Every business owner has had to adapt quickly to the economic uncertainties presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
Back in the summer – during the first full nationwide lockdown in England – we interviewed a few contacts from the Praemando network to get their thoughts on the key issues facing companies during this incredible time of change. I also asked them for their thoughts on the actions that directors need to take to not only stay afloat during the crisis, but also make sure they emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position than ever.
Read on for words of wisdom from several of our partners, along with timely advice on how you too can navigate the unchartered waters of Lockdown 2.0 with newfound confidence and resilience.
(Please note that some partners have wished to remain anonymous.)
How has COVID has impacted our directors’ businesses?
Understandably, the impact of the pandemic has varied between businesses depending on their setup and size.
Nicholas Bills, Managing Director at Glaziers Hall in Central London, was perhaps the hardest hit out of all our interviewees. “it wiped out all of our enquiries for the rest of our financial year” he said earlier in the year, “although clients were trying to rebook for May onwards.”
Our logistics director, who has enjoyed various roles in his industry throughout the last 32 years, found that certain factions of the business were harder hit than others. His role in the food supply division remained largely unchanged – apart from everybody having to work remotely, of course.
The pandemic came at an important time for two of our respondents. Robert Kennedy, previous bank director, was setting the wheels in motion to transition to a new career path in 2020 after 35 years in the financial industry, so had already adjusted his mindset to accommodate change. Our drinks manufacturer professional was also in a unique position; he was already planning to leave his previous employer at Easter time. However, he was present to help manage his large team’s transition to remote working, and talked of his company’s decision to only produce products that could be sold whilst pressing the pause button on all face-to-face supplier meetings and recruitment drives.
What about their personal lives?
Having to stay home was – and in some cases, still is – the biggest adjustment for our directors at a personal level. Our logistics expert used to work from his own property once a week, but now shares the space with his wife and daughter every single day. And, addressing a challenge many of us can identify with, respondent Nicholas spoke of the toll this took on his family: “It placed an awful lot more strain on my marriage in terms of me always being around. My wife was also trying to home-school, which was a struggle due to learning difficulties. I was more visible to the family, but always working, which meant she never got any respite.”
Robert was grateful that he wasn’t too hard hit by everything that happened in the earlier part of the year. “I’ve been very fortunate to have the security that I’ve had with my employment and the circumstances that I find myself in,” he mused.
Our drinks manufacturer also believed the crisis had less of an effect on him, as he was “already winding down” in preparation for exiting his business. If anything, for him it reinforced the idea that now was a good time to try a change in direction. He did, however, mention that “the biggest personal impact was not getting to see people.”
What have they learned about themselves?
“I am quite structured, and I like routine,” said our logistics professional – a sentiment most of our respondents echoed in the wake of finding their feet with a new way of working.
Our drinks manufacturer director expanded on this. “It’s all too easy to roll out of bed, get your breakfast and work in your PJ’s. You need routine and to feel like you are going to work. This will affect your effectiveness,” he mused. “There are already enough distractions at home, but you need the ability to compartmentalise these things which is important.”
“I know myself well enough, but I have taken time to reflect,” said Robert. “I’ve learnt I’m fairly resilient and relaxed. I’m happy in my own company. I like to read, to learn and to take part in LinkedIn courses. I do miss the challenge, though. And I’ve felt guilty at times because there are past staff who have passed away during all of this.”
Nicholas used this time to dig deep and really consider his approach to others. “The biggest thing is that I’ve spent more time reassuring and showing more empathy to the people around me,” he acknowledged.
How have they adapted to accommodate COVID-safe practices?
All our respondents have embraced remote working and have shunned face-to-face meetings in favour of virtual catchups. Our logistics professional touched upon the physical measures he and his teams have had to put in place: “We have put a number of controls in place for social distancing; we now have separate toilet facilities and changing rooms; we clean key areas every two hours; and we make sure spaces are deep cleaned much more often,” he said.
It seems that companies were just as aware of the emotional impact of the pandemic as the strict restrictions it was placing on their staff. Nicholas touched on the changes he made to his operations to keep productivity levels high and mental health at the fore: “We introduced ‘duvet days’ amongst staff if they need to take some time out for personal reasons. This creates a relationship whereby if I need them to work later on the odd occasion, they are more forthcoming.”
