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Change management during unprecedented COVID-19 times - CITI
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Change management during unprecedented COVID-19 times

Are you suffering ‘unprecedented’ fatigue?  I know I am; if there’s one word that has been over-worked in 2020 it is unprecedented.  Certainly the original position in late March and early April merited this description but how many times you have to go through Groundhog day, before it becomes thoroughly ‘precedented’, is a matter of personal opinion and taste.  More interestingly, what I am quite convinced of, is that whatever form of ‘normal’ emerges when the threat of the pandemic finally recedes will not be a return to the pre-Covid ways of living and working.  People have become accustomed to different, and in many respects better, practices.  And, once something is customary and familiar it has an uncanny way of sticking – just witness people returning to ‘their’ seat in a meeting room or ‘hot-desking’ environment.

This leaves business in general and the change profession, in particular, facing a couple of interesting questions.  How do we effectively harness the positive changes forced on us by the pandemic and how do we avoid the negative consequences on the mental well-being and productivity of our colleagues and ourselves in a world of dramatically altered practices?  A colleague and I were discussing these questions against the organiser of Maslow’s hierarchy of need and it provided some interesting trains of thought.

At the physiological needs level, towards the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, the pandemic has forced significant changes in daily behaviour.  Humans, an essentially gregarious and social species, have been forced into a set of remote and distancing behaviours (self-isolation, social distancing and mask wearing are all contrary to our basic physical needs).  Maslow identifies a need for belonging and social recognition as you move up his pyramid and yet, for good reason, the Government legislates to make this increasingly awkward, if not unattainable.  Does this feel like the cards are being stacked up against maintaining a cohesive and well-balanced work force?  Well, in our typically resourceful way and through harnessing technology, we humans have attempted to mitigate this through virtual contact.  Skype, Teams and Zoom have become the default applications for continuing to pursue interpersonal interactions (whether socially or for work purposes), however this begs the question; are they adequate? Is virtual contact a reasonable substitute for actual physical proximity?  Or, are there some things, that humans thrive on, that require actual presence?

What can be done?

Clearly some work cannot be done ‘remotely’ or in isolation; a brick-layer is dependent on his hod-carrier and muck-mixer to maintain continuity of work, a surgeon must lay her hands on the patient whilst surrounded by a team of anaesthetists and nursing specialists.  But, for many of us (particularly those in ‘knowledge working’), work – or significant parts of it – can be conducted in isolation.  Does this mean we should fly in the face of Maslow’s hierarchy and try to subvert what his model suggests?  Or does it mean we should find ways of harnessing and adapting its insights to work for us in our new reality?

Where work can be done in isolation it should be and where it can’t, then some form of proximity must be established. As ever the ‘grey’ ground in between is where the problem arises and guidance might be helpful on when to physically engage.  To that end the question is, what should the rules of engagement be?  Here, Maslow might be helpful.

The need for recognition and fulfilment is central to the upper tiers of the model and offers the greatest reward available to the individual.  Where subtlety of meaning is required and the full communication spectrum needs to be exploited is where physical proximity is most valuable.  Being able to recognise and respond, in real time, to nuances in communication to achieve recognition of one’s views and acceptance of another’s (whilst retaining the flexibility to modify positions and accommodate differences) offers fulfilment for both the individual and the team.  But this becomes fraught with remote or isolated communications mechanisms.  So it might make sense to work out the guidance on co-located working practices by examining the cost and risk of failure in complex communications as one of the guiding principles.  As ever it becomes a balance of the utility (of effective communications to satisfying needs) against the cost and risk of achieving this – the business case trumps everything as a guide to effective business practices.

In short the rules of engagement should be where the utility of interpersonal communications do not outweigh the costs and risks of achieving them; then work remotely and in splendid isolation!  This does, of course, beg questions about ‘utility’ – what it is, to whom it matters and why?

Kay Sanders

Kay Sanders, CEO

As the CEO of CITI, I specialise in change enablement consultancy, building capability within organisations to support the delivery of strategic change through effective portfolio, programme and project management. We believe that people not only need the technical expertise, but also the behavioural consciousness to sponsor, manage stakeholders and realise benefits within P3M to deliver successful change. Kay can be contacted via email at