Long reads

Why the pandemic has been OD's time to shine

4 Jun 2020 By Robert Jeffery

Coronavirus has presented an opportunity for the discipline to help reshape and redesign businesses

To its adherents, organisational development (OD) is the magical glue that makes businesses adaptable, responsive and resilient in the face of a world that changes by the day. To others, it is a concept they struggle to define or genuinely understand. Has coronavirus made things any clearer?

On the face of it, this is a crisis that calls for OD expertise, and many professionals have heralded the call. They have redesigned team structures and reporting lines, helped managers get their teams motivated and organised as their business models have been turned upside down, and advised leaders how to inspire and inform from a distance.

And yet, as OD – both as a distinct function and as a discipline within HR – surveys the future, it will suffer some familiar existential fears. Will senior leaders understand the difference it has made? And, crucially, will that be recognised as budgets come under unprecedented pressure?

The cutting edge of OD practice during the coronavirus crisis has inevitably been found within healthcare, and in the UK NHS trusts that have marshalled a formidable response to one of the world’s highest infection rates. OD practice was already well embedded in the organisation but has really come to the fore in recent months. Karen Dumain and Dr Paul Taylor-Pitt 

co-lead Do OD, the expert resource on OD for health and care that has built a community of professionals across the country to stimulate the theory and practice of OD. Dumain says: “OD was central to the coronavirus response both in the active phase and now in the preparation for what we are calling recovery, helping NHS organisations to reset the way services and care are delivered. OD practitioners have been incredibly agile and done what it takes to deliver the most compassionate and solution-focused, practical response during the outbreak.”

At an everyday level, OD has helped set ground rules and eased transitions as teams have formed and disbanded at breakneck speed, brought out new guidance on employee welfare, enabled virtual recruitment for the first time and advised leaders. Where it has been most prudent to help on the frontline, numerous teams have aided the distribution of PPE to medics.

But there have been even more profound changes that would simply have been impossible without a vibrant and well-regarded OD function: in the first two months of the lockdown, 79,000 outpatient appointments across 185 NHS trusts were carried out virtually. Fewer than a quarter of those trusts had even trialled videoconferencing technology in patient care before. Introducing it so quickly and effectively has meant more than just training on the mechanics of virtual appointments – OD has had to reconfigure teams, rethink how resource is deployed and re-engineer longstanding practices and processes.

Sandy Hastilow, acting head of OD at Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, says that as well as directly supporting psychological and emotional wellbeing programmes, her team has been able to help employees find new ways of working through technology, and rethought processes to enable the organisation to respond quickly to a changing situation: “We’ve realised we can make decisions and put things in place really quickly – governance is still there, but it doesn’t have to be as complex as it was before.”

In many such cases, OD complements existing HR practice. Francis Lake, head of OD at Virgin Money, says the distinction between the two is that where HR facilitates jobs, OD encourages businesses to consider the work that needs doing and match it to the skills and resources required to make it happen.

In regular times, that means aiding organisations as they navigate the gradual change to a more contingent, less rigid workforce structure, for example. But when a catalysing event such as coronavirus occurs, OD can flex as faster, more radical shifts are required. “Historically we would have talked about culture change and organisational change as a difficult and long-range journey that needs to be planned and organically supported,” says David D’Souza, the CIPD’s membership director. 

“But we’ve had a shocking external event that has accelerated organisations’ ability to change, and their belief in their capability. There’s an incredible opportunity for OD as a practice over the coming months and years, to help reshape organisations in a far more positive way, with more balance and humanistic cultures and without some of the historic barriers.”

At Virgin Money, Lake’s 30-strong OD team has responsibility for broader areas of HR practice including talent, leadership development, resourcing and diversity. The aim, he says, is to ensure nothing operates as a silo: “I know in some areas OD is very facilitative, but we try and look for the root problem we’re trying to fix and find the most effective way we can to fix it.”

The crisis reordered the team’s priorities, but it has only emphasised how this holistic approach benefits the bank’s operations. With 70 per cent of staff working from home and an average of one new product being launched every week to support the government’s business loans scheme, Virgin Money had to ensure essential work could take place at breakneck speed, while helping employees get used to new teams, processes and psychological strains.

Lake says one of the first areas OD identified was the “disconnect between the way people thought about managing an individual and how they did it” under lockdown conditions. The team helped managers put wellbeing at the heart of conversations, but also intervened to introduce virtual sessions for up to 10 employees at a time, giving them space to talk about their experiences and ask questions: “If you’re a parent of primary school children and you’re struggling, you could connect with another parent who’s got it cracked. It was the most useful thing we could do in the short term with the skills we’ve got.”

More recently, managers have been encouraged to check in with their teams briefly every day. “The emphasis on quality leadership of people has to be something we embed, otherwise it’s just a lottery,” says Lake. “You’re leaving the leadership of your business to chance if you don’t keep up that contact.”

The bigger question is what this all means for the place of OD inside organisations long term. Paul Sparrow, emeritus professor of international HRM at Lancaster University Management School, says there has always been a divide between what is perceived as softer ‘development’ work and harder-edged ‘design’ capability. He adds: “The crisis, with its need to think radically about the division and location of work, the redesign of supply chains and the forging of new partnerships, clearly shifts the emphasis to the design side of the equation.”

What the pandemic has emphasised to practitioners, says Sparrow, is that dealing with the immediate fallout of a disruptive event means identifying the handful of senior or operational managers who have strong relationships and knowledge and can “in effect redesign the business connections on a sixpence”. OD must give them the capability to operate – and, crucially, ensure the learnings from the redesign are embedded into the organisation’s future planning.

OD, in Sparrow’s estimation, was always the “one missing capability” in HR, whether positioned as a mindset or a specific function. In the NHS, Taylor-Pitt believes the ability of HR to adopt more of an OD mindset in response to organisational challenges was already a strength, and coronavirus has only sharpened the acuity of this response.

There is a clear ROI to building organisational resilience and adaptability before disaster strikes. As Lake points out, Virgin Money had been working on the frequency and quality of manager conversations for some time, and such planning reaped dividends this year. “The decisions we have made about how we care for customers and colleagues are materially different to those we would have made 18 months ago,” he explains.

Richard Cotter, head of OD and research at Allianz Ireland, adds: “If you work in change or transformation, you need to be in it for the long haul. This crisis may help us focus on what’s really important, and realise that a lot of the things we thought were holding us back weren’t holding us back at all.”

Even so, this type of business case will come under increased scrutiny as the economy endures a painful recovery, and plenty of OD practitioners fear their budgets will suffer. D’Souza hopes the discipline is sufficiently mature and respected to endure the hard times ahead: “There was a growing recognition in businesses that thinking about problems in a systemic way was core to enhancing productivity. OD was at a point where – whether it was specifically around OD practitioners or an OD mindset – that approach was becoming appreciated at very senior levels of businesses. Organisations are crying out for the value OD can add.

“Current events have obviously overtaken lots of agendas. But wellbeing has never been more core, nor has understanding how teams work and gel together. The best way of helping organisations understand the value of OD work is to do it well, do it prominently and make a significant difference.”

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