COVID-19: The People Challenges Business Leaders Are Facing
Covid-19: The People Challenges Tech Leaders Are Facing
People are notoriously difficult. Leaders from all walks of life have been (and will continue to) debating how to get the most out of us for generations.
And never has the protection of our people been more important than now.
The recent outbreak of Covid-19 has sent many of us into a tailspin. Some of us will have turned to family, some to friends, others will have great working relationships with those they call ‘boss’. Regardless of your support network, or your working status, we all have leaders in our life and it’s at times like these, where the status quo is ripped apart, do they really have to step up.
We spoke to leaders from all around the globe to find the common people challenges they’re facing right now in an effort to paint a picture of how the market is responding to COVID-19 disruption.
We asked them a number of questions and broke their answers down into 4 areas of focus. From these common areas of focus, we’ve taken insightful highlights from the leaders on their reasoning and response to the crisis as it unfolds.
Shifting to Fully Remote Working
Managing Changing Demand & Planning for the Future
Motivation and Mindset
People are the lifeblood of our organisations and proper protections, especially in times like these, is something that cannot be overlooked. It comes as no surprise then that the top priority for all the business leaders we spoke to is the protection of their people.
Out of the hundreds of individuals, we spoke to, the protection of staff, employees, and workers has been the number one concern. Out of all of those individuals, we have pulled out a few notable stories that demonstrate the grit, determination, and fight we all want to see from leadership.
“We were ready, SARS prepared us”
Being a global company doesn’t just bring greater access to resources or markets, it also means having greater and more diverse responsibilities for their teams.
For global companies, the likelihood of them being affected by socio-economic issues is increased. Many of them will have built specific guidelines for ‘disaster relief’ (DR) that some companies native to just one company might never have to worry about.
One Global Head of a Communications equipment company has seen the company work through a pandemic once before.
“I am impressed with the leadership and the senior management in how well we’ve navigated difficult time. We are an Asian company, so back in 2003 we did have to deal with SARS.”
During the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Taiwan, >150,000 persons were quarantined, 24 of whom were later found to have laboratory-confirmed SARS-coronavirus.
As a result, two distinct levels of quarantine were implemented in Taiwan. Level A quarantine, aimed at people having close contact with a suspected SARS case-patient, was implemented on March 18, 2003. Level B quarantine, aimed at travelers from affected areas, was implemented on April 28, in the aftermath of the first SARS death on April 26. Most of the quarantined persons were confined to their homes for 10–14 days.
The Communication Equipment Company, which employs thousands of staff worldwide, were operating during that time and acted in accordance with official government guidance. Something that would prepare them for the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are naturally better prepared for the unexpected. We moved very quickly in January, the Taiwanese government sent our information about disruption. Even in those early days, we weren’t allowed to travel internationally without approval from senior leadership. That was done to protect our people.”
An issue that unites companies regardless of size will be the protection of their workforce.
No more is this the case than in the companies that operate under the ‘key worker’ status, like the Postal Service and Courier Company we spoke with.
“We’d Normally Just Hire More People”
With a headcount over 100,0000 key workers, a number of changes have been brought in to overcome the challenges to people and business safety in this Postal Service and Courier company. We spoke to a Senior Resourcing and Recruiting Leader about their moves to protect their people.
“Our primary focus has been protecting our people. We’ve had that key worker status, so we’ve stayed open for business. But we’ve had to do that in a whole new set of rules.”
Naturally, a Postal Service is no stranger to operating in difficult periods of dramatically increased use, but the threat of Covid-19 has posed unique challenges that the Senior Resourcing and Recruiting Lead and team have had to navigate through delicately, with an eye always to the safety of their key worker staff who continue to work tirelessly.
“Normally we’d increase the volume of people we have working. But then the question is, how do we continue to respect social distancing? How do we ensure we have enough PPE? Things like that contribute to what has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced.”