What are their biggest challenges to date – and how have they overcome them?
On the whole, our directors felt that they adapted quite well to change. However, staying in touch with their teams was something of a struggle at times.
“Communication with staff – even if they were on furlough – was, and is, key to maintaining strong connections between colleagues,” explained our respondent from the logistics sector. “What was interesting is that we didn’t have to enforce anything outside of what was being enforced in our employees’ personal lives,” he added.
Nicholas addressed one of the most striking pitfalls of home working, too: “Even if they are in their PJ’s, I expect my staff to be visible and present. I don’t care what’s going on in their house – it’s fine. We are all understanding of each other’s households and what’s happening [in the background]. Before, I would have got annoyed by things like that. I’ve definitely become more compassionate.”
Not being able to plan ahead was also an issue for Nicholas. “What I think affected people most was not being able to have something in the diary to look forward to,” he said.
And developing the right plan was something our drinks manufacturer contact was concerned about from day one. “Everything evolved quickly throughout the company’s twelve markets, and too many cooks made it difficult to make decisions fast enough,” he stated. “We found ourselves number crunching lots of ‘what if’ scenarios and running the risk of these outcomes being based on suspect details and therefore being inaccurate.”
Have they found any silver linings?
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Covid has made our directors reconsider not only how and where they work, but also how they can improve their personal and professional lives.
“It’s made me think about the different ways of doing business, as I’ve always liked face to face,” stated Robert.
Our drinks manufacturer was more aware of the time-saving benefits to home working. “Technology is great and it allows people to think about how they are using it and how they are spending their time. I feel you can’t be on Zoom meetings for more than an hour, as it’s draining.”
And according to our logistics professional, “it’s forced us to let people do their jobs, allow them to expand their own capabilities, and take full responsibility for their actions. In turn, it’s enabled us to have greater faith in our teams to perform.”
He’s been pleased with his company’s resilience, too. “Our staff have adapted incredibly well, and everybody still turns up for virtual drinks every Friday!”
What are the tools their teams couldn’t live without?
Unsurprisingly, conference tools like Skype and Zoom were referred to as ‘must haves’.
Our drinks manufacturer prefers Cisco’s Webex – “it could cope better with our 12,000 strong remote workforce” – and he cited Houseparty as another important platform for more informal virtual get-togethers.
For Nicholas, it’s been his company’s VPN access. “We all have laptops now with a viewer so we can access desktops in the office,” he said. However, he doesn’t see this setup working well in the longer term. “I won’t be continuing with any of this going forward. Money will be invested in further training.”
What would our directors have done differently?
With the benefit of hindsight, our logistics professional would have “made sure more laptops were available”. Our drinks manufacturer would have “reacted quicker to what was going on.” And though Nicholas thinks he did the right thing by staying open as long as possible, because he had to protect the business by not shutting the venue down, he did admit that he “probably would have furloughed more people at the beginning, and not from 1st April.”
“That said,” he added, “staff were getting other areas of work done around the venue in terms of cleaning it and decorating it.”
Final words of advice?
Robert was keen to reinforce the concept that everything is temporary. “[People] have to go back to purpose. It’s natural to just think about cutting costs at the current time,” he said. “But you need to take a step back and look at things in an objective manner. When assessing how people will deal with change, it’s always important to look at character, capability and commitment and make a judgement with this in mind. If you stay in the problem just a little longer you will make better decisions. Things have changed forever, but for many currently, It remains a cash flow problem, so look to the business plan you have, but keep learning, be active, engage with people. Lastly, be grateful for what you’ve got, every day.”
According to Nicholas, “the biggest thing is to make sure you are accessible to your teams, your suppliers. Life is about people. When communication ceases, that is when business and people will suffer. If people can see that you are doing your best to help them, that’s the main thing.”
I hope you’ve taken comfort and inspiration from our respondents. For extra support with key business tasks during these difficult times, don’t hesitate to reach out to Praemando. You can book your complimentary discovery call here.