With the dust settling on a period of unprecedented upheaval, organisations are now able to look ahead to a new world of work. But what does that world look like? Investigo Partners brought our network together on Thursday 11th June for a roundtable discussion looking not to the immediate future, but to 2022. Sharing ideas, insights and problems they’ve had to overcome, our Partners discussed their vision of the new working world and ways in which we can successfully make the transition. It was hosted by Director Michael Thornton, Senior Director Angharad Kenward and Partner – Executive Search Ben Rowland.
From crisis mode to strategy mode
“There was immediately a problem that we had to jump in and rescue,” said Jane Hamilton, a chair of council and non-executive director. “There was a huge deficit in budget we had to resolve. We wanted this year to be an account surplus, but it won’t be this year or next year, and the year after probably won’t be.” Due to the effects of the pandemic, the company quickly had to change its focus “to stabilise the business and get it working again.”
We’re now at a point where organisations need to look beyond immediate survival. Jane added, “we realise a lot of things have been done in a way that’s not sustainable in the long term. Now we’re talking about future strategy. Many businesses are just focused on keeping going and if so, will be in a lot of trouble.” She stressed the importance of taking the lessons we’ve learned from the last few months into the future. “It shows what can happen when it needs to happen. There are lots of things we can do that we thought we couldn’t do.”
“There will be a big push to transformation,” said Lisa Garner, an independent executive consultant with a focus on wealth, asset management, banking and regulatory change. “There are much more people talking about providing clients with online services in a sector that’s traditionally quite reticent to do that. Those with a superb customer experience online will be those that survive.”
Diversification could be the key. “Organisations are trying to innovate,” said Angharad. “Pret are looking to get into frozen foods and sell via Amazon. They’re totally exposed – they can’t sell without physical contact. In the new world, their business is hugely at risk. A lot of organisations are thinking about how to change their offering to adapt to the new world.”
Kath Harmeston, a business transformation and non-executive director, discussed the structural value of a command centre, a BAU programme centre and an innovation centre, working in parallel with a brand definition and business purpose. “It’s cascaded simply and clearly to customers, employees and suppliers. It’ll be a mainstay moving forward. You need ideas for collectively reducing costs. If you just cull across the board, it’s not sustainable. Understand it’s a global shock mechanism you’re dealing with, so you need to look at your customers, suppliers and employers as one.”
“We did work on our CRM on how people are managing their customer base,” said Charlie Whinney, a leading CFO. Using the analogy of bicycle sales, which are 40% up in lockdown, he described how companies need to adapt from a crisis mindset to a more innovative mindset. “You can’t buy a medium sized bike anywhere. Shops are allowing customers to look at bikes virtually.”
However, it remains to be seen whether companies will maintain that innovative mindset in the longer term. Charlie added, “When they’re in a crisis, people have adrenaline and come up with creative ideas, but that will wane. I’m concerned that as social creatures, that creative drive will dissipate in the forthcoming months. It’s how we pull together the best teams for a solution. I think if we’re not careful, we’ll end up defaulting to the top dozen people dictating what will happen based on prior experience rather than utilising fantastic ideas from people in the company who don’t have seniority yet. How do you give them a voice? Do you brainstorm with 20 on a call?”
Bilal Shayk, an experienced CPO, felt that we should be cautious when talking about a new normal. “There’s a big difference between crisis mode and a new normal,” he said. “I think the world adapted fairly well to crisis mode, working from home, but I don’t think the things we’re able to do right now are sustainable longer term. Companies have got crisis mode more or less figured out. We’re not out of the pandemic yet, so we don’t yet know what lessons we can take. I would be careful about fully defining what the new normal is.” Richard Powell, a procurement leader with over 25 years’ procurement and supply chain experience, added, “What does the new world look like and how can we survive once we’ve got through survival mode?”
“Many organisations will want to keep their agility and decision-making,” said Angharad. “The public sector is going to market and onboarding suppliers with the usual rigour. People are getting on and doing it, going online, digitising quickly, virtualising how they operate. For me, it feeds into creativity as it’s about having a goal and hitting that goal fairly quickly.”
As well as a company’s internal approach, there will be a host of external factors shaping the world of work. Bill Cooper, an experienced CFO, believes that “the new normal won’t all be about working from home. In 2022, things will be tough. Big structural change is being accelerated because of COVID and we have Brexit to deal with. Taxes will go up, there will be a lot of unemployment, business failures in retail. Sales in retail will not get back to even their not-good pre-COVID level until maybe 2022. There’ll probably be a digital tax. Some sectors will be about cost-cutting.”
Lessons in leadership
“How we lead will be really important,” said Jane. “The economy won’t be in very good shape. Our confidence will be really shaken. When the dust settles, how will we be as leaders? Our style will have to change. We’ll need to get voices from across the business, not just the top.” But will company leaders change their leadership style, or will they feel that strong leadership from the front is required? Ashley Waite, an experienced transformation leader, believes that the answer lies in empowerment. “It’s a behavioural change – leadership focused on setting clear expectations, principles, accountabilities. You need strong underlying processes, leadership empowering the teams beneath them.”
“Empowerment is absolutely the right thing to do,” added Richard Pratt, a leading transformation programme director, “but in my experience, when there’s a shock to the system – a macroeconomic shock – you find the executive team wants to make every decision themselves. It’s a complete retraction from empowerment, when that’s what would serve the company’s best interests. You find executive sign-off is required for buying new stationery. Behavioural change is key to this. Change at the top key. It won’t happen by osmosis.”
