A New Way: Covid-19 and Culture Change

Covid 19

Sadly, these are the only justifiable reasons for us to leave our houses at the moment.

As we individually and collectively adjust to the crisis and the circumstances we find ourselves in, there is a need to lift our heads up and look through the window to the future.

In the short, medium and long term future this crisis presents us with some huge challenges, but also some opportunities. It is a period of massive change.

Change Curve

Each of us will go through this change at different rates and the first priority is to look after ourselves and support the people around us on their journey. This article is well worth a read.

Along the way, there is a chance to re imagine the our lives, our work and our world, as we move into the neutral zone and into new beginnings described below.


What potential does this situation offer to our work to shift culture and ideology around physical activity?

Only a few weeks ago, I was writing about culture change. I posed some questions and explored how we could bring about changes in culture and ideology to enable a healthy, happy, productive society.

If nothing else, the past three weeks have proved that radical culture change can happen very quickly indeed, when external conditions require it.  Suddenly we have a new set of norms, a new language, a new hierarchy of values, assumptions and mindsets that have emerged across the country and across the world.

Terms like social distancing and self isolation were not in our vocabulary a few weeks ago. They needed explaining and we needed guidance, rules, do’s and don’ts and clear illustrations to help us shift. Now they are part of our everyday language along with terms like furloughing, and a whole load of hashtags that describe and prescribe our new cultural norms: #stayhomesavelives #activeinisolation #stayinworkout #physicaldistancesocialconnection and many more.

Influences 2020The law has been changed radically and quickly, to help us deal with the crisis. Whole systems and organisations have transformed policies, rules, codes, times and schedules and amazing transformations have taken place in the way that our organisations and systems operate digitally.

A couple of months ago our team and board identified digital transformation and impact as a breakthrough/priority for us in our business planning for 2020-1. A task group within the team set out to define and prioritise, and before the ink was dry on the page, we were thrown into it at pace. Within 24 hours the whole team was enabled to work at home on a semi permanent basis. We transformed the way we meet, engage, socialise and exercise together. It has been an incredible journey to be a part of.

Our organisations and social environments have had to transform, with business and services being led and organised from our home offices and kitchen tables, and our children learning in the home.

The concept of bringing your ‘whole self’ to work has never been more real as we have juggled and adapted, throwing normal times and schedules out of the window as we work and care for our families in new ways. The joy that comes from seeing a colleagues’ toddler, puppy or cat has been clear to see every time someone random pops up on zoom.

The insight we’ve had into each other’s lives as we have sought to understand each other’s unique circumstances and respond to each other’s physical and emotional needs has been a privilege.

What does all this have to do with our work in GM Moving?

The short answer is; everything.

We have been honest enough with ourselves to confront the question of whether our work on GM Moving really matters in the current crisis and context.

In the early days, I was saying things like;

we’re not an emergency services, but….. we still have a vital role to play‘.

An active life in isolation is fundamental to mental wellbeing, reducing anxiety and stress, a diversion, a way to socially connect with family, friends and colleagues.

Yesterday, Eve described it differently and it was a wake up call for me;

moving, being fit and healthy is fundamental to our ability to fight Covid-19. Our work will save lives

So we may not be an emergency service, but we have a vital role to play in keeping people strong, healthy and resilient. Our work helps to prevent the need for the real emergency services and will help reduce the burden on the NHS. Never more so than now.

We have a big job to do. We need to re-imagine it, do it differently and we need to do it with renewed meaning and purpose.

A New Way?

In this period of rapid transformation, much has been written about how the world is changing and how we might want to hold on to some of the changes and perhaps move towards a ‘new normal’, rather than go ‘back to normal’. Because the world was a bit broken in many ways. Some of the challenges we were facing a month or two ago have temporarily been improved; poor air quality and congestion for example. We don’t want to go back to the old way, do we? Let’s make sure we move past superficial adaptation to long term adaptation.


The challenge of inactivity is still a big one.

