UK organisations heading into lockdown can learn from Melbourne’s recent experience

UK organisations heading into lockdown can learn from Melbourne’s recent experience


Australia seemed to have succeeded in suppressing COVID-19 by the middle of the year. Restrictions imposed in March had been lifted by May, and the economy was thawing. In several states, life quickly returned to usual.

But the reprieve was short-lived for those of us who live in Melbourne – Australia’s second-largest city, with 5 million residents, and home of Nous’ head office. The Victorian state government introduced a harsher and longer lockdown in August to arrest a second wave. In a country that had seen only 100 or so fatalities from COVID-19, the outbreaks around Melbourne took that tally to over 800.

Last week we emerged from our confinement, overwhelmed by the ability to enjoy simple pleasures again, and happy to see now the regular recurrence of “donut days” – zero new cases and zero fatalities. We remain cautious about the need to socially distance, wash our hands and get tested if there is any risk we may have the virus. Our economic, social and cultural life is again returning to normal.

While the sense of relief and, frankly, sheer joy, is palpable, Melburnians know the challenges businesses (including our own) faced during this period. Many have been shut since March and may not re-open. Those that remained operational had to rapidly adapt.

Although not all responses succeeded in saving businesses or jobs, it was heartwarming to see Melburnians support each other during the lockdown and after. The resurgence in our hospitality industry, for example, aided by quick and innovative action by all tiers of government, is encouraging. (Just try to get a restaurant booking now!)

Nous has reflected on what we and our clients experienced during this period, and present lessons that may assist our British cousins struggling to see a light at the end of this COVID tunnel. Organisations will already be implementing part or all of these lessons, but we found that those who focused on these particular steps made the most progress against the headwinds.

Leadership and governance require clarity

Although collaboration is critical, a clear chain of command – with explicitly delegated authority – is needed during a time of crisis. Failures in the Victorian Government’s attempts to contain some clusters centred on a lack of decision-making clarity.

Consider what new risks have arisen, your tolerance for those risks and what can be done to change the risk calculus. Determine how accountabilities might be realigned and how you will monitor your organisational performance. Gathering the right data from the beginning will provide a baseline for you to track changes on key dimensions.

Throughout the period of lockdown, leaders need to remain accessible and transparent in communicating how the business is being affected. In doing so, it is important that they show their personality and vulnerability when engaging with staff.

Look out for team members’ wellbeing

After business viability, workforce capability and wellbeing will be your major preoccupation. Train managers early on to lead remote teams. To ensure alignment with your business strategy through the lockdown, you may need to redeploy underutilised staff to different roles, many of which will require re-training (including in COVID-safety).

Mental health and wellbeing support are crucial considerations. Make sure you have reviewed your internal policies – for example, leave access and work-from-home allowances. Consider especially the impact on female staff. In Australia, female workforce participation has dropped significantly, so extra effort is needed to provide support and maintain connection to their employers.

Each staff member will respond differently and have unique challenges, so it is important to avoid making assumptions about what is important or what will work. Above all, make space in meetings and conversations to express what it is that they need, and to allow for human connection and empathy.

Capture opportunities and retain what worked

The experience is not all bad. Several Nous clients saw a marked increase in productivity during lockdown: staff used part of their saved commute time to work and welcomed the opportunity to have more control over when and how they worked. Some also thrived in the absence of office-based distractions.

To retain lessons and capture opportunities, consider how you can:

  • maintain a sharpened vision and sense of priorities
  • leverage new technologies on which you have relied to improve service quality
  • retain the instinct to be collaborative and responsive, and to empower more junior staff, when the sense of urgency dissipates
  • design new systems and policies to support increased productivity and counter decreased productivity
  • better understand what new mechanisms or work patterns contributed to a stronger culture or improved performance

Australians deeply empathise with those in Europe who are entering a difficult time. Many friends, family and colleagues – hello, Nous’ London office! – are caught in this. We do not underestimate how hard this period will be for individuals, families and businesses.

Thanks to applying these strategies, at Nous in Australia we have been able to emerge from this crisis stronger and better.

Get in touch to find out how Nous help your organisation adapt and thrive through a protracted crisis.

Connect with Tanya Smith on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Peter Horne, a Principal in Nous’ London office.