Angharad posed the question of how we create a team environment in the longer term. “It’s easy to do virtually when everyone’s at home, but how do we keep that dynamic when some are in the office?” Lisa gave the example of her daughter, who’s been having regular online meetings with people she’s never met, and feels she’s getting to know them as well as if she had been in the office. “I’ve done that on and off for 20-odd years as a lot of organisations are global and it’s impossible to fly everyone in at the drop of a hat.”
Trust and delegation are key parts of leadership. Gary Wattley, a senior finance consultant, described how working from home for an events company has encouraged his middle child to take on far more of the decision-making than if she were in the office and taking directions. It’s an example of “decision-making percolating down.” During a lockdown period where many companies have found it more difficult to onboard, he has also observed the ease with which his other daughter’s partner has started a new role remotely having never met any of his colleagues, but feels almost as if he has been working in the office. “For companies who set themselves up well, virtual working is working well,” said Gary.
“Good leadership is the thing that will help us come out of this crisis well,” added Jane. “Support the idea of decisions being made all the way down, flexibility in the way we hire. If we go back to the way we’ve done things, I don’t think it will work. There are all sorts of subtleties and sensitivities we’ll need to bring into our leadership style that we didn’t have in our core capability. People will come out in different situations. Some will have liked working remotely, others won’t. As leaders, we need to be in tune with that. Don’t miss the opportunity to get the best out of staff.”
Kath believes that leaders will need to invest more in the softer aspects, closely monitoring their people’s emotional wellbeing. “You need to show there are programmes in place to support people and wellbeing. One-to-ones, education programmes, taking time to check in with how people are. We won’t necessarily look at things in the same way. Our attitude and filters will be adjusted accordingly. More resilient leaders will be cognisant of that and put measures in place.”
Richard Powell knows directors with 20, 40 or 50 direct reports. In cases like these, fundamental changes will be needed in order to allow leaders to manage their people as individuals. Management style will be particularly important in the case of furloughed staff, who might be fearful for their jobs. “We are social beings and it’s quite difficult to establish strong, trusting relationships with people if you can’t see their whole body language and how they feel about something,” he said. “There’s so much non-verbal communication that goes on. The question for me is how we enable the organisation to make the most of its human capital, bring in new people, bring in suppliers, have relationships. We’ve all got used to Zoom calls, but how do you build a brand new business strategy through a Zoom call if you haven’t got trust in all the relationships, or onboard new people and suppliers if you haven’t actually met?”
Steven Downer, Executive Partner at a multinational technology company, sees the COVID-19 crisis further accelerating the already-hasty decline of the high street. “The high street is already in decline. Whenever we get back to rules being relaxed, what will we find on the high street and what reasons will we have to visit? A lot of people have realised buying things online is just a part of life. It will cause a massive shift in what we’ve historically called the high street. There are Prets in London on every street corner. How can they serve an ever-decreasing footfall? The realisation is that we probably don’t need huge head offices staffed by hundreds of people. Businesses will be forced into a new way of working and know they can operate in this way.” The crisis has also highlighted deficiencies in the way some of the larger brands run their business, relying too much on traditional ways of working.
The broader economic impact on a country will depend on how effectively it’s managed the crisis. In the UK, extra social challenges such as Brexit will complicate the recovery further. “It’s almost a post-war mentality. Buy British, manufacturing coming back to the UK,” said Angharad. “The UK has outsourced a lot of its manufacturing and it’s not easy to regrow,” added Lisa. “There’s not enough medical staff. We don’t have the skills in the quantity we need them.”
Steve referred to the “international fiasco over PPE.” With healthcare professionals physically unable to get their hands on the equipment they needed, IBM launched its Rapid Supplier Connect platform to connect government and hospital procurement officers with manufacturers that have switched their production to medical supplies and PPE. “We bought millions of units from China, Turkey. It was a terrible indictment on the UK manufacturing capability as we couldn’t quite ramp up productivity to serve ourselves. It’s a wake-up call on how reliant we are on imports. We need to think about how we want to run the economy.”
There was a feeling that the virtual world could allow for greater diversity of hiring, opening up a world of new skills that companies were previously unable to harness. Angharad referred to “Mums returning to work who can’t travel to London or are part time. There are fantastic skill sets that we couldn’t tap into before. I think the new way of working could get diversity back on top of the agenda from a talent perspective.”
“Location’s irrelevant right now. I’m working on executive roles overseas,” added Ben. “Clients have not asked once where a person lives. You can work in any location.” With companies now looking for skills such as restructuring, crisis management and cost control, Ben has noticed less of an emphasis on CVs and a greater desire for case studies showing the projects a candidate has delivered before. “There’s a change in how people are presenting themselves. I’m seeing interviews late evening at 9pm as well as Saturdays and Sundays. Now it’s very acceptable. Processes that normally take a month are now being completed in days. Interviews are being set up with two hours’ notice. People are being adaptable and making it work.”
We don’t quite know what the working world will look like in 2022, but we do know it will be very different to what we’re used to. Businesses will need to innovate in order to remain relevant in that world. Strong leadership will be key – but strong leadership doesn’t mean the default notion of a top-down approach that companies traditionally revert to in times of crisis. It means empowerment, trust and delegation. Many thanks to our Partners for a great discussion. If you’d like to get involved in a future Investigo Partners event or you’d like to talk to us about finding your next opportunity or your next hire, please contact us.