Crisis as catalyst: a Covid-19 leadership conversation with Rupert McNeil and Peter Cheese

Never let a good crisis go to waste is a phrase we are hearing with increasing regularity in discussions around the longer-term impact of the coronavirus crisis.  

This may make it a slightly hackneyed, but it doesn’t make it untrue. In a conversation I recently facilitated between UK government chief people officer Rupert McNeil and CIPD CEO Peter Cheese, recorded as part of our coronavirus webinar series, there was an overwhelming sense that while this period has been tough  and traumatising  for many people, there are lessons we should learn to help us move into a future of work that works well for all.   

The conversation was wide ranging, and I would encourage you to try and find an hour to listen backThese are some of the key reflections that stood out for me, about how we can use the coronavirus crisis as a catalyst to move forward into a more positive, healthy and inclusive working world.  

Avoiding the snap back  

Covid has accelerated us into a new way of working. In the Civil Service, 74% of a workforce of over 440,000 are currently working at home. This shift has required collaboration across functions (IT, facilities and HR, for example) and much smarter use of technology, leading to a more distributed workforce. As McNeil pointed out: “This is what we were planning anyway; it’s been accelerated.” 

Now for many HR leaders the focus is on how to avoid what McNeil terms the “snap back”. While some are finding home working challenging and frontline workers continue to work as normal (within social distancing guidelines), many are finding a freedom and balance in home working that they will be loath to lose. McNeil reflected that he has found himself becoming more disciplined about when he works, watching himself closely to avoid “self-generated presenteeism”. Individualisation of employee experience going forward will be critical.  

Our paradigms of work have hardly shifted since the Industrial Revolution, even as technology has evolved to enable us to work far more flexibly. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time but the needle hasn’t moved,” Cheese said, urging people professionals to use the crisis as a catalyst, adding: “It’s inconceivable to me that we would want to go back to how things worked in the past.”  

Keeping humanity in work 

These new ways of working require new ways of leading and managing. Or rather, ways of leading and managing that we know to be effective but often struggle to embed. It requires a more people-centric approach, an understanding that this is a very human crisis and that our experiences of it are highly personal. 

The fact many of us are working from our homes, inviting our colleagues into our living rooms or kitchens, makes work interactions feel more intimate, even as we are physically distanced. And the unprecedented nature of this situation means leaders need to show more humility, trusting and empowering their people.  

It may not be popular with everyone, but McNeil likes the term ‘HR’ because the human bit, the humanity, is so important”. “Our job,” he said, “is to be the structured application of humanity and human principles in the workplace.” That is such a critical thing to remember right now, as the profession thinks about return to workplaces and reshaping organisations for the future.   

Responsible business front and centre 

Before this crisis hit, many organisations were grappling with the question of purpose and what they stood for. The concept of purpose had become so mainstream, tipping over into ‘buzzwordy’, that a new term had started being bandied about: ‘purpose washing’. Covid-19 hammers that home. Hard. 

Organisations are under huge pressure to step up and show, not just tell, that they are behaving responsibly. “We are all under scrutiny right now, as business leaders and HR leaders, in ways we have never been before,” said Cheese. “There’s a high expectation that we are going to do the right thing and low tolerance for not treating people fairly. We will be held to account by many of our stakeholders, including employees.” 

In the long term, this could mean big structural changes that put people and wellbeing at the heart of business and economic outcomes and a rethink of how we value those jobs now deemed as ‘essential’, but which have in the past been treated as anything but. 

Building “tough” organisations   

While some people have classed Covid-19 as a ‘black swan’ (an event that comes as a surprise), McNeil was adamant that this pandemic is as white a swan as you can get. Past pandemic preparedness exercises and fears over SARS and swine flu outbreaks showed us this was likely to come at some point.  

This preparedness links directly to HR’s strategic business partnering role. As McNeil put it: “We need to be ready for externalities…and make suggestions about how we can make our organisations more resilient. Part of our job is to keep the engine running and make sure our organisations are as tough as possible. HR professionals should take a step back and think about how we will do that for the next thing – and there will be a next thing.”  

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD and a business journalist. She can be reached on 

The Leading Through Crisis webinar with Rupert McNeil and Peter Cheese is available on demand here.  


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