Managing the new normal


With working from home becoming the norm for many during 2020’s lockdown, employees and organisations have had to develop new ways of working to adapt to challenges that a global pandemic brings.

Grahame Robb Associates (GRA), the Official Learning and Development Supplier to the Clipper 2019-20 Race, is an expert in experiential learning. With 30 years of experience, its team has reinvented themselves multiple times and has most recently adapted its renowned face-to-face leadership and team development solutions into online learning programmes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Managing the impact of any change can be difficult but the consequences of a global pandemic means that team building and effective communication are more important for success than ever. Grahame Robb, Founder and Managing Director of GRA shares his expertise:

The new normal

This year has accelerated a shift to virtual and remote working that was going to take place within the next ten to fifteen years and all the evidence suggests that the world of work will not go back to how it was. There are a huge number of stories that support a swift and successful transition but that’s not to say it hasn’t been difficult. Or that often many people have felt out of their depth, under increased pressure or feeling the fatiguing effects of continuously engaging in virtual working.

We are hearing of individuals and companies who have a ‘caught in the headlights’ approach and are waiting for the old norm to return whilst others are embracing the change, “feeling the fear” and engaging with the new world.

My advice to individuals and companies is to do an honest appraisal of the current situation and devote real time to formulating a strategy to face the future head on. Doing nothing is not an option.

For smaller businesses and some big businesses it has astounded me how quickly they have run out of cash. My hairdresser, who runs her own business, told me, whilst reengineering my curls (that I had not seen since age 18), “I think this is the rainy day my mum always talked about”. Maybe her mum should have been giving that advice to some of the companies that have already gone under. Now, more than ever, people are important to companies. The people who are flexible, willing to learn and try new things are the real assets.

A big assumed constraint prior to this pandemic was that people couldn’t work from home as effectively as in the office, but this has turned out not to be true. Through discussions with managers in a number of businesses, one of the biggest barriers to effective remote working that has emerged is around leadership, how can leaders shift their skills to the virtual world? Often managers, particularly with a team that encompasses a wide demographic, can be fearful of adaptation, often because of their own limitations regarding technology. This is interesting as recent research has suggested most people (regardless of demographic) perceive technology as both an enabler and disabler towards them working remotely.

Building a virtual culture of open dialogue

Therein, open and honest dialogue between team members and managers is even more important than before because of the complexity of the current pandemic. Being transparent with people, sharing the truth and taking tough decisions early are key to business survival. It is even more important to communicate regularly and share information early.

I hear stories from individuals who are now attending more meetings than ever, increased catch ups with their line manager and trying to stay connected with colleagues through a range of medians adding to this feeling of being ‘always on’. It’s as if the daily commute has been replaced by more meetings, diaries are stacked back to back with no chance of a break. The reduction in travel is great for the environment yes, but what about the strain put on that person? The employee is now working through the night to complete their tasks and feeling as though remote working is detrimental to them.

This should be recognised and nipped in the bud by the team and leader quickly. Having regular catch ups daily or even twice daily keeps people motivated and provides the opportunity to share successes and discuss issues. When responding to change, people are a company’s best asset, head offices contribute nothing. It is people that make the real difference. Team Building whether online or face to face is important to build and strengthen relationships. Catch ups at the beginning and end of the day are invaluable in keeping people engaged, sharing progress and building collaboration.

Video calls are great but what other ways to communicate can we use? Phone call Fridays, group messaging and, if safe to do so, physical meetings. A lack of physical interaction has been a particular issue that has resonated across the UK, highlighted by the rise in mental health concerns, and organisations face a challenge in ensuring the physical safety of their employees, though they also have a responsibility for the mental and emotional safety too. The next challenge for organisations will be how to best utilise a blend of working and learning styles (remote and local) to best meet the needs of their business and employees.

Rethinking the learner-centric approach

For many, the global coronavirus pandemic has led to significant changes in circumstances both personally and professionally. Whether a key worker, working from home, furloughed or looking for a new role, lockdown and its subsequent restrictions have meant time for reflection, adapting to change and an onus on increased independence and autonomy. For organisations, and individuals, creating the right conditions for people to do their best work has often been a focus, but those conditions have changed. This could be a great opportunity to rethink how we approach learning going forward.

This pandemic has brought into focus the need to break away from our default futures and ‘doing things the way we’ve always done them. Organisations need to adapt, up-skill and diversify in order to stay afloat in the changing world. Not since the dot com bubble period of the early 2000’s, in which the internet became an integral part of life, has technological emphasis shifted, with learning being a critical component of this. With a wealth of information now at the fingertips of anyone who possesses an internet connection, infinite possibilities can now be placed closer to hand. However, with a wealth of information out there it can feel intimidating, especially if your experience of training has been limited to face to face.

