COVID conversations with leaders: what they’ve done, questions they’re asking and changes they’re making
It looks like the pandemic will mean the end of some long-established HR practices.
I’ve been listening and talking to CEOs, HR leaders and business owners since March, and in this piece I cover:
The three most common things that bosses are worrying about for the short term (next three to four months)
Six new ways of doing things that may well become the norm for some employers
Some of the interesting insights that I gleaned from my conversations and that informed the ‘six new ways of doing things’
Three immediate things bosses are worrying about
Getting people back to work safely
This is an immediate concern. Working out the practicalities – how to get people in and out of the building, be safe whilst inside, provide drinks and suchlike – is occupying the minds of businesses right now. Taking into account people’s commutes, whether they feel comfortable coming back to the office and the extent to which they continue with home working are the kinds of issues leaders are grappling with.
Some have already made one round of redundancies and anticipate having to make more when the government furlough support comes to an end. One HR Director in the hospitality sector told me they had already made a lot of people redundant, retaining those who they thought could best help the business survive. She said soon they would have to make more staff cuts and would need help working out who to keep. We spoke about establishing what strengths, values and motivations will be needed for the future. And choosing people based on those factors.
Another HR Director, whose business has contact centres, needs a better way of selecting people because when people work from home it’s harder to see what they’re doing and so, it could take longer to realise if someone if not right for the job. Again, we talked about using a strengths approach to give them more confidence that they are making the right hiring decisions. In some retail businesses, logistics and healthcare they will have no shortage of candidates, the challenge will be efficient and truly effective selection.
How to pivot their businesses
Some leaders spoke about relatively small pivots such as a restaurant business becoming a takeaway operation. Some will need to do something much more radical to survive. One CEO is worried that, unless they can pivot significantly and fast, his business will disappear. Every day he’s having conversations with his team about what they can do to innovate whilst at the same time keeping a focus on the business they still have. He is also worried about how to decide which people to keep in the business, as choosing the right ones could be the difference between survival or not.
Six new ways of doing things
Managers become Chief Listeners
Managers have had to suddenly step into a pastoral role. The ones who have taken to it will be the ones who will be needed in future. Some people have been very busy with work and also juggling family responsibilities, others have been furloughed and may or may not have coped well with that. Lots will be fearing the loss of their jobs. At a time when businesses will need their people to be contributing all their talent, excellent managers will no longer be a ‘nice-to-have’.
In management there’s normally such an emphasis on action, fixing, doing. Deeply listening to someone is powerful. When we listen longer and harder not only does it improve relationships and stops us from making unhelpful assumptions but it often means that the action we take is more useful.
Whether managing people remotely or not, the ‘listening’ manager will spot problems quicker, will engender loyalty, will know how to better support people to do their jobs well, and will also bring the best out of a diversity of talent.
The other thing about people who are great listeners is they tend to be able to see things from others’ points of view precisely because they listen. This means they are more tuned into customers’ needs as well as employees’ needs. These people will be essential as companies rebuild or reshape themselves to rise to the severe challenges that will face many of them.
Performance management will be ditched in favour of ‘contribution’ discussions
Have you ever spoken to a manager who lights up at the idea of doing a standard ‘performance appraisal’? Or an individual who looks forward to theirs? This is a good time to ditch those, and make contribution and goals the main topic of conversation. Good managers know it’s the way to motivate. They listen, they encourage and they stretch. They talk regularly to their people about their goals and how they’re doing. They need a few tools and skills to help them to objectively judge performance as well as the strengths and motivations to lead.
‘Head of Health and Wellbeing’ will be a senior role and will perhaps encompass communications
The mental and physical health of all employees is being affected by the pandemic to a greater or lesser extent. Health, safety and wellbeing are already high on employers’ agendas. It will likely remain so for a long time to come.
From what I’ve been hearing, effective communications is helping with people’s anxiety levels and their need to feel ‘looked after’. One HR Director told me that trust in their Chief Executive has gone up enormously because he’s doing Zoom calls from his home regularly. People can directly ask him questions and tell him what’s going on for them. Another Chief People Officer of a large global company said they’ve been doing pulse surveys weekly asking questions like how often managers are speaking to their people, how focused people are feeling, how supported they feel. The effort that organisations are putting into honest two-way communication now is having a positive impact on people’s morale.
