Eight ways business leaders can apply learnings from the pandemic

We will never return to the old “normal”. Here’s how to forge a new way forward


“It’s really, really hard out there,” says Chris Hopson, Chief Executive at NHS Providers. Hopson has managed through the toughest crisis of a career that has seen him move from politics to commercial television to public services.

“It’s asking a lot of us as leaders, it’s asking a lot in terms of our own personal resilience, but boy oh boy is that leadership task really important at the moment, and it’s an opportunity to step up to the plate for our teams.”

Randall S Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School, has been impressed by Hopson’s adaptability and responsiveness. As someone who has spent most of his life training leaders, Peterson has been advising executives on how to get through this current crisis. There are plenty more hurdles to overcome, he acknowledges. Now is the time for leaders to step up.

A conversation between the two yields eight principles for leaders to live by, as they navigate the new working world:


1 Be active, dynamic and strong


“There are certain things that people are always looking for in a leader – they were true in February; they are true now and they are true until it is over,” says Professor Peterson. “It’s about looking the part, acting the part, having consistent values and being inclusive and open. And that last part is key – if you don’t know what’s going on around you it’s hard to be really effective and you will very quickly start to get less and less relevant.”

This, then, is a real test of leadership – and a test in unfamiliar and uncertain circumstances. Few of us have navigated online working before. We are not used to revealing our homes to our work teams. We are not used to days that seem to have no cut off point, where meetings, even organised online work socialising, can all too easily bleed into evenings and weekends. And we are not used to dealing with the ongoing doubts caused by a global public health emergency.


2 Humanise virtual working


Hopson has been finding ways of dealing with all of these issues for his team of 65 at NHS Providers, the public voice and lobbying arm for all of England’s 217 hospital, community, mental health and ambulance trusts. Its members employ 800,000 staff and spend £84 billion a year of taxpayers’ money. With its position at the heart of the country’s National Health Service it has clearly been in the eye of the storm – Hopson spent the first few months of the crisis fuelled by adrenaline from appearing on national TV and radio several times a day.

That rush has been replaced by the sheer slog of virtual working – his whole organisation has been working from home since March, with just a handful choosing to go into the London office when the rules allowed it to open. He’s come up with a list of what he calls “the technical requirements” of being a leader in this environment”:

  • Every Zoom meeting is structured to have six or seven minutes of social conversation at the start rather than diving straight into the task and running out of time for catching up;
  • Whole staff meetings have been upped from once a month to fortnightly to keep a sense of togetherness;
  • Every morning Hopson has a half-hour call with his deputy to run over the issues of the day – something he says they would never have done before and that he finds extremely helpful;
  • He takes care not to put unfair burdens on people who have obligations at home, such as caring for young children, that make their interactions with work more difficult. His goal is to make staff feel comfortable about discussing any issues they face.


3 Keep moving forward


All of this is designed to build some human support into the online way of working – something that we are all still only just working out how to do. And they are all measures that will need to be retained in the future as Professor Peterson believes our working world has changed for ever. “I hear people talking about “when we go back to normal”, but I doubt that normal will ever be what normal was before this happened,” he says. “Our meetings are different. The way we interact will be different. And there will be a lingering effect of social distancing, people will continue to be a little bit nervous about being around other people for some time.”

Accepting this new reality is key to moving forward. The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, according to management thinker Peter Drucker, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.


4 Communicate openly, honestly and often


But amid all these changes it’s harder than ever for leaders to gauge whether they actually are doing a good job. “You don’t have those glancing encounters with people in the office, and you can’t read body language on video calls,” says Hopson.

Again, it’s about providing a safe space for open dialogue. Companies with a good organisational culture will already have an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to share things with each other. Senior leaders have an important role in setting that culture and role modelling it – forcing themselves to take the time to check in on their people and ask for their views.

Staff surveys can also come into their own in the current environment. Not just the big annual staff survey but shorter ‘pulse’ surveys that will give you the mood of the organisation every month or so – but only if it gets a high enough response rate. It has to be 70 per cent-plus to trust the data, adds Peterson.


5 Show appreciation


Expressing gratitude for people’s contributions can also help. Operating from home, Hopson’s team wrote down what they appreciated about a colleague and sent it to them in the post, creating some of the sense of connection they were missing from office life. He also worked with his line managers to think about what they wanted to thank each individual for in terms of their work during the Covid period, and communicated that. “The pandemic has required everyone to do some extraordinary things in difficult circumstances and we wanted to recognise that in terms of our staff,” he says. “There’s no doubt we’ve done some amazing things in the past few months.”

Peterson remembers doing a similar thing when he was a deputy dean at the School – adding a few personal sentences to people’s annual reviews. “When you are specific like that it makes a real difference,” he adds. “None of us wants to feel like we are an interchangeable cog in a huge machine and it’s the ability to give people an individual identity within the bigger process of the organisation, that really helps to motivate, engage and keep people mentally focused and healthy.

“Those kinds of things go a long way. They will also serve to reduce negativity when this is all over, because that will come – the anger part will come. And if you have laid the groundwork already then you won’t suffer the worst of it.”


6 Keep a growth mindset


Then there’s the really hard challenge of continuing to learn and grow, even in the midst of a crisis – when people might be feeling exhausted from months of unusual working patterns. “Taking the time to ask questions and seek honest answers might feel like slowing down the response in a crisis, but it is actually preparing for the future,” says Peterson.

Hopson’s organisation has developed the concept of having a meeting specifically to let them ‘pull off the road’, to take stock and learn. “I’m very task focused and it’s almost painful for me to ‘pull off the road’,” says Hopson. “But my deputy suggested we should spend time thinking about what we have learned from the first stage of Covid as individuals, teams, line managers and as an organisation, and how we think that learning should be applied going forward. And we had a very rich 45-minute discussion on that.”



7 Look after your own physical and mental health


It’s not just meetings that need to ‘pull off the road’ – sometimes leaders need to take time out as well to take care of their physical and mental health. It’s another example of good role modelling if your staff can see that you are taking time off to look after yourself.

Because, as Hopson says, this crisis is asking a lot of leaders in terms of their own personal resilience. “Under stress I know I can be quite grumpy, and short tempered and I have to be careful not to let that filter through to the organisation,” he admits. “One of the biggest leadership challenges I face is about being sufficiently even, optimistic and upbeat even at a point when you are feeling stressed and busy with a vast to-do list. And that’s just really hard work.”



8 Present a shared future


Here, Professor Peterson draws from his treasure chest of inspirational thinking to offer us a line from the great American poet and writer Maya Angelou that provides a sense of the optimism that people are craving:

“Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.”


He says: “If you are frustrated or angry and many of your people probably will be, it’s important to keep thinking that it will get better, we will come out of this, we will rise again.”


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