There are signs of hope and a huge opportunity that is presented to us, with ‘exercise’ being a top priority for the nation and only very few reasons that we should leave our house.

Some have observed people walking, running and cycling in bigger numbers, and people that they have never seen before and are excited by the possibilities.

But we need to be careful and confront some brutal realities in this.

  1. All these people running, walking and cycling could be the people who were already living active lives. It is already their way of life and they are finding different ways to live it. These people know that moving is fundamental to their mental wellbeing and physical health and they would walk over hot coals to get those endorphins and keep strong fit and healthy to protect themselves.
  2. All of digital messages, campaigns and the hundreds of online classes and opportunities to be active could be missing the least active completely, because the psychological, emotional and social barriers to activity are amplified in a time of high anxiety, low mood, fear and pressure.
  3. There is a real risk that despite our best efforts and good intentions, we could drive bigger inequalities in activity. Disabled people, those with long term conditions, people on low incomes (small houses, small/no gardens, less access to quality open spaces, less likely to have decent wifi and technological solutions), women (still more likely to be doing more than their share of the caring and housework as they juggle the demands of working from home), etc etc.
  4. The way that the messages are framed is hugely important during this period. I’ve written about framing in the GM Moving context before. The Frameworks Institute have written some important pieces on framing around Covid-19 in recent weeks, which we can use to guide us, to ensure that our work brings about the positive change we seek.
  5. We could redeploy our entire workforce to online messaging and ‘offer’ and there is some great work going on out there as the physical activity sector adapts and keeps it’s sense of community with online classes and opportunities. Our team are doing great work to stay up to date with latest guidance and messages, and looking around the corner at what is to come. We will try hard not to duplicate effort and to shine a light on what others have to offer.
  6. The physical activity and sport sector are being hit hard during this crisis. We need to find ways to support our voluntary and community sector, freelance and self employed leaders and instructors to weather the storm. Sport England have quickly put in place some fantastic financial and other support, and we all need to think about how we support in this difficult time, so that people have activity to return to when we are allowed out normally again.

Everyone is responding professionally and purposefully to the operational, the day to day and the crisis situation we are in, but we also all need to lift our sights to the bigger prize of culture change.

We need to turn this new burning platform into our brightest opportunity for culture change. Together.

We have a moment of opportunity in the conflict and crisis.

So I am throwing some questions out there. I/we definitely don’t have the answers on this one. We need to work it out together and learn from each other.


So, if anything were possible. What would happen? What would our role in it be?Where would we start? What are the opportunities?

Here are some observations and food for thought. Please chip in with your own. Questions, ideas, opportunities and challenges and I will capture them.

  • Exercise is a top priorities for the nation along with food and medicine and essential work.
  • ‘Exercise’ is being redefined as a necessity, not a luxury.
  • Our short term physical and mental wellbeing depend on us being strong and healthy.
  • Our individual ability to fight Covid-19 is dependent being fit and well.
  • We (temporarily?) have empty streets, cleaner air, no congestion. How do we keep some of that when the world turns and we start to get back to ‘normal’?
  • Some people have more time. But others have massive pressures on their time.
  • We are organising our lives differently. There are opportunities in this.
  • The sense of community that is growing is amazing and powerful. How do we harness this and keep it?
  • Community response and action is beyond belief. Will all those mutual aid groups and the learning from their work disappear when this is all over? Or will they remain and will we continue to learn how to build community together?
  • There is light at the end of this tunnel, as described hereby Donna Hall.
  • We are able to rewrite the rules.
  • There are many innovations taking place; at home, at school, at work, online. How do we grow and build on this?
  • We have a sense of shared purpose about the nation’s wellbeing. How do we keep this and build on it.

This blog, like many I have written before is a starter for a conversation, not a finished article.

Please email me, comment on the blog or the tweet, share your questions ideas and learning and let’s keep grow, learn, adapt and make a difference together as we move towards a new world.

