We are living in extraordinary times, a unique moment in the history of our nation, in a world that will be written about and analysed for decades to come. Above all else at this time, my thoughts and condolences are with those who have passed away and with all those whose friends and family have been affected by Covid-19.
Business is quieter, but not silent
Clearly, the British, European and global economy have become subdued as a result of the impact of Coronavirus. However, in the worst of times, there are companies that need senior leaders on a permanent, or interim basis who can help navigate their business through these challenging circumstances.
Eton Bridge Partners has taken on new work in recent weeks, and on a broader front there are sectors that have seen an upturn; notably supermarkets, suppliers to the pharmaceutical and medical sectors, and even pet shops.
One interesting example is from the world of civil engineering. I hear the Ministry of Transport is keen to pay contractors in advance for projects so that they can, in turn, pay suppliers. This is happening for two reasons; to keep money flowing through the economy and to facilitate roadworks. The roads are so quiet that this is an ideal time to carry out repairs.
While this is, without question, an extremely difficult time for companies and the economy as a whole, business does need to continue. The Government acted swiftly and decisively to offer financial support to companies across the country, but it cannot fund everyone on an unlimited basis.
Innovation and leadership in adversity
The Government’s decision to step in and pump huge amounts of money into the economy – effectively paying the wages of hundreds of thousands of people, was both bold and significant.
Because the UK has such a large, mature and established economy, one of the biggest in the world, things usually happen relatively slowly in a calm, considered manner. However, the Government’s move illustrates the fact that when we are confronted by a problem, we can take action quickly. When the pressure is on, people will move mountains. This is, I would suggest, to our credit as a nation.
Another example is the development that has taken place at the ExCel in East London. This large exhibition centre has been converted into NHS Nightingale, a 4,000-bed hospital, which would not have been conceivable a couple of months ago.
Such developments also demonstrate the value of leadership in times of crisis. As I write this, the Prime Minister is in intensive care and thus, by definition, the leader in name only. This is a juncture at which you need the Prime Minister fully functioning, and I hope he makes a swift recovery.
In contrast, we’ve seen the Scottish Chief Medical Officer removed from her position because she did not follow her own advice about self-isolation. Similarly, New Zealand’s Health Minister was demoted after he took his family on a trip to the beach on the first weekend of the lockdown there.
Every one of us needs to play their part in the current situation – but, now more than ever, leaders need to lead by example.
Communication and empathy are key
I started work two weeks before 9/11, and seven years later I worked during the banking crisis. It was interesting to see in those difficult times that the companies who had not overstretched themselves financially in healthier times, were still lean and efficient in operations when the landscape became more challenging.
I believe it’s important that companies do not cut back too aggressively or too quickly. It’s essential to be agile and nimble so that you are able to expand again when the conditions are right.
It’s also essential to treat your staff with empathy and understanding. There have been examples during the current crisis of organisations that have got their messages badly wrong because they panicked.
All companies are different, of course, but whatever decision they make, they need to get their communications right; explaining carefully what they are doing and why they are doing it. It’s essential to have a strategy and to continue to communicate it, both internally with staff and externally with the market.
Companies may have to make tough decisions, but they should communicate them clearly and empathetically. At all times, they should remember they are dealing with people who are worried about themselves and their families and who want as much certainty as possible – even in a time of great uncertainty.
Many of our clients who are following this principle understand that their employees will not forget how they have been treated. When brighter days return and there are more jobs available, people who feel they were not treated with consideration and empathy will be quick to move on.
Some changes will become the new normal
Working from home does have its advantages. Now that I don’t have to commute, I can get up at 6:30am and I am at my desk by 7:30am. I can also have dinner with the family at 6:00pm in the evening. As well as the positive impact on the environment of fewer people commuting, it’s clear there are some benefits to be derived from working remotely.
It is also possible that it will change the ways companies work going forward. I spoke to one business last week, a professional services firm that is having its London headquarters refurbished. It is now thinking of having only part of its premises renovated and sub-letting the rest, while allowing employees to work from home one or two days a week.
There are efficient video platforms such as Teams and Zoom that allow you easily to connect with people. Even though it will never be quite the same as physically being with somebody, we have seen clients who are hiring who have made full use of those video conferencing capabilities.
Indeed, some have made hires without physically meeting the candidate at any stage of the process. Once you have moved through three or four stages of video interviews, followed up references and taken some psychometric tests, you have a strong sense of whether or not the person is right for the position.
At Eton Bridge Partners, our plan is to remain positive and continue to offer our services to clients and candidates. There is still work out there for us, and there will be more work when the crisis passes and the economy begins to drive forward again.
The fact that we have an interim function ensures that we can deploy people very quickly. If clients have an urgent need in specialisms such as crisis management or restructuring, we are able to parachute in an interim manager rapidly to provide continuity and short-term expertise.
I hope that you and those close to you remain safe and well, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon in happier circumstances.
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