Millions of parcels, that have all been in contact with a number of people, pass through Courier services every week. With that in mind, it was a big job to quickly adjust to the increasing need for PPE for all workers.
“Equipping people quickly enough has been another challenge. A big call for PPE. Getting that PPE is a major focus. One of the first things that our head of operations looks at every day isn’t the volume of deliveries, It’s the volume of equipment we have. The amount of phones, laptops and PPE is now the top of our business meeting agendas.”
“We’ve Had To Have Tough Conversations on Leaving People Alone”
Of course, protecting people doesn’t always have to mean providing them with PPE or helping them navigate the fallout from a regional or global pandemic. In some cases, it can simply be about protecting them from the shifting demands this crisis has brought on us all.
One Director of Financial Tech Consultancy has had to take significant steps to ensure his engineers are protected from increasing and ever-changing demands.
“We had a meeting with engineers on a daily basis, now we have project managers that are now jumping on engineers 3-5 times a day. That means Engineers are on calls 7am-5pm and still expected to deliver on projects.”
Our increased adoption of instant communication tools, and willingness to use them, can be seen as a double edged sword. While our connectivity has increased dramatically, our workloads have also.
“We need to be a bit more clever, do conversations quicker, smarter. Tough conversations need to be had around leaving people alone to get the job done.”
The Shift to Remote Working
Unprecedented were the changes made to working life. Backed by government enforcement, almost overnight we moved towards a fully remote working routine. Some of us will have welcomed this change, some of us will have been prepared for this, some of us will have been scrambling to ensure their systems would all work under new constraints.
Second only to the problem of protecting our people was the scramble to shift to fully remote working, something a large majority of the leaders we spoke to share as a particularly tricky people challenge.
For global companies, like the Financial Services Company we spoke to, this posed a bigger problem than some might think.
“Security Was Our First Concern”
“Our ops teams are insourced and outsourced, having those teams go remote. We’ve had to make sure from a cybersecurity and continuity standpoint things can flow smoothly.”
Said a senior Technology Leader in the company.
On a more technical level, a certain level of strategic planning was needed to ensure the Technology Leader freed his developers to work from whatever location they needed to.
“We’ve also created consumption windows around the world. Bottlenecks appear when developers are checking their code. These windows and like slots to ensure everything is done at once to ensure overall downtime”
“Assume Everything Is Going To Proceed As Normal”
With a global presence, this Head of Talent Acquisition at a leading Technology Consultancy has had to contend with a complete shift in the way they work.
“Our challenges aren’t going to be that different to others but we’ve moved to completely remote. Some people, a handful, worked from home before this but we weren’t a company of work from home as a default.”
An often understated piece of the remote working puzzle is trust. A simple concept, but often overlooked, simply trusting your staff to get the job done is the first step in a productive working from home relationship.
“We’ve had to switch our way of working, our use of technology and trust has had to play a bigger factor. We’re fairly strong in this area, in any situation there is a certain level of trust gained from simply getting the job.”
Simply asking someone to trust someone else, especially in roles that require a more hands-on management style, isn’t going to achieve anything. The Talent Team have been busy working on system and processes to help managers through this period and help them understand that, first and foremost, we should be coming from a place of trust.
“When you are not seeing an employee everyday, all day, it’s somewhat human nature to question.. We’ve had to speak to a lot of managers. Assume everything is going to continue as normal. We’ve had to educate managers on taking trust one step further.”
“Our Mind Has Been Opened to the Art of the Possible”
A company that employs well over 100,000 people has been able to quickly shift it’s priorities. No more is this the case than with the Courier and Postal Service company we spoke to. Moving from working on-site to home, where it quickly equipped staff normally used to coming into the office every day for working from home.
“Working from home and flexible working wasn’t a ‘no-no’ but it wasn’t business as usual.
I do think that has opened our mind to the art of the possible.”
Managing Changing Demand & Planning for The Future
A hallmark of a successful company is its ability to pivot when needed. To quickly reassign resources to areas that will help get vital services up to the new standard of peak capacity.
