‘We’ll meet again’ – how military leaders are preparing for the new normal

Thursday 07 May 2020
On the eve of the VE day anniversary, CMI talked to three military leaders about the personal leadership strategies they’ll be applying in the weeks and months ahead

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, the UK’s armed forces have been supporting frontline efforts. Some 20,000 military personnel have been placed at a higher state of readiness assisting with transport, logistics and a range of other activities.

The Armed Forces bring organisational skills, decision-making tools and access to a wide range of experience and talent, and are practised at thinking things through on a longer-term campaign basis,

says General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff.

As the UK prepares to celebrate the VE Day anniversary, and with plans being drawn up by the government for gradually releasing the lockdown, we asked three top UK military leaders about the skills and adaptability that will be required as we move into ‘the new normal’.

Be prepared for mental health concerns

Air Vice-Marshal Warren ‘Bunny’ James will be familiar to many CMI members. As Air Officer Commanding 22 Group, his role would be recognisable as the CEO of a huge training group that incorporates leadership and management development for the Royal Air Force. He is in effect CEO of management and leadership training for the Royal Air Force and recently took part in a webinar conversation with CMI’s chief executive Ann Francke about leading under pressure. He cautions that we are clearly not returning to business as usual:

Where we have taken breaks or are bringing bits of the workforce back into work, it is quite clear that we are having to over-explain and reassure, because in many places they are not returning to the ways of working or patterns of behaviour they left.

Some will find this liberating, others will find it completely disorientating.

Leaders must focus on the potential for an increase in mental health and wellbeing concerns in the coming months, he says. Support networks, systems and solutions must be developed. And all the good lessons that we’ve learned during the crisis – about the importance of fitness, routine, sleep, breaks from computers, decent diet and communicating – all still hold true.

Have a plan

Brigadier Suzanne Anderson is one of the most senior women in the British Army, and chief operating officer, Army Personnel. She says that the key areas the Army has been thinking about for when we return to ‘normal’ are: outputs, freedoms and constraints, processes, time, agility, and mental health.

We asked her to run through each in turn:

  • Outputs. Gaining a clear understanding of which outputs are being delivered with everyone working remotely, and which are not. This then enables us to prioritise which areas need to potentially go back into the workplace first, once restrictions are lifted, and which teams could continue working from home.
  • Freedoms and constraints. We have looked at this to understand what we can do and what we can’t do, and also what presents a potential difficulty. This may include such things as how people travel to work and the availability of parking spaces for example, as well as whether schools will reopen or not.
  • Processes. Our workplace prior to Covid-19 was open plan with people sitting in close proximity to one another. We are therefore looking at what new processes need to be implemented to enforce social-distancing, health and hygiene. This includes thinking about what return to the workplace briefings we need to disseminate to inform the workforce of any changes and whether we need to enforce social distancing by bringing in one-way flows through the building for example. There’s lots to think about and any risks identified are being captured on a risk register.
  • Time. What is clear is that we should not be thinking that everyone will all surge back into the workplace at the same time. There will be a degree of autonomy within each team to bring people back in once any restrictions are lifted, but we anticipate that this will mean restricted amounts of time in the building for all initially. There is a need to ensure coherence across teams as well, so that everyone works within the overall plan.
  • Mental health. Mental health and wellbeing is something we’ve been focusing on while we have been dispersed. We need to retain that focus as people start to return to the workplace too. We have distributed a lot of online material and we also have a network of mental health first-aiders across the teams. I know that many of the staff have been anxious about Covid-19 but also have missed the social interactions within the workplace, so focusing on the people is going to be important.
  • Agility. The good thing about having a plan is that you can change and adapt it if you need to. Government advice will be absolutely central to our return to the workplace so we need to be prepared to adapt if upcoming announcements recommend particular approaches and we will incorporate this into our force health protection guidelines. Equally, we are keenly tracking other organisations and businesses and how they are adapting to the post-Covid-19 landscape, particularly where we can incorporate better ways of working and continue to deliver our outputs effectively and efficiently with a dispersed workforce operating remotely. A return to work is not necessarily just about getting back into the workplace.


Compassion in all that you do

Two weeks before lockdown, Kay Hallsworth was preparing for a new role with the Association of Royal Navy Officers and RN Officers Charity (ARNO). She had completed a 28-year career in the Royal Navy and had just been named the inaugural Naval Servicewoman of the Year.

All of a sudden everything changed, and Kay was having to resettle into civilian life and learn about a new organisation, remotely from home.

For her, she says, planning to return to work will be a completely new challenge.

I not only go into a new job, but some of that role will have changed from lessons we have identified during the Covid-19 crisis as a small third-sector organisation.

Again, we asked Kay to reflect on the key lessons she’ll be applying when she returns to work. These are her thoughts:

  • Know changes you need to make – but also what won’t change. You may find you need to work from home more to continue doing new roles you took on during lockdown. It’s especially important to get these cleared in advance with your line management or ‘significant other’ at home if it affects that space.
  • Don’t get sucked back into old habits. These can be damaging – such as presenteeism – but do remember the hierarchy of those you work with and for. Zoom quizzes with your work colleagues may be fun during lockdown, but if the CEO was on them just remember who she is when you are back at work!
  • Compassion in all that you do. Many people will come out of this and make life-changing decisions about things such as marriage, divorce, having children, changing jobs. They’re all significant life decisions that will need support. Even for myself, my family and I will be moving home after lockdown, and our children may be moving school. Even more important, many people you know will also come out of this still grieving for those they have lost. This will change many things about them at work – remember compassion in all you do.

For more information relating to how great leaders are managing through the crisis, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

For more information on becoming a CMI Member, visit here.


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