Responding to a Viral Disrupter

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Responding to a Viral Disrupter

N Cubed Group
Published by Laurence Nicholson CEO in Management · 2 November 2020
Tags: #ncubedgroup#productsmart#covid#disruption
Considering the impacts and challenges of SARS-CoV-2

Nobody expected 2020 to be such a disrupted year, especially on such a global scale.

Seven months later, the darker days of autumn and winter are beginning to appear. On top of this, psychological conditions like seasonal adjustment disorder (SAD) exacerbate the effects of isolation for many. Companies need to take stock of where they stand, what they have learned and what they can expect in the future; they need to plan how best to protect their employees and their business to emerge as a high-performing and operationally optimised company with satisfied and motivated employees.

In this article, written in partnership with Product-Smart, we take a look at how companies are facing changes in working practices and the introduction of new techniques for communicating and involving different workers to maintain productivity and meet the increasing challenge of maintaining motivation and concentration in these new working conditions.
1.    Background to the trigger for disrupted change
The WHO1 declared the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Since then, the rate of global spread has accelerated.i
2.    Impacts of SARS-CoV-2
The initial response to the outbreak included immediate travel restrictions, interaction with others in a tight environment, and a reduction in the means of transport available to all but key workers.

Following the government's advice, workers were advised to work from home if possible. This prompted initial reactions from business leaders.

Companies around the world have been using technologies available for some time for long-distance communications, including video conferencing, and have largely succeeded in making it the norm for everyone, from the CEO to the entire company.
According to a recent study by BCG2 ii, "Remote working" is one of the main priorities for companies.  It will likely be a much larger element of many new TOMs3 defined as the way forward - a common view, given the ongoing feedback from this real-time experiment we were forced to do during the lockdown.
In this study, BCG found that around 81% of companies have already taken steps to develop a digital approach to information exchange, with a further 9% planning to do so. 86% have developed flexible work plans and a further 3% plan to do so as a new way of working.

Communication with video-based technologies facilitates much of this new approach, but it isn't without drawbacks.

Infrastructure has reached its limits in terms of the bandwidth needs of those working from home and social communication. This sometimes leads to a decreased service or a lower quality of the video images.

Furthermore, those of us who have experience of reading non-verbal signals during face-to-face meetings are aware of what is also overlooked in video conferencing, but tend to acknowledge its better than audio-based solutions, and where this level of observation is crucial. Careful positioning of cameras, high-quality microphones and the individuals themselves can provide the bulk of what is needed to access this non-verbal communication.

This also has a psycho-social element, because although the BCG study showed that employee perceptions of productivity have improved in individual and managerial tasks, more (56%) believed worse for collaborative activities, performance and productivity under COVID conditions of remote work. It states:

“Social connectivity, it turns out, is what enables us to be collaboratively productive. And collaborative productivity is essential for any company looking to improve communication, increase efficiency, accelerate skills acquisition, or harness innovation.”

What is clear from our discussions with many organisations’ employees is they miss the connectivity they have within the office. They particularly miss both “being able to spontaneously walk to a co-worker’s desk and talk about a particular issue” and “impromptu as well as planned social gatherings at work.”
If you put a product development lens on the study data, you distinguish the claimed increase in productivity differently.  Most tasks in the product life-cycle require significant collaboration with colleagues, internal functions and the supporting ecosystem. Today, the volume of "collaborative tasks" is much higher than individual and management tasks, so any perceived reduction in productivity due to remote work would have significant impact to the business.

It is clear that for many, remote work is increasingly perceived as a temporary or partial solution. Physical isolation not only affects the productivity of cooperation, but also affects their mental health. Physical closeness and contact, including handshakes, have long been understood as an extremely calming psychological experience and part of our social and emotional needs, as well as a non-verbal indicator of emotional and contextual states.
What this means is that one of the biggest challenges for companies planning to apply remote working as an integral part of their future operating model, will be to create an optimum environment, balancing it with in-office working to greatest effect.

This new landscape of employment and organisational models must take these effects on performance into account and recognise the importance of employee wellness programs and social interaction opportunities in the future approach.

Issues that have already been highlighted, as well as longer-term problems, including psychological effects, which we will now address, require long-term / permanent solutions.

The disparate team model has been partly addressed with the maturity of connectivity technologies, particularly in software development and "agile" approaches, but support functions like finance, law, procurement, and human resources tend to lag behind in implementing the changes required and adapting to support the agile environment.