There will be those out there who will benefit from the rapidly changing demand of consumers and clients. On the flip side, there will be some who will struggle. Regardless, the impact COVID has demanded sacrifice and the ability to quickly pivot.
“We’ve Got Recruiters Training to Go Out On Delivery”
In the face of this increasingly tricky remit, the Postal Service Company have had to make quick decisions on the reallocation of staff who don’t operate on the front-lines. In a similar fashion to how the NHS has re-deployed retired or former doctors to the front-lines, this Postal Service Company has seen back-room staff completely pivot into unfamiliar territory.
“I’d normally have a team of perm recruiters. That’s on hold now. We’ve had to divert attention to keeping our individuals safe. So now, some of my recruiters are out there doing deliveries. Going out there, learning new skills. Some of them are walking 6-10 miles a day. We’re asking people to be incredibly flexible.”
“It’s Hard to Model What We Need to Do”
In larger organisations, new people challenges come in the form of people planning that, under normal circumstances, would have been done years in advance. For the Global Technology Consultancy, people planning was strongly affected.
“A new financial year begins May 1st, two or three months ahead of that date we know what we’ll be heading for revenue-wise and then how many people we need to reach that.
It’s now very difficult to model what we need to do.”
The way the world is right now it’s very hard to commit to one single scenario. It means that there is a 2 or 3-month delay on our business strategy, meaning the people strategy is lagging behind too because it’s very hard to align a people strategy without having a business one in place.
“Watch Out For Communication Duplication”
We spoke to a Director of a Business Coaching School helping SME and Start-up leaders achieve their business goals. For her, a big people issue arising right now is communication duplication.
“Teams who are used to working face to face. In my previous role we had flexible homeworking clients, remote clients. I was already used to these practices but I had to coach my new clients on how to use the technical aspects but also how do I effectively lead and manage a team virtually.”
Overcommunication, in the right way, is good. It goes a long way to reassuring everyone, who now finds themselves. But to be able to put into place a structure of communication that allows collaboration. Multiple touchpoints help, but watch out for duplications of communications.
Motivation and Mindset
Another issue for the Director, and many other business leaders right now, will be motivation. Specifically, how do we help individuals, who may have worked in a shared workspace for years, shift their mindset and discover new forms of motivation?
“I work with my clients to help their business’ to survive and thrive. One of the biggest roadblocks is mindsets, what will happen to their business. We coach them through that and go along with them each step of the way.”
“It’s a ‘New Normal’ for everyone.”
Boris Johnson has declared the lockdown must stay in place and that he "cannot spell out now how fast, or slow, or when changes will be made".
Although only spoken about in sweeping generalisations from officials, the idea that this current way of working will go on for some time is something that many people will have already made their peace with.
This ‘new normal’, at a very basic level, will mean the continuation of social distancing and, as such, remote working. A prospect that some, including some of this Leader’s employees at the Global Financial Services Company.
“Including home school or being a primary carer, we’ve got a range of things to do on top of our jobs. We’re bringing in external consultants to help create seminars that will support our employees through these times.
This was done to ‘sure up’ the new normal.”
But, for some, the idea of bringing in external consultants will be an expense too far. The good news is that you don’t need to bring in these kinds of changes to make a real difference to the continued motivation and support of your workforce - as demonstrated by the team at the Financial Service’s company.
“We’ve changed internal processes to focus on employee recognition. Managers are being asked to highlight good work and put an emphasis on output based measures as opposed to time based measures. If the sun is out you don’t have to feel guilty about having a 6 hour day. We’ve taken ordinary KPI’s out of the mix.
We also recognise the needs of each individual. Example being we have some coming to us saying they live with a roommate in a studio flat. Got it. We can get you a hotel room for a few weeks, no problem.”
The People Puzzle
What people challenges are you or your business facing? Have they come about as a result of COVID or are they simply a bi-product of the times?