The business and personal lives of millions of people in the UK and beyond have been severely impacted for more than two months by the restrictions imposed in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. My first thoughts are to thank the NHS and other key workers for their magnificent efforts, and to express condolences to those who have passed away and to all whose friends and family have been affected by Covid-19.
People have adjusted to a new normality
In the initial stages of lockdown in March and April, the clear impression was that the nation was simply attempting to come to terms with what was happening. There was a sense of disbelief that scenes you would normally expect to see in a Hollywood movie were now becoming reality.
More recently, however, businesses appear to have adjusted to the new normality. Some sectors, of course, have been hit particularly hard, including aviation, leisure and hospitality, but in areas such as technology and telecommunications, there appears to have been a swift shift. People have regrouped and are now trying to keep things moving forward.
Working from home is working well
Among the CFOs, CEOs, Chairs and other Board members I have spoken with across a range of sectors, one consistent theme has emerged. People have been very pleasantly surprised by how well colleagues have worked from home in terms of their commitment and productivity.
There was some trepidation among senior figures in finance positions that carrying out year-end work – which normally requires all team members to spend long hours in the office to accomplish – would be challenging. In the event, people rose to that challenge and the process went incredibly smoothly thanks to their dedication, knowledge and some high-quality equipment at home backed by their companies’ IT provision.
People’s commuting times vary but many who travel into London would spend between two and three hours a day doing so; suddenly they have been able to spend that time on other tasks.
As a result, many senior leaders are now much more receptive to the concept of people working from home more regularly in future. They now have proof that business functions can be completed by staff in remote locations.
One consequence of this shift is that, with employees on site for two or three days a week rather than five, clients are questioning the need for their current level of expensive office space. When their leases next come up for renewal, many will seek to reduce space or to negotiate more favourable terms with their landlords.
I notice that Twitter and Google have told their staff they can work from home indefinitely, but most of the clients I have spoken to feel that is a step too far. Undoubtedly, you can communicate adequately on a video call – and I am sure the words “You’re on mute” have been said at least a thousand times by every one of us by now – but there is still value in people being together in person.
Hiring businesses may spread their net wider
The growth in remote working leads to the observation that, if people are no longer required to be in their office five days a week, they may be inclined to consider positions further from home.
Businesses may be able to broaden the geographical scope of their recruitment processes if candidates are willing to exchange a longer commute in return for being in the office only two or three days a week.
The peculiar circumstances of lockdown have had other consequences too. Some more seasoned board members, who have enjoyed a simpler and more peaceful existence in recent weeks, may feel it is time to step aside and allow the next generation of talent to move up.
The next few years will undoubtedly be challenging for businesses, so people who can afford to retire now may be asking themselves whether they should make that move sooner rather than later.
I was also intrigued to hear about the coronavirus dream theory. Google searches for “weird dreams” have doubled in the last couple of months. The reason may be that because people have less adrenalin in their system now that they are not rushing around and as a result they are sleeping longer and more deeply – and having more surreal dreams.
Communication has been key to coping
One of my clients recently carried out their regular internal survey on communication and discovered an uptick in positive feedback. People are, it appears, taking greater care to communicate with each other. They may not be able to say hello face to face, but when they do have conversations they are more focused.
Clients have also told me they have been pleasantly surprised by people’s positivity during the crisis. There has also been a raised awareness of colleagues’ personal situations, mental health and wellbeing, and a high level of understanding of the demands of home schooling and the challenge of balancing work with child care.
On a more general front, the way in which companies have treated their customers, employees and suppliers will be remembered. There will always be a need to take tough decisions, but communicating them well goes a long way. If you are aggressive and short-termist, people will not forget that.
Strong leadership is key in troubled times
This leads me on to the observation that leadership is about making tough decisions and communicating them well, whether you are leading a team, a finance function or a country. Early in the lockdown there was definitely a sense of national camaraderie, that we were all in this together.
You have to communicate with people openly and honestly and treat them with respect and courtesy. It is essential to live and breathe your values and ensure you have people working together in a common cause. If you do not follow your own moral code, and the law of the land, people get angry very quickly.
We have seen widespread positive feedback for Rushi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the swift, bold and decisive steps he took to support businesses in the UK.
While some companies have clearly abused the furlough scheme, to launch a system based on an assessment of each business’s balance sheet would have taken far too long. The Chancellor had to decide that, like the NHS, anyone may use the furlough scheme whether they needed to or not.
Important steps on the road to recovery
That same decisiveness will be required as we look ahead to a challenging economic future. It was heartening to see the stock market recover; having been as low as 4993 at the start of March, the FTSE 100 index is now above 6000.
Business leaders I have spoken with are clear on the need to be bold in their decision making. Unemployment may spike when the furlough scheme ends but it will be essential for companies to avoid remaining in neutral and to upskill and upgrade some positions where necessary.
Our clients are clear on the need for a swift and positive resolution. There is little appetite for delaying Brexit because of the coronavirus crisis; that would lead only to further uncertainty.
Clearly, tough times lie ahead. But, as the saying goes, it’ll be OK in the end; and if it’s not OK it’s not the end.
Team unity has helped to keep our business strong
At Eton Bridge Partners, we have seen a noticeable upturn in business during May, especially on the interim finance side.
We took the decision not to furlough our people or let anybody go, or to reduce hours or pay. This was a point of principle, we wanted to keep everyone together as a team, and for them to feel supported, wanted and needed. As a result, a sense of camaraderie has shone through our business in recent weeks.
That sense was maintained by an exclusive webinar we hosted with guest speaker David Smith, the economics editor of the Sunday Times, which was an excellent, well received event.
I send every good wish to you and those close to you and hope you stay safe and well. I look forward to sharing more thoughts soon in more settled circumstances.
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