Navigating New Ways of Work - Understanding the Emotional Journey Through COVID-19 to Create Effective Processes for the Future of Work (2020)

Claire Pointing & Andrea Foot

Navigating New Ways of Work - Understanding the Emotional Journey Through COVID-19 to Create Effective Processes for the Future of Work

“The Chinese word for Crisis is a combination of two characters: these are often translated as “Danger” and “Opportunity”. However, this is a mistranslation - the first character wēi does indeed mean "dangerous" or "precarious", but the second, character jī does not mean "opportunity" in isolation, but something more like "change point”.

Victor H Mair

“There is

freedom waiting for you

On the breezes of the Summer sky.

And you ask, “What if I fall?’

But oh, my darling –

What if you fly?

Erin Hanson


Overview: moving from crisis to stability

The last 6 months have felt like a big social experiment, marked by things moving really fast with a limited sense of control and choices. Nobody has had the whole picture and, even now, nobody really knows what the picture is going to look like. What is clear is that organisations are facing a “change point” as they look to move from short term crisis management to a new phase of more forward-looking working arrangements.


As organisations emerge from an enforced period of working from home and plan for a “new normal”, there is a strong push to have clear answers to the challenges that a return to the physical workplace can create. One of the key issues that organisations are facing is not only how to plan for the practicalities and processes for re-opening workplaces but how to effectively support their workforces as they are invited to adapt to new ways of working.


One of the key factors to consider navigating this is that human beings are annoyingly varied in their points of view and approaches to situations – they tend not to passively comply to a one size fits all approach to new situations. This can be clearly seen as we look to establish post crisis ways of working. For some there is a strong desire to return as quickly as possible to a world that feels as close to business as usual before the COVID-19 crisis. For others there is eagerness to capitalise on the experiences of the last 6 months, to pivot, to embrace the benefits of the shake-up in working practices – financial, personal, technological, professional and environmental – ensuring that a “a good crisis doesn’t go to waste”.


So how do we build processes that recognise the different stages that people are experiencing and how can we actively harness and accommodate these diverse points of view rather than ignore them?


First, we need to understand what really drives a workforce to engage in practice with new ways of working. When we are planning how to create and support new ways of working it can feel most natural to start with design and process: what will the workplace look like; who will work where and when; how do we put in place the procedures to support this new design. 


However, sitting at the heart of change is the question of how we engage people at an emotional level to work in new ways – whilst the emotional state is often invisible it is the foundation of creating healthy cultures and successful processes to support new ways of working.  The focus on process may work in the short term, but if people are unready or unwilling to adapt to the cultural assumptions that are pointing at a different direction, processes alone are unlikely to create an effective work environment in the longer term.


It turns out that before diving into process planning, we benefit from considering two other factors:

  • Where are your people emotionally in response to the COVID-19 crisis?
  • How has the COVID-19 experience impacted your organisational culture?


Once these are understood, leaders or organisations, divisions and teams will have a far clearer state of mind of their people and how best to select processes that actively support them in adapting to new ways of working. 


Putting it bluntly, if the workforce is in the wrong emotional state to accept suggested new ways of working or if the post COVID-19 culture is misaligned with the leader’s objectives, no amount of detailed planning will deliver positive and sustainable outcomes – the key emotional and cultural foundations are simply missing.


Decoding the Emotional Context

Why is implementing change any different now? The sudden disruptive nature of COVID-19 has resulted in people collectively experiencing the impact of the crisis at multiple levels - individually, professional, existentially, globally and over different timelines. 


The crisis has blurred the boundaries between personal and professional experiences in a profound way. When thinking about engaging people in new ways of working it is important to recognise that the swings and volatility of the external environment have played out within individuals in a very real sense. 



Back to basics - the trajectory of how individuals’ responses seem to follow predictable emotional phases as they respond to the “unknown”.


What many people are experiencing as personal to them is in fact pretty universal. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that individuals need to attend to their own needs first before they can address larger or broader considerations.


In times of crisis individuals are primarily focused on their “deficiency needs” as they look to a state of physical survival and psychological uncertainty. 

We have identified, through extensive discussions with leaders, coaches and other industry participants, 4 Phases of Emotional Response to the COVID-19 Crisis. These are shown below.  The Phases clearly map onto Maslow’s Hierarchy and help us understand the emotional mindset of individuals as they respond and navigate their way through a period of crisis back into some level of normality.





It is important to understand that individuals will be experiencing these Phases in different time frames. So while some, who are further along in their emotional response journey will embrace a new working initiative, others will still be at an earlier stage of their emotional response and potentially be more fearful of more change.