PS – if you have any time for reading… see images at the bottom

Feedback and Contributions

The current situation is already changing things for good as you observe in your blog. And the scale of potential unemployment and economic change is going to take some time to bottom out, never mind to recover to where we were at. 

We’re already hearing the implications of that and when the light is visible at the end of the tunnel, it’s very possible that we’re going to have a part of the system that plays it’s part in keeping people active in need of much attention. All those instructors, small community clubs, gyms, centres etc that have lost a season’s income and have to start to try and get going again. It’s likely that this is going to require some effort to support and potentially redesign this part of the system so that it can contribute to a level it as doing let alone grow.

What we don’t know is just how much consumer behaviour is going to change through this period, are we all going to be hooked on online classes in our own home and walking? There is potential to think about how support can help shift culture and behaviours within this part of the system? What capacity is going to be needed and where? Who can contribute? 

In terms of the focus on the inactive, I think there’s quite bit of potential for this to become more challenging to influence in some parts of the system but maybe easier in others. The scale of the task could get bigger, inequalities could grow, resources could be even more scarce and key partners maybe be struggling with existence or capacity.

However, community action may have grown, stronger bonds of togetherness may have flourished and bottom up change may be easier to encourage with more established local networks left over from tackling covid and seeking purpose. Again is there potential for a radical rethink? It really poses an interesting puzzle for the pilots in terms of what they could do.

Some final thoughts- you touch on it in the blog – I think there will be a real split of people that want to ‘just return to normal’ and those that see this has a chance for real fundamental change to our norms. Less car use, less pollution, more time with the family, better use of technology to work differently, less office space, more wildlife in urban spaces etc all of these things will have those that see them as positive and those that see them as negative. How do we understand these different views and create a narrative that helps us and makes the case for decisions that helps the change that we seek?

Well worth a read:




More feedback:

In the context of lifting our heads up and the potential for culture change – if we are to answer the questions being posed, we need to spend some time now just capturing (not necessarily analysing or coming to a judgement on) what we are seeing, hearing, noticing from a range of different perspectives – I think that’s a really important role for us at this time….and in keeping with an insight-led/learning culture which help us answer the questions in the medium – long term. Links to the last point above, about how we understand these different views and create a narrative that helps us and makes the case for decisions/change that we seek?

And another:

I think Lederach’s pyramid of actors, referred to on p 79 of the Moral Imagination, but introduced more fully in an earlier work, Building Peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies is interesting here.

Effectively it’s roles in system change shown as a pyramid rather than embedded circles, but I think it stresses what is happening at the moment in terms of the top level setting the policy and enshrining in law, getting the scientific facts, mobilising resources.  Then the middle level joining everything up and delivering service and action. Then the critical grass-roots mobilisation.


Lederach adapted for physical activity (Linden Rowley)

Lederach for physical activity

On this last one I am also drawn back to the work of a New Zealand academic, Kevin Clements, who uses the term ‘compassionate communities’ – which place a higher value on trust, equality and welfare than safety and security and that more analytical and political attention should be paid to bottom up strategies (for peace) and how these connect to the long-term structural; prevention (of violence).  He argues that there is more to be achieved from a deeper attention to relational ethics and egalitarian community building than imposed macro-level development initiatives.  So I think the parallel here is about putting the focus of the lens on human relationships and individual and community wellbeing.

I think there are undoubtedly big lessons from this pandemic for how we approach and mobilise around some of our big challenges.

The immediately obvious one is of course climate change and the amazing reduction in carbon emissions globally.   But also physical activity and community relations generally.  The other thing that has struck me is about marginalisation – those who are already and those who have become so.  (Linden Rowley)

7 April

Increasingly concerned about the potential move to restrict exercise outdoors. Here are a few articles well worth reading:

Closing UK’s parks and open spaces could be a tipping point.

“Banning people from exercising out of doors would have a negligible impact on the epidemiology of this disease but a marked impact on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing.” Science Media Centre Article

Closing parks and open spaces should be a last resort (BBC News)

Exercise out of home could be banned (BBC News)



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