Individuality will be valued
The business case for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has long been made, but now we understand at a visceral level why we need it. Individuality is a super-power. It means we understand all perspectives, that nothing vital is missed and that we don’t inadvertently overlook an important group of people.
In their most recent report, Diversity Still Matters (McKinsey, May 2020) cannot be any clearer when they write “Inclusion and diversity are at risk in the crisis — but are critical for business recovery, resilience, and reimagination.”
I remember working with a big consumer company and being struck by how quirky, individual, sometimes maverick and non corporate their people were. They never stated that they valued individuality but it was obvious they did. Seeing people for who they were was instinctive to them.
In contrast, others have striven to create businesses where people can be themselves and live out their strengths in the biggest ways possible, but without much luck. Now though, they’ve seen people rise to challenges in ways they hadn’t ever dreamed they could. Everyone has had to do whatever seemed important in their own way, because there hasn’t been a rule book. Proof that valuing individuals, encouraging them to do what they do best and involving them in decisions is the thing to do.
Storytelling will become mainstream
Storytelling has been in vogue lately. Advertisers have always used story to influence feelings and behaviour. Without hearing people’s stories businesses won’t be tuned into what all their various stakeholders want or need. Storytelling has become an imperative.
Hearing people’s stories will be part of the healing and rebuilding process. Everyone has been affected by the pandemic. Some will be traumatised, some will be exhausted, others will have reassessed what’s important to them.
Encouraging employees to tell their stories and reflect on them means that valuable learning will be captured. Then people will more consciously be able to bring to bear their learning on the challenges of the future.
When people are helped to tell their stories it supports their wellbeing and helps them learn. Memory is notoriously unreliable so we need to capture those stories now. If we don’t, we risk missing one of the most healing and learning activities available to us, and as a result we will become out of touch with employees and customers.
Work will become a place where people meet
Work used to be a place where we went to – well – work. Now it will be a place where we go meet people.
HR Directors across the world have been vindicated in their campaigning for working from home. The business case has been made, and undoubtedly so have the calculations of how much money can be saved by reduced expensive office space.
The benefits of working from home have been felt by many, but it’s also true that people miss face-to-face contact. That’s why few leaders seem to be considering getting rid of their office space altogether.
Insights from conversations between March and June 2020
Different countries, sectors and organisations are experiencing the impact of the pandemic at varying levels of intensity, but most are still focused on addressing the most basic of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
According to Maslow’s theory of human motivation, physiological needs (food, water, shelter), safety needs (security, employment, health) and a need for belonging (relationships and caring) have to be met before we can progress to fulfilling the more complex of human needs – esteem and self-actualisation (respect, accomplishment, recognition, fulfilment of potential). Bertie Tonks, Global Director of People at Collinson Group, made this point on the webinar People Strategy in a Post Covid-19 World (you can listen to the podcast on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/working-futures/videos/).
I spoke to more than one employer who has split their HR team into two – one half working on the immediate issues and making sure people have all they need from a health and wellbeing point of view, and the other thinking about what will need to change in order to make sure they have the right talent to meet the post-pandemic challenges.
What people will want and need from work in a post-Covid world is bound to change. According to a survey conducted by Tiger Recruitment (April 2020) of 1100 employees (900 of whom were in the UK), across financial services, professional services, hospitality and law, 65% said that they hope their employer had learned from the situation that happy, healthy employees are key to business success, 56% said that not all face-to-face meetings are necessary, 55% thought that working from home can be good for productivity and 33% said business needs a purpose beyond profitability.
Communications is more important than ever in times of uncertainty. In a UK-wide survey of 16,000 workers (June 2020) from Hays recruitment, 43% said leaders needed to improve their communications and a third said they have contact with their manager less than once a week.
