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Why times of crisis are an opportunity for positive change

There is no doubt, things are tough right now. We thought we had weathered the storm, but COVID-19 is now returning and we are on the brink of further restrictions and ongoing lockdowns.

Many of us are still emotionally exhausted from the first wave of COVID-19, and it feels like the crisis has become chronic and ongoing. We are missing our previous lives while facing an uncertain future, where we can’t make plans.

When our bodies seek to adapt and survive in an emergency, we draw on our mental and physical resources. For lots of people, this ‘surge capital’ is severely depleted right now. 

Right now, business leaders are feeling the burden of pandemic-related decision making. With uncertainty high, it’s difficult to know how best to lead a company into the future

Yet, when things are on the edge of chaos opportunities exist.

1. Crises bring clarity

The ancient Greeks saw a crisis as a “separating decision, a power of judgement or distinguishing.” It was a moment of choice when one could determine different ways of progressing more clearly. 

Currently, in the UK, only 13% of UK working parents want to go back to pre-pandemic ways of working. Why? The norm is for school to finish around 3PM and for parents to work until 6PM. Factor in a commute, and the average day for a working parent (pre-COVID) was considerably longer.

The crisis – and all the necessity of experimentation it brought – has forced us to stand back and look at how we organise things. 

Old school practices and corporate blindness locked us into a ‘standard’ way of doing things. Now that we have experienced different ways of working, new possibilities exist for workplaces that are more gender equal, inclusive and contribute positively to adult mental health. 

2. Change on the outside requires change on the inside

Fluidity can also be freedom. Researchers have long been interested in systems (such as families, organisations or even natural habitats) that become stressed, where an established order breaks down. This space, sometimes called “the edge of chaos”, is an opportunity for new behaviours and expectations to emerge or be negotiated. 

Many of us don’t take advantage of the opportunity the edge of chaos can bring. The moment we feel we can’t handle current events is the moment we need to step back and evaluate – rather than being overwhelmed by a fear of failure, or lack of imagination.

In times of crisis, our instinct is to work harder and cope better. The last thing we want to do is admit defeat, no matter how big and consuming the crisis. It’s threatening, and the urge is to fight the situation (write a to-do list) or hide away from it (carry on as normal). 

We see reaching our limits as a point of failure, just as we see the things that aren’t working as a form of criticism.

But what if we saw reaching our limits – that moment when it feels too much – as a sign of health? What if we gave and received criticism not to blame or to shame, but to proactively improve our collective future? If we change how we relate to crises, then we can change how we respond.

3. It’s easier to change what isn’t set

When everything is in flux, it can be disorienting. We are flooded with emotions because we feel untethered and out of our comfort zone. We look to retreat back to life as we know it as soon as possible.

Consider the difference between two of our clients: a pharma division and an insurance team. The pharma division has low work-life balance scores. They feel squeezed because they are trying to deliver on projects they agreed to pre-COVID in addition to all the new work that the pandemic has created. 

By contrast, the insurance team has pushed old projects to one side, created goals for the short-term and galvanised people’s energy around a new focus. They saw the turmoil as a leverage point to reconfigure what they expected of themselves and what others can expect of them. As a result, they’ve made significant gains in work-life balance, compared to the drop many of the clients experienced at the beginning of the outbreak. 

In other words, the insurance team had a moment at the edge of chaos and used the crisis to change how they approach their work. 

4. Build self-awareness in your teams

Pre-COVID, Toffler Associates found nearly half of the 400 leaders across industry and government sectors felt they were not weathering shocks well. 

What we have learned from coaching and advising businesses amid corporate setbacks –sudden changes in strategy, business models, restructures, redundancies and closures – is that resilient organisations grow individuals and teams who are self-aware and emotionally intelligent. They adapt to their situations by knowing themselves and each other better.

Through the Friday Pulse platform, teams are allowed to address concerns and show appreciation for colleagues. We saw an increase in the number of "thank-yous" in the early months of the pandemic. The crisis brought clarity as teams realised their interdependence and showed gratitude for the support of their colleagues. 

Teams and organisations that buck the widespread trends of how COVID-19 affects work cultures are also good at sharing frustrations. Expressing frustrations represent what a relationship therapist would call “adult-to-adult relationships”. Self-awareness allows us to express and share our needs – a problem shared is a problem halved.

5. The only lasting change comes from listening to your people

Crises are opportunities for change because when things get tough, we become clearer about what’s important. When everything is upturned, we go into iteration mode and this ‘making do’ reveals new possibilities. The organizations that are thriving have gone into listening mode. 

Our people platform encourages employees and teams to pause and reflect on their experiences. It provides real-time data to facilitate decisions within teams and senior management that helps organizations turn the current crisis into an opportunity. And, right now, we are offering teams and companies (50 – 1,000 employees) free access to the platform for 12 weeks. This is our contribution to help the businesses through these unprecedented times.