It’s certainly true that we learn the most about ourselves when we are tested. The pandemic has cast us all into the eye of a number of substantial challenges both at home, in the community and at work.
We have not seen a pandemic in this country for a long time and when coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, it was difficult to comprehend what it might mean. Now, after a year of living through this crisis, I have been reflecting on how our business and the industry has responded to the challenges we have faced and what insights this period has given rise to.
Be innovative and agile
It’s clear that during periods of crisis, the raw prevailing culture of the organisation is exposed for all to see. It has been fascinating to watch some businesses innovate rapidly, experiment and adapt to find new models and new methods of servicing. This speaks to a true customer-centric culture, right in the fabric of the organisation. I witnessed our own tech team put in place an entirely new cloud-based system in less than two weeks to ensure our customers could be serviced and all our colleagues able to safely work from home. This would previously have been unthinkable; a massive technology change within tight regulatory, cyber and architectural limitations delivered in a matter of days.
It also highlighted, that this level of rapid change is absolutely achievable thanks to the dedication of colleagues who were simply determined that our customers should be cared for during this time and the collective mindset was overwhelmingly one of ‘nothing will get in our way’. As we prepare to bring back some elements of normality, it’s vital we harness this proven ambition and agility to drive forward and continue to deliver intuitive digital platforms which meet our customers’ needs.
Invest in digital
Tech has played a huge role in mitigating the impact of this crisis and making us more resilient. This period has demonstrated the importance of digital readiness, but the pandemic is not the only risk we face. Building the necessary infrastructure to support a digitised world and stay current in the latest technology, will be essential for any business to remain competitive post COVID-19.
Providing devices and resources to keep people connected has been crucial, not only in fortifying the business against disruption, but in maintaining a strong and cohesive culture while operating, largely - or entirely – remotely. While many of us miss those ‘water cooler’ moments, I have come to realise culture is not solely down to physical presence. Tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack have allowed people to come together with great creativity and resolution to support one another. I was impressed how quickly into lockdown our colleagues took their regular team socials online – quizzes, games, Friday happy hours etc. As time has gone on, these social events have evolved and become more and more creative – live virtual workouts, art classes, cocktail-making to name but a few.
Communicate frequently and honestly
Communication is a vital component of any successful organisation. But in lockdown, and without physical contact, it has been even more important to stay connected. When we went into the first lockdown, the demand for information and reassurance was unprecedented and we deliberately kept our rate of communications – to customers, colleagues and stakeholders – high. There were inevitably questions we couldn’t answer as the situation was evolving and information was limited, but we decided it was better to be visible and accessible.
It’s essential, as business leaders, to recognise the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have affected people in very different ways – whether living alone and craving company, trying to work while juggling home-schooling, or shielding because of health issues. Studies published after the first lockdown clearly show how the experience of those staying at home differed hugely between the ages, genders, wealth, those with or without a family, in or outside of education.
As in lockdown, where we gave our colleagues flexibility to manage their own time effectively according to their circumstances, it’s vital we apply the same flexibility to our return to office plans. Almost half of all people in employment worked from home during the first lockdown and remote working is expected to remain the norm for about a quarter of all workers.
New ways of working
Hybrid working will be the way forward for many businesses. People will focus their office time on culture, creativity and collaboration and homeworking on independent activities. Just how much time we spend in each location will depend on people’s roles and preferences. For us, a 50/50 split feels about right if we want to mix flexibility and evolution of our valuable culture, but crucially it will involve balancing the needs of our people with those of the business.
While our approach to COVID-19 has not been perfect, in the melee that inevitably accompanies leading in a crisis, I have been given an insight into a business of which I am profoundly proud and feel privileged to be part of. I have known that tech has the ability to shift the way businesses operate and this pandemic has shown that more starkly than ever. When looking forward, perfecting the changes we have already made to our new ways of working will set us up for ongoing evolution, especially in a world so connected to customer demand.