Everything has changed but nothing has changed

9 Jun 2020

I was very excited about 2020, my business was really starting to take off and then BOOM, COVID-19 strikes. Without exception everyone I know has suffered in multiple ways. I have many friends in Adland still and they are all feeling it. The one thing that has not changed and never will is people.

As we try to make out the Government’s slightly wishy-washy measures to release the pressure on lockdown, now is the time for genuinely putting your people first. Yes, that means before clients! People drive great work. So many agencies talk about people first, but if we are all honest, we know that is bullshit. The harsh reality is in this pandemic, a bit like Mental Health awareness week, looking after your people’s wellbeing is not something that is a weeklong effort or now during lockdown becomes front of mind. Quite simply everything has changed but nothing has changed in terms of an employer’s moral, ethical and legal duty of care for their employee’s wellbeing.

The terror of change

Adland, for a communications business where there is a plethora of laptops, smart phones, and tablets, has never been great at embracing remote working. This has obviously changed since 23rd March. Excuse me whilst I punch myself in the face for saying this, but this is now the ‘new norm’. When this inevitably starts the shift from WFH back to WFW I believe we will see unprecedented people issues coming to the fore. Some people will love WFH and others will hate it. Some can do it, and some cannot.

The key driver here is CHANGE. The very word sends people into a spin. Human beings find change so difficult because of some basic human subconscious reactions. Simply put we all find change stressful in varying degrees. Most of us have some understanding of the ‘fight or flight’ system that the body subconsciously activates in times of stress. I will not go into the psychological or physiological effects that Adrenaline and Cortisol have on our minds or bodies but suffice to say they play a significant role in our fear of change. An example here is the way people often repeat things that haven’t worked before. Do the same things again in relationships that have failed before. I think we can all relate to ourselves, our families and our friends making similar mistakes over again. We have all done it. We promise we will learn each time, however more often than not (certainly in my case) we repeat the same mistakes again and again. Why on earth would you do that?! Simply because what you know is sometimes ‘safer’ than what you do not, or certainly feels like it. Change throws all of this up in the air, will the change really be better. This is what is in play in the workplace now.

Employers really do need to push wellbeing, particularly mental wellbeing. Most employers will be focusing on the state of their business commercially, understandably, but people MUST come a very close second. For all the positive stories we read about families coming together there will be many families that this level of isolation will feel like imprisonment. There will be untold personal problems that have come out of the lockdown that people will not necessarily want to discuss at or with work.

Employers will need to find the balance between getting their businesses back on track commercially and ensuring their people have the mental capacity and health to cope with the pressures of trying to get back some semblance of normality. This will involve some serious mental health training for managers / directors; we are not talking a box ticking exercise; we are talking about real cultural shift.

To put a legal, and therefore financial, reputational, talent retention & recruitment lens on this, the last recession saw a 50% increase in employment tribunals claims. COVID-19 has certainly had such a brutal effect on the UK economy we can draw comparisons. Speaking to a variety of law firms over the past few weeks this is a commonly shared view. There is a heady combination of opportunity, tribunal fees being abolished from July 2017, and some suspect use of the furlough scheme along with knee jerk / panicked cost cutting. Already employment lawyers have seen a resurgence of claims under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996; this is where employees perceive an imminent and serious danger at work and reports this to the employer. Any detrimental treatment here can result in a claim. Likewise, Section 100 of the same act deals with dismissal in such circumstances. This should be seen as a warning sign for Adland, no longer an area of business that avoids the normal rules of HR! This used to be a badge of honour, time has moved on.

They say every cloud has a silver lining; if this pandemic galvanises Adland into action around their most important asset, their people and their wellbeing then maybe it’s not all been bad.

So, what should we all be doing / thinking?

  • People have been through unprecedented change; be mindful of this fact (as above).
  • Accept that all of your people are different; one size certainly won’t fit all.
  • As a leader you may well have taken lockdown in your stride, don’t assume everyone has.
  • Inevitably there will be change coming in working practises, how will this affect bricks and mortar costs and in turn senior management financial stress.
  • How will you monitor WFH effectively?
  • Empathy is key; you have no idea how being in lockdown has affected people – relationship damage, loneliness, abuse etc.
  • The most important thing is to talk to your people, how are they feeling, what do they want to do after lockdown is lifted? There is an opportunity to come out of this gaining huge respect from your people, if handled well.
  • If as a leader you feel you want to change your working practises then communicate this; this is the ideal way to get people to open up. Every Mental Health workshop we have run where a leader has opened up about their mental health has been a giant step to cultural change and openness.

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