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Behavioural insights after Covid: three changes to keep
by Hazel Wright, Senior Advisor, Behavioural Insights Team , 29 July, 2020

Here at the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), we recently turned our attention to what life might be like once lockdown measures start easing. We highlighted how this is an opportune moment to drive positive behaviour change, and outlined ideas policymakers and businesses could use to help people stick to positive changes they made in their lives. Being at the forefront of many services, we know councils are thinking about these things too.

At the NLGN’s recent ‘Decade in Days’ webinar we spoke to representatives from several councils about their behaviour change priorities post-lockdown, and what new behaviours they’d like to see continue. It was fantastic to hear about the work councils have been doing to support their residents during this time. In particular, we were excited by the ways in which staff have embraced new technologies and ways of working – changes they’d like to see continue.

In this article we summarise three of the main issues that emerged during this conversation and offer suggestions for how we think they can support this behaviour change.

1. The move to digital working

The rapid move to digital and remote working (such as using Microsoft Teams) forced by lockdown was treated with real positivity from councils. The need to adopt new technologies and move services online at a pace showed how staff and systems had the capacity to change over days, not months. Many participants at the webinar had a real appetite to maintain this rapid, agile way of working and making decisions long after the crisis subsides.

In behavioural science terms, this shows us the power of status quo bias – our tendency to stick with the status quo when faced with important or difficult decisions, even when the alternative may be beneficial. For many, lockdown shifted default working from being face-to-face to being digital. Instead of needing to justify why services should be delivered remotely, staff now had to justify why they can only be delivered face-to-face. This shift in default thinking meant that rather than getting tied down too much in the risk of change, councils had to focus on how best to make the change.

How to keep the change

To keep up this positive appetite for change and help councils move forward with further digital transformation, councils could adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, with clear reasons needed for why something must be delivered in person. Re-framing options to consider whether you’d actively choose the current state of affairs over an alternative as if both were new can also help, and can be implemented in key decision-making meetings within councils. Further strategies to overcome status quo bias could also be adopted, such as creating pros and cons lists for big changes and committing to implement the most beneficial option.

Public commitments are also a powerful tool that can be used to highlight and create new social norms. Public commitments create a strong social motivation to adhere to goals and are more effective than private commitments at changing behaviour. By making shared public commitments, members of a team can be encouraged to maintain positive behaviours and avoid a slip into unhealthy habits associated with remote working. These might include commitments to: hold shorter meetings by default to maintain pace and productivity; introduce clear etiquette for meetings to maintain engagement and equal participation; agree boundaries for the working day to prevent burnout or hold shared meeting-free mornings to allow focused work.

Alternatively councils could embrace a culture of piloting and testing new ideas before ruling them out. By agreeing to test any new idea, councils quickly learn what works and what doesn’t, with the benefit of helping speed up decision making.

2. The volunteering spirit

There’s no questioning that lockdown and the impact of COVID has been tough, particularly for vulnerable members of the community. However it was encouraging to hear many council representatives talking about the increased sense of community spirit and civic duty they felt in their area as a result of this crisis, something also picked up in ONS surveys. In fact during lockdown we saw this translate into an increase in the number of people volunteering to help their neighbours or with local charities.

How to keep the change

How can we keep this community spirit alive to support local services? One way would be to make the process of volunteering or connecting with neighbours easier and communicating to others the emerging norm of how common volunteering is. Highlighting how many people are doing a behaviour can be a powerful motivator for our actions. Showing residents the increasing number of people volunteering and providing a clear call to action for how they can support people in their neighbourhood could help to cement the changing social norm around community participation.

Councils could find local champions who could connect with people in their area and foster local connections and actions (e.g., through creating WhatsApp groups to organise meetups or shopping rounds for those who need it). Furthermore, councils could provide shortlists of charities to reduce the ‘choice overload’ that residents may feel when seeking out ways to help.

3. Healthier and kinder behaviours

Finally, this moment could be used to promote positive behaviour change among local residents. Changes we saw during lockdown ranged from increasing numbers of people volunteering to help vulnerable residents with shopping, to driving less, to exercising more. Indeed, YouGov found that during lockdown about a third of us were throwing away less food and about 27% of us were getting more exercise, with evidence that more people also attempted to quit smoking. However, many of us were also doing less exercise not more, and alcohol consumption was similarly split between those who used lockdown as a chance to drink less and those who drank more, showing that in some cases we also need to think about breaking new unhealthy habits, not just retaining new healthy ones.

Just as lockdown acted as a jolt to kickstart changes to our behaviour, exiting lockdown could similarly instigate behaviour change, however as this is a more gradual process than suddenly being quarantined, we are more likely to need support to enact this change. Here, councils could play an important role in shaping people’s lockdown exits to be as positive as possible.

How to keep the change

One thing councils could do is launch timely behaviour change campaigns to help encourage people to keep positive health behaviours. This could include highlighting helpful social norms (such as more people are exercising than ever before), encouraging residents to stick with the ‘one exercise per day’ rule of thumb, or using reciprocity to encourage healthy and altruistic behaviours as a way to support the NHS. And to help keep car and plane travel low to improve air quality, councils and businesses could promote local attractions and activities that are within easy reach of the home. They could also encourage people to mentally substitute their traditional more carbon intensive holidays with greener local ones.

Councils have been at the forefront of the COVID response, and will be at the forefront of the recovery as well. Here we listed just a few examples for how policymakers could help support positive behaviour change as we leave lockdown which we hope you find helpful. If you’d like to expand on these ideas, you can use resources like our EAST Framework for behaviour change, and can always get in touch with us to discuss how to support positive behaviour changes in your community.