Communications is ‘top of mind’ for HR Directors, as is health and wellbeing. Sarah Keyes, Executive Director of Organisation for the General Dental Council, told me that during the first seven weeks of lockdown they sent out communications updates (including signposting where people could go for help) daily, and that now they do it three times a week. This, along with daily calls to her team and helping managers to support their people, is all part of their effort to make sure people are OK. She said that this level of caring and knowledge of how people are doing will need to continue into the future because the anxieties won’t suddenly disappear.
As well as having to do more and different things for employees, some businesses have, out of necessity, thrown off the shackles of the way they’ve done things in the past. I’ve heard a Chief Nurse, a CEO of one of the biggest global supermarket chains, an HR Director of a digital business and a CEO of a local council say almost the same thing about it being refreshing to just get things done quickly. Some of them said they’d never worked so hard in all their lives. They all said that the changes they’ve had to make have had an energising effect on them, not least because they’re doing things that they never would have thought possible.
The CEO of one of the big six UK publishing companies said they had instantly stopped doing some things (some of which cost thousands every year) that they’d previously been convinced they had to do like printing proof copies onto paper. He said he feels more willing to take risks as a result of the experiences he’s had in this period and that “hesitation and fear of tech has gone in one fell swoop”.
Decisions like introducing flexible or remote working, launching something new, or ditching products and services, usually involve a lot of meetings, much debate, risk assessment, more discussion, pilots, lots of time and sometimes big budgets. Suddenly there was no time for all that. Major policy and innovation decisions had to be made pretty much instantly.
Future Workplace’s survey – The Impact of Coronavirus in the Workplace asked 350 HR Leaders in the USA how this pandemic will affect their organisations. A third of them said there would be business advantage in rethinking assumptions regarding current business practices.
Some companies have innovated very quickly and without massive cash investment. One European food retailer increased its online fulfilment by more than 50% by introducing all-night picking and packing in store. It required no new capital investment.
The nimble and entrepreneurial have been able to provide welcomed services to customers that previously there would have been no appetite for. In normal circumstances it can be hard to sell a transformational product or service, even when there is an evidence base behind it. It’s hard to change hard-baked habits even if doing so would be incontrovertibly beneficial.
One such case has been in the healthcare sector. The pandemic meant that GPs could not see patients face-to-face. The conditions were ripe for an innovation. A company called accuRx launched video consultations in the space of a couple of days, UK GP practices adopted it and a million video consultations took place in the first two weeks of the pandemic. It’s a game changer. They reckon that years of ‘NHS digital transformation’ happened in days. It shows how a ‘tech minnow’ is making a massive difference and how GP practices that have been struggling to move with the digital times embraced the video consultations. It’s a low tech solution that has been designed to work with whatever devices doctors and patients have. As the saying goes, ‘the perfect was not made the enemy of the good’.
Another business used their existing assets to offer the public something that suddenly became in demand. ChargedUp, the specialist in phone-charging stations, created CleanedUp so that venues could provide hand-sanitising facilities for their customers.
Jacky Simmons, Chief People Officer of Veon, a multinational telecommunications company, said that having implemented remote working overnight, showing that they can make very quick decisions, they are moving into thinking about the recovery phase and will be asking themselves two questions: what has been fantastic [about how we’ve operated during the pandemic] that we don’t want to lose? and what can we actually stop doing?
I love these questions – they’re simple and powerful and they can be applied to individuals as well as to organisations.
Change is hard normally. Obstacles to real change are very high, even in times of stability, peace and wealth. This is the moment to ask how we really want things to be, what we really value and what energising transformations we can make.
This time has been a major watershed for many employers and individuals too. Many won’t want to go back.
This is the moment.
Please do share your thoughts, experiences and stories with me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I feel this is a time to talk, listen and exchange ideas and to help each other out as much as we can.
And if you want help with making sure you retain and select the right talent to set you fair for the future let me know. We’d love to support where we can.
Sally Bibb is the author of Strengths-based Recruitment and Development: A Practical Guide to Transforming Talent Management Strategy for Business Results and The Strengths Book: Discover How to Be Fulfilled in Your Work and in Life, and is a leading strengths expert.