Steve Hawes
COVID-19 planning and discretionary change: Mutually exclusive?
Written by Steve Hawes on
Keeping day-to-day operations running, maintaining service to customers and staying commercially viable has been the main priority for many businesses.

These days we very rarely see ‘firsts’, but the Coronavirus pandemic is one of those events which has flipped this generation on its head with no country unaffected. The quote ‘Same Storm, Different Boats’ resonates; everyone is affected by COVID-19, but we each face our own personal challenges – whether it be isolation, separated families, home schooling difficulties or the potential mental health implications associated with lockdown. Business leaders have the additional challenge of navigating their companies through the storm, as well as themselves and their families. Keeping day-to-day operations running, maintaining service to customers and staying commercially viable has been the main priority for many businesses.

But what of the ‘change agenda’? How have Projects and Programmes fared since 23rd March when lockdown was announced in the UK? And what does the future hold? The most prevalent reaction from our clients is that maintaining service to customers remains their #1 priority. Change Management has played a part in this, but not in the most obvious way. Laptops, which were considered a basic human right for change professionals, have been whisked away and repurposed for front-line operations. In a further twist, senior Change Executives at one retail bank are admirably driving around the country delivering these laptops, making themselves useful given they now don’t have a laptop to work on. Concerned about revenues, many clients are mothballing discretionary change programmes and releasing contingent workers, further exacerbating misery for contractors still reeling from the effects of IR35 changes (despite the recent postponement).

The discipline of Change Management still has a critical role to play, however. Moving whole operational teams to effective remote working is a huge undertaking requiring several different streams of activity, not least the distribution of equipment, uplift in infrastructure and the IT security implications. Despite the focus on operations, critical and mandatory change programmes still need to be delivered. Many of our clients are managing this surprisingly well; change teams are transitioning smoothly to remote working, with a flourish of ‘conference call bingo’ and ‘virtual pub Friday’ to keep spirits high. The significant advancement in recent years on distributed collaboration tools has really paid off; not long ago a fancy telepresence room in the office would have cost £1m+ and be rarely used.

The physical, emotional and economic effects of COVID-19 are severe and will be felt for some time. Some of our large clients are contingency planning based upon 20% of their staff being unable to work. This is based upon modelling an uncertain future, and it is this uncertainty which has contributed to the pause in delivery of many change programmes. But the industry will not stand still for very long. Some clients are already adapting and seeing opportunity amidst the ‘nasty bug’ pandemic (to quote my 5-year-old daughter) – one is using the sudden change in working practices as the catalyst to go faster and do things that were previously deemed too hard but are now demonstrably possible. For one business which Altus is leading the COVID-19 response for, we have introduced a simple governance structure, bringing together senior operations management and change delivery to make decisions on COVID-19. Obvious, some may say, but the results from this, and evidence from other clients who have rolled out remote working at remarkable speed, demonstrates what is possible when senior operations management get close to project delivery. It is a profoundly obvious point, but one which is tantalisingly difficult to get right under ‘normal’ circumstances. Under this and other client engagements, we are also leading Business Intelligence projects, as these clients appreciate the importance of accurate and informative MI during times of business uncertainty.

It remains unclear how long we will face the immediate socio-economic impacts of this pandemic, but one thing is apparent – that the coronavirus is a catalyst for change and businesses need to adapt their day to day operations to survive. The Change Delivery profession will be key to supporting businesses adapt to this change whilst maintaining critical and mandatory projects, and itself adapting to new ways of virtual project delivery. We are already seeing creativity and flexibility in the profession, and amidst the challenges that the ‘nasty bug’ brings, the future is positive.

 

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