Management methods and behaviours required to provide optimum support to the identification, experimentation, development and realisation of new products or product improvements must be implemented. The Servant Leadership Modeliii introduced to a modern business world by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, has been described by Larry Spears, the Executive Director of the ‘Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership’, as a model:
“based on teamwork and community” and that it “seeks to involve others in decision-making…to enhance the personal growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of our many institutions”.iv

The effects of isolation on mental health are well-known, and supported by the results of a 2015 study co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD student, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. According to her study, inadequate social bonding increases health risks, as does smoking 15 cigarettes a day or alcohol-related disorders. She has also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesityv, explaining:

"There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators."

Widespread use of interconnection technology will undoubtedly help mitigate these serious effects, but to what extent we will have to wait and see.

Motivation and commitment are other challenges that workers face when operating at a distance, especially when it comes to staying motivated and dealing with their tasks and the purpose of the company.

A good deal of corporate wellness and corporate proactive mental health programs, including those offered by us here at the N Cubed Group4, are heavily influenced by the field of sport, where a considerable amount of research has been conducted on techniques and practices used by elite athletes to maintain a high level of self-motivation, set effective priorities, and how to deal with negative self-talk.

Here, we combine this elite sports research with an understanding of how the brain works and how to optimise the use of our System 1 (Limbic) and System 2 (Pre-Frontal Cortex) brain functions, as identified in Dr. Daniel Kahneman's researchvi, to improve individual performance and productivity, typically resulting in measurable improvements when these programs are provided in a worker wellness program.

When combined, such rapid reactionary changes and job insecurity mean an increase in stress. Studies into workplace stress have been identified as significant costs for companies worldwide, ranging from £45 billion a year in the UKvii, to between $80 billion and $100 billion a year in the USviii.  Although this is a major topic, which I will discuss in a later article, research by Jean-Pierre Brun (Director of the Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Management at the Université de Laval) and the World Health Organization (2020) has identified isolated or solitary work as a factor in increasing stress:

'Interpersonal relationships (inadequate, inconsiderate or unsupportive supervision, poor relationships with colleagues, bullying / harassment and violence, isolated or solitary work, etc.)'

The same source identified that an organisational culture that didn't provide clarity about organisational goals, is another cause of increasing stress at work, a finding supported by BCG in their study, which also recognised the need to make employees aware of the company's "purpose" to reduce ‘uncertainty stress’5, commenting that:

“One CEO talked about how purpose enabled her to help “people move beyond grief to action” while another emphasized that “by reminding teams of our purpose and why we are working hard, we can do more to handle the crisis and strengthen our reason for existing.”ix

Although work-related stress and anxiety are still evasive concepts for many, a growing body of evidence points to the risk factors that affect these two conditions and the commonly used term in today's workplace, burnout.
2.        Conclusion
SARS-CoV-2 (COVID19) has had, and continues to have, profound effects, including communication problems, isolation effects on wellbeing, restructuring of organisations, and new topologies of the employee landscape, which will all eventually establish themselves in a position in which much is familiar and some is new.

The biggest struggle seems to revolve around the psychosocial effects of isolation restrictions and relying on technology to stay in touch.

In the future, as we experience a period of recovery and adaptation to new operational practices, leaders need to place a strong focus on corporate wellness programs and optimising the mental health of their workforces.

To account for the physical, psychological and emotional impact of the new work environment and the satisfaction of employees, many experts claim that employee engagement in terms of well-being and happiness, will be the only metric CEOs that will worry about in the future.

Through increasing the organisational support for employee well-being, ‘people management’ functions will be better placed to focus on this as the number one measure of an organisation's health.

[1] World Health Organisation
[2] Boston Consulting Group
[3] Target Operating Models
[4] See
[5] Anxiety related to not understanding one’s role and expectations of management of them.
[i] The Lancet – Infectious Diseases, location:
[ii] 8 Ways to embrace the new reality – September 2020, Boston Consulting Group
[iii] Greenleaf developed his idea of servant as leader after he left AT&T in 1964 from the position of the Director of Management Research,      Development and Education.
[iv] Larry Spears, (2005): The Understanding and Practice of Servant-Leadership.
[v] Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2015 – American Psychological Association at  corner-isolation.
[vi] Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[vii] Deloitte Study - Mental health and employers, Refreshing the case for investment, January 2020
[viii] Forbes (2019) Corporate stress costs in American businesses report.
[ix] Boston Consulting Group - CEOs Reflect on Leadership in Perilous Times, August 2020

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