John Palfreyman asks: has covid-19 been a digital culture kick?

  02 JULY, 2020      INDUSTRY INSIGHTS
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Novus Non-executive director John Palfreyman muses on the question of organisational change amongst the backdrop of Covid-19. This piece was originally prepared for the Beaumont Bailey ‘workforce efficiency’ webinar in April.

A few weeks into this terrible global pandemic, I’m working at home in the locked down UK and I receive the message shown below via LinkedIn.

Humour is always good in challenging times, but this got me thinking about what’s actually changed? What’s not changed?  And how can we all change to be more efficient after the lockdown ends?

linkedin covid comment

Mobility and Efficiency

’Because we have always done things this way’. 

How many times have we heard this reason for not trying new ways of working? 

This most common ‘excuse’ for resisting change has certainly been broken by the current crisis. 

But will this change be sustainable after the crisis? Or will we revert back to our old ways of working?

At the start of the crisis when everyone rushed to work from home, many were worried about the technology infrastructure.  

In practice, organisations I’ve worked with find current infrastructures coped very well with remote operations.  This was not too much of a surprise for me - at IBM I often told people I was based in LHR departure lounge!  And my productivity did not suffer.

We all worried about video meetings - can we do them? Can we be productive when we are not physically together?

In practice, we’ve found that these meetings - if well-structured and facilitated - work (albeit very different) and can be more productive - proving that sharing and collaboration can happen at a distance. 

Now we’ve crossed this cultural divide of remote, efficient operations will we (a) maintain this way of working once the crisis is over?  Or (b) resort back to normal operations?


Digital Culture kick

The key to this is organisational culture.

Over 30 years ago, Prof. Carol Dweck became interested in students' attitudes to failure, noticing that some rebounded while others seemed devastated by setbacks.

She and her team coined the terms "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset" to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.

This gets even more interesting when extended to business. In her work on Organisational Mindsets, Prof. Dweck observes “it's possible to weave a fixed or growth mind-set into the very fabric of an organisation to create a culture of genius or a culture of development”

In his 2018 HBR article "Successful organization change begins with mindset" Reed Deshler observes that “Transformational change starts in the mind. One of the most critical roles leaders play in any change management situation is to build a success mindset throughout the organization.” 

Reed explains that this can be really challenging because “change involves taking people out of their comfort zones - the things they are good at - pushing them to do things differently.


Comfort Zones

Comfort Zones can explain the reaction of an individual to organisational change. Things feel familiar when we are in our comfort zone. We are at ease and feel in control of our environment.

When we are asked to do things differently, perhaps by downloading and using an app to record our time each day rather than filling in a paper timesheet each week this can change, moving us outside our comfort zone.

This can push us into the fear zone, where we are tempted to make excuses and feel self-conscious - thinking that others can already do this, hence undermining self confidence. 

There are two ways to go from here. 

Either back to filling in the paper timesheet and complaining about the new app (the comfort zone) or adopting a growth mindset and moving into the learning zone.

Covid-19 REMOVED the comfort zone for everyone, at once giving us an unprecedented cultural kick.


The key to answering to my initial question:

“Now we’ve crossed this cultural divide of remote, efficient operations will we (a) maintain this way of working once the crisis is over?  Or (b) resort back to normal operations?”

is to completely understand organisational culture and be proactive in maintaining the ‘shock’ changes that enabled efficient remote working under Covid-19 conditions. 

Cultural insight is the first step in this endeavour.


Insight through information

In their book "Building Digital Culture", Daniel Rowles and Thomas Brown introduce the following framework:

digital culture framework

This framework can be to assess organisational readiness for digital transformation, and also to fill the gaps needed to make the transformation a success.

Gathering information leading to insight into the organisation’s culture and its readiness for ‘being digital’ can give us useful pointers as to how to ensure that the organisation does not resort back to ‘the old ways” after the crisis.

Through this approach smart organisations will be able to maintain the efficiency and productivity improvements offered by selective remote, flexible and on-site collaboration in a post-crisis world.


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