their newsfeed on all the time. We’re also using Slack for informal comms; including threads where people share an inspiring story then tag a person to share theirs, people are sharing playing musical instruments, it’s all really positive.

Sarah Marriott, Chief People Officer, Oakbrook Finance

London South Bank University have been able to share some fantastic news to lift the spirits.

 “LSBU nursing students are working or volunteering in hospitals across the country and staff are training the thousands of doctors and nurses returning to the NHS, and our academies are 3D printing vital parts for protective visors. The LSBU community has proudly stood together to support our society!”

Whilst some organisations haven’t liked using social media like Facebook or WhatsApp in the past, others have successfully mastered these channels. 

“We created a private Facebook group called ‘Life at The Nottingham’ which now has over 300 members. It’s a way for us to mirror the content and updates that we share via system emails or our intranet with team members not connected to the network. As Facebook is a platform that many of our team members are familiar with we’ve also seen some fantastic levels of interactivity e.g. we shared some content to support the health and wellbeing of our team members and asked them to share some of the ways they are staying positive and well which saw lots of team member comments, pictures and videos shared.

We have launched a number of wellbeing focused initiatives to encourage a spirit of collaboration, support and recognition including our #ThanksAMillion campaign to encourage team members to say thank you to their colleagues and share what life is like for them at the moment and how they’re staying upbeat.”

Jo Navin, Internal Comms Manager, Nottingham Building Society

There’s never been a more important time to listen to staff

As communications have ramped up, listening to our peoples’ needs, sourcing ideas and assessing reactions to our changes is vital. Some organisations are doing this informally, via social channels, especially in the first weeks of lockdown. Others are running Covid-19 pulse surveys, or planning to in the next few weeks.

“We are doing a continuous pulse survey run by People Insight, and looking at the data in waves – or periods of time – to show changes as the pandemic, and our reaction develops and to look at targeted intervention.” 

Adnan Bajwa, Head of OD & Engagement, London South Bank University (LSBU)

Interested in running a pulse survey at this time?
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See how our surveys can help

Organisations are using a range of techniques to listen, and alongside surveys, collecting powerful feedback from a range of networks.

“The employee experience is evolving day by day and so our approach to listening has become multi-faceted so we can gauge where people are at and respond accordingly. Bringing together feedback from our Senior Leader calls, Engagement Partners, Wellbeing Champions, HR Business Partners and other sources is giving us a good understanding of the different experiences and challenges across the organisation.”

Fiona Wallace, Brewin Dolphin

Quizzes, virtual pubs and wellbeing are ubiquitous

One thing that has been consistent amongst all our clients interviewed, is some form of informal social fun over video, including lunchtime quizzes, virtual pubs, bingo, recipe swaps virtual film clubs, fancy dress meetings, scavenger hunts, e-coffee meet ups, parent meet ups, learning musical instruments, virtual Pictionary and online yoga.

There’s been no time like the present for sharing a variety of wellbeing resources, reminding teams of your EAP or mental health first aid support, and signposting to external wellbeing resources and creating online wellbeing workshops.  

“To provide support for our staff at this time, we’ve increased our online learning provision including personal resilience courses and how to lead remotely.” 

Sharon Neal, Assistant Director HR: OD, Culture and Inclusion, University of Sussex

“People living alone are finding it difficult to fill their time, whilst people juggling childcare with work struggle to fit everything in. These very different employee experiences have driven us to be even more thoughtful about our approach to wellbeing so that we can reach everyone with relevant support.

We have communicated a variety of wellbeing topics e.g. videos of how our senior leaders are working differently and encouraging people to do what is right for them and step away from their workspace when they need to. Alongside our Engagement Partners, we also have an internal network of Wellbeing Champions who are mental health first aiders and they play a key role in supporting our employees and ensuring that wellbeing remains at the forefront of people’s minds.”

Fiona Wallace, Brewin Dolphin

Have a look at our favourite wellbeing resources here

We’re learning to put Pow into Zoom

It’s not just informal meetings that we’re doing on Zoom, Teams, Hangouts or Skype, but more formal meetings too. We’re experiencing a steep learning curve in running different video meeting types that need to be more collaborative, creative or impactful.

“We are working on how to facilitate remote meetings that develop ideas or co-design new approaches. How do we run workshops in a way that make sure everybody has the chance to speak and all ideas are heard when there are lots of people on the call?”

Alice Dyke, Director for People and Culture We Are With You

Adnan Bajwa at LSBU is preparing to facilitate the corporate strategy in a 3-hour session virtually;

“My challenge is to work out how to be creative and keep people engaged and make it interactive.”

One suggestion about idea generation comes from Adam Grant, professor at Wharton:

One of the simple practices I would recommend to make sure that introverts don’t get drowned out is to shift from brainstorming to brain-writing. Brain-writing is a process where you [ask] all the people in a team to come up with ideas independently, then submit them. Then you review them. That leverages individual strengths around coming up with original ideas and allows the group to do what it does best, which is to begin to evaluate and refine. That’s probably one of the most effective ways to make sure that introverts are heard.

There’s also a plethora of online meeting advice at the moment – you can see some here and here.

Zoomed in or Zoned out?

A common experience felt by our clients was that whilst video calling is brilliantly facilitative, it can also be exhausting if we’re conducting our whole lives in a video chat room. The number of video calls has become relentless, and the volume can be emotionally draining – especially as we are all doing them in the evening with family too. So keep them short, to the point, only invite who you need, use other channels when you can – such as chat, phone and email. Don’t over rely on video for all your communications.

At People Insight, we’re encouraging our colleagues to have ‘walking calls’ on the mobile as an alternative to video, so we don’t over rely on the tool. There’s a great article from the BBC here about the impact of video calling on our wellbeing.

Covid-19: How organisations are adapting – best practice learnings recap

The key things we’ve learned from our clients include:

1. Purpose, culture and values provide a framework for our behaviours and communications – now just as always.
2. Empathetic leadership is perhaps here to last.
3. On the front foot, transparent, anticipatory communications build significant trust amongst employees. Trust is vital if we want our people to get involved in change.
4. Listening is absolutely critical during change – to help people feel involved and respected, and get diverse input to solve problems.
5. Employees love the reduced formality of communications at this time and report they are more engaged because of it.
6. There’s room for fun in the corporate agenda without sacrificing productivity.
7. The mass working from home experiment has been a success. We can trust our people to perform – and we must ensure there are boundaries so they don’t burnout.
8. Elongated planning, lengthy programme roll outs and caution may not be as necessary as we thought. We can be confident in our ability to move at pace. Agile is for everyone!
9. Video calling is fantastic technology for all kinds of meetings – but draining if overused.
10. Our people will expect more work flexibility post-lockdown. This has implications for every aspect of the employee experience; leadership, comms, culture, resources and workspaces.

Employee engagement during Covid-19: People Insight resources  

Take a look at our blog posts full of advice for HR, line managers and employees. Download our free question index below.

  1. Should you be surveying during COVID-19?
  2. Covid-19: How organisations are preparing for the end of lockdown
  3. Employee surveys during COVID-19: Free question index  
  4. Line managers: Creating a new normal during COVID-19  
  5. Support for HR: Keeping employees engaged and motivated during COVID-19 
  6. Our favourite Wellbeing content to get us through Covid-19 lockdown
  7. Not alone but lonely: How to tackle workplace isolation and improve wellbeing at work
  8. The COVID Survival Plan for the Care Home Industry

Great insights.
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