This leads to a risk for leaders, who by concentrating their attention largely on the process aspects (the ‘what’) of change, to unwittingly set up a perfect storm for the triggering and entrenchment of resistance to change amongst their teams. 


The Cultural Context

The emotional journey of individuals has had a knock-on impact with how individuals are engaging with their organisations and shaping day to day culture When we think about the role of culture in creating effective new ways of working there are 3 key questions to ask:


First, what is the current culture - where are we really (not where do we hope/ think we are) and what are the post COVID traps?


Take a step back and think about where your team and organisation might be in the context of the above Phases of Emotional Response.  Is everyone at the same point or might there be differences and how might this be impacting your pre-crisis culture? How differently might you interpret the responses you are encountering from your team when you overlay a Maslow-informed interpretation to them? For instance, if you are at the point of feeling comfortable to move from the internal to an external focus, but your team are working through rebuilding their sense of comfort in their basic and psychological needs, what impact do you think this will have on your attempts to introduce further change?


Do you know if the people being asked to return to an office environment are afraid of taking public transport? Are they constrained by competing demands – absence of childcare; home schooling as a result of local lock down; are they medically vulnerable? If so, are they coming to the office/ workplace because they want to? Could it be that they fear for their jobs or standing in a hybrid organisation, where the culture has shifted to being seen over being productive?


Second, does the culture support psychological safety?


To create lasting and effective new ways of working we need to move into a mindset which asks for developing our capacity to create spaces in which teams feel safe to explore the uncertainty and ambiguity which these times have brought into all aspects of their lives.


Here the work of Amy Edmondson[1]  on Psychological Safety is key. Are the processes you are adopting creating a culture of learning and high performance or is there a risk that compliance with new ways of working is being driven by unspoken anxiety in the organisation? 


Third, how actively are you leading your people into the new ways of working? Hybrid leadership requires active leadership and communication.


It is safe to say that many organisations are now firmly operating in hybrid models, with people moving in and out of formal and informal workspaces. This has created a new world of physical distance and virtual intimacy – boundaries between the professional and the personal have become blurred in a way we have never seen before; we have all had a crash course in working virtually – but new ways of working will become a shifting blend of virtual and physical. 


Do you know how your culture will view and reward people who inhabit these very different but connected spaces? People will be asking themselves questions like - “If I am not in the office will I be forgotten or at risk?”; “How can I re-establish boundaries between my professional and home life that have blurred in the last 6 months – if my work and home lives are physically intertwined when is it ok to just be at home?.” And a host of other questions that directly link their emotions to your organisational culture and the processes that will help them leave behind a 6-month period of uncertainty and do their best work however and wherever they are working.


If you don’t know how your culture and processes will help people navigate their way through these questions, you can be confident that hidden emotions will be in the driving seat of people’s behaviour - Maslow’s “Psychological Needs” if they feel unsure or even “Basic Needs” if they feel unsafe.  


These will be at the expense of the healthy forward-looking mindset that every organisation needs from their people as they navigate this major “change point” of new ways of working.


What next: Building fit for purpose processes


When planning the next phase of how, where and when your people will be working, take a step back and ask yourself this simple question:


“Am I planning my processes with a functional mindset or a human mindset?”


If the people are missing from your answer, the chances are they will be missing from your processes too at a critical time when you most need them to be engaged and onboard with the future that you are aiming towards.

[1] The fearless organization – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning and Growth. Amy Edmondson Wiley, New Jersey. 2019


If you are interested in learning more about this topic, KDVI will be running a 6-week open enrolment programme entitled Creating Healthy Cultures for New Ways of Working


We have also listened to the needs of current leaders who have had to scale back or postpone leadership and team development programmes, at a time when they feel an acute need for support, and developed four virtual services to help lead through times of uncertainty.


For senior consultants, coaches and executives we have designed an online Masterclass focusing on addressing the human dimensions of organisational change. The course represents the first foundational step towards certification in KDVI's Organisational Culture Audit (OCA™) by introducing a holistic framework to support leadership teams to foster healthy, high-performing organisational cultures.


For senior female executives we have developed the The Advancing Women in Leadership Programme, a high-touch, interactive online Leadership Programme with the intention to help cultivate your leadership capabilities and to enhance your strategic network with other senior women.


We are also designing bespoke client-specific programmes for organisations who wish to take a proactive approach to the transformations they are experiencing. Enquire here for more information.

KDVI Writer's Colony, 2020

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