E-learning, to be effective, has to be redefined. Often both individuals and organisations have played with this median by taking a tool used in face to face training (such as a Powerpoint presentation) and uploading it for users to flick through. This is not effective. Only by going back and examining the core learning outcomes can a truly learner-centred experience be offered. Individuals should look out for this, for e-learning only works if content is offered in multiple forms such as text, video, podcasts, discussion boards, quizzes and assignments. Learners should always be considering the practical application at the end of the learning journey. It’s impact will be even stronger, if it is part of a blended experience encompassing virtual classrooms or face to face training so that they get the opportunity to test their understanding of the subject through practical application of the skills they have learned.

My advice to leaders and individuals is to think about what you want. Personal development should encompass training related to your job role and career path but also your interests and passions. Often, if you actively want to learn something then you are better at finding the median that works for you. Recently I have been doing live cook-a-longs with my friends as I struggle with following recipes. Having everyone on camera doing the same recipe at the same time, running into the same problems and solving them together has led me to become a better cook and to try harder recipes leading me to eat better and gain a real sense of achievement. This can be the same with you, regardless of if it's work related training or not.

In a competitive job market, consider what learning will benefit you most. For companies, use this time to build capability. Most development will need to be online through self paced e-learning or online facilitator-led as we move out of the pandemic. I believe companies will take a more blended approach to development with a mix of online, face to face indoor and outdoor development.

At Grahame Robb Associates, we have created a 10 hour e-Learning programme - Beyond Default Strategic Leadership, which focuses on changing the trajectory of your team or organisation. We have also developed some of our most popular programmes, including, Resilience for Results, Coaching Essentials and Belbin Team Roles into virtual classrooms, e-learning or one-to-one coaching.

The same storm but different boats

The metaphor that we are all in the same boat during this pandemic has been used many times to describe the current situation, however this is a generalisation. A better sentiment would be that we are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. We cannot assume that that one person is dealing with change in the same manner as the next person. There are many other disrupting factors, other than just simply the change in the working environment.

Applying this metaphor to the workplace, the trick is for organisations to try and ensure that its fleet is sailing in the same direction.

GRA worked closely with the Clipper Race Skippers and First Mates in preparation for the Clipper 2019-20 Race and the ultimate leadership challenge. As leaders of their teams, the Race Skippers have to not only be excellent sailors but manage a diverse and ever-changing team in some of the most extreme and challenging conditions.

We designed a programme that helped skippers to understand the differences in people and what makes them tick as well as how to get the best out of people in different situations. We provided skippers with the knowledge and skills to prepare for and handle ‘crucial conversations’, we enhanced existing leadership skills by sharing theories such as ‘action centred leadership’ and ‘situational leadership’ providing the opportunity to practice the theories with indoor and outdoor experiential problem-solving tasks. In addition, skippers spent time developing their presentation skills to brief their new crew and help them to build a shared vision of success and their own unique culture. Furthermore, each of the Race Skippers and First Mates were profiled using Belbin to help them understand different team contributions, strengths and weaknesses as well as potential areas for conflict or tension. These reports were used to help identify the Skipper and First Mate pairings for the race.

All of these skills are entirely relevant to our current situation where there is a need to lead teams virtually, build a strong cohesive culture and play to individual strengths.

There are so many comparisons that can be drawn between the race and the challenges organisations are currently facing, from changing environmental conditions to the pressures exerted by the competition and different individuals' ideas of what success looks like for the team. For me, the biggest and most stark resemblance is the changing team dynamic. On the boat during the Clipper Race you have to build a team of people sailing that boat, although split into different watches, they are all trying to go the same direction. Each individual has different skill sets and different training needs. It takes time for these individuals to bond and the team to form and perform and as soon as it seems that you have a great winning team you hit port and half of them leave and new people come on board and the process starts again.

In recent months we have seen the same in business organisations, the furlough scheme whilst effective at keeping companies afloat has massively distributed teams within organisations. As companies struggle to stay afloat individuals have temporarily or permanently left the business causing disruption and anxiety to those left behind. A new normal may be that this team dynamic remains but a concentrated effort needs to be made by leaders to ensure that onboarding processes are in place that meet the individual needs of all team members. The phrase ‘the chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ has never been more true. Only by addressing the needs of each individual and the team as a whole can leaders effectively mould and influence the overall direction and achieve the tasks set to them.”

For further insights from GRA watch its latest Webinar: The Future of L&D: A Blended Approach or visit its website for more information.