Helen Rutherford, Director of People and Culture, Soprano Design
Not many employers could have foreseen the challenges COVID-19 has presented businesses around the globe including the need to swiftly shift entire workforces to remote based working environments almost overnight.
While many may have had business continuity plans in place for disaster management, the pandemic has required a truly agile and authentic leadership response to best enable businesses to keep operating and in many cases, support employees when they have effectively hit pause.
Our internal temperature check
In a recent internal engagement survey designed to gauge the effectiveness of our leadership’s handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic, all (100%) of our employees stated they felt they know what they need to do to keep safe and healthy, 97% responded as feeling we are staying connected as a team of colleagues, 92% feel that we are adapting well to the changing work conditions, and 88% felt our leadership team is still ‘visible’ despite being fully remote. We feel proud of these results, and have paused to identify what is working well, so far, and what lessons we can take into the future.
For most businesses, perfection during a crisis is never really an option. Dr. Michael J. Ryan, the Executive Director of WHO couldn’t have said it better when he said: “Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection…”
Here at Soprano we’re following the philosophy of Dr. Ryan by taking a rolling (not rigid) approach to navigating COVID-19 on the basis of our belief that this crisis will continue unfolding in unexpected ways and we need to adapt on the fly.
Keeping our options flexible
Few of us had imagined beforehand the speed and scale at which COVID-19 was going to unfold, putting even our best contingency plans to the ultimate test. For survival reasons, the options were limited to the tough choice of either closing doors entirely or moving millions of employees around the world out of their familiar social office environments and into the isolation and confines of their own homes.
It is too soon to draw any major conclusions about what works and doesn’t work, because the situation has not settled down, but I’d like to share some early lessons from Soprano’s efforts to navigate the COVID-19 crisis and adapt to working in greater isolation.
I believe that if we share, learn and apply what has been working well at each of our organisations, we will collectively achieve greater resilience as this crisis continues to evolve in the coming months, and our recovery period will be sooner. The following is a summary of some of the tactics I believe are working, so far, to help our team remain engaged and feeling safe during this crisis:
Triage the situation … continuously
When we initially triaged our situation, we could see that we were fortunate in the sense that we are a global communications tech company and we’ve been selling business continuity planning and crisis management technology to our customers for years. We know the importance of timely communication and with employees on 5 continents we have been regularly using some great remote-working collaboration and communication tools since before the pandemic began.
We were also fortunate that we had about 25% of our people and 40% of our senior leadership team working remotely from home on a permanent basis before the crisis began, which meant we already had some very productive and flexible remote-working processes in place and we had some lessons learned that we could apply immediately.
That said, we could see clearly this would be a big change for the remaining majority of our employees who had been working almost exclusively in one of our several regional offices, so we conducted a survey of our people asking what was happening for them, what was working and what was not, and what they needed from us. We also asked people about their home working environment to ensure whether they felt it was a safe environment from their perspective. We allowed those who needed to take office equipment home as needed, such as chairs and computer monitors.
We also increased the frequency of our global senior leadership team meetings to ensure we could respond to the rapidly changing requirements in each jurisdiction, and we increased our communication with our frontline leaders to ensure we shared and received feedback relevant to each team and location on a regular basis.
Establish someone who is locally responsible for communication
As an international business with people located in 13 different countries, but a small core team, one of the first moves we made was naming a primary point of contact for each region responsible for the communication about COVID-19 with people in their region. This enabled us to get local assistance and visibility in each of our locations and provided us with localisation of our communications to help manage the situation in the local languages. It also gave us an early close-up view of local legislation and news, as we were seeing that each of our regional offices were being required by local authorities to close at different moments. Our regional reps also helped us to aggregate and understand the safety considerations for offices that remained open and to have better visibility into the productivity and wellbeing considerations for those workers who were beginning to work remotely for the first time.
Be accommodating when an exception can be made
Moving so quickly to remote working was challenging for everyone, but we learned that certain individuals had extreme challenges and not everyone can actually work from home, particularly if their workload cannot be accomplished at home or if there are mental health or family situation factors that make it difficult or impossible to work productively from home. We’ve been able to accommodate some of our people by allowing them to remain working in our offices where safe and permitted by the local authorities.
Be vocal about wellbeing and mental health
We have made a conscious effort to place [an] emphasis on mental health and wellness during this time and we’re learning how each person reacts and responds differently to threats and crisis, moving through change curves at different rates.
We have taken time to discuss and gain an understanding what it’s like, for example, for those people who live in small apartments with kids no longer able to go to school, which means that normal work hours and regular check ins can be challenging. As a global business, we have been flexible in not just where work is done, but when, to help ease the pressure on our people.
Additional Lessons Learned About Achieving Business Resilience in a Crisis:
• Focus on Maintaining Productivity: Authorise flexible-working policies and ensure access to technology.
• Remain Informed: Monitor market intelligence across geographies and your industry. Sign up to free legal updates from your local law firm partners and seek specialist advice where necessary.
• Implement Communication Technology: Flexible communications requires using the right tools for the right groups internally
There’s no single communication tactic or work schedule that works best for everyone, but we’ve placed emphasis on the timely flow of communication from our People & Culture team and from our leadership team as new developments have arisen. We’ve chosen to be as transparent and clear in our messaging as possible, and we have taken feedback from the organization about our communications into consideration to ensure our messaging going forward attempts to accurately reflect what was intended by our Chairman and Founder for clarity and confidence.
Looking ahead – preparing for a return to the office
It’s still too early to know where the dust will settle on COVID-19, especially when we account for the differences in each region. According to a recent Gartner HR survey, 41% of employees are likely to work remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic. Similarly, we’re asking ourselves here at Soprano whether there has been a fundamental shift happening in our business to a greater percentage of our workforce working part-time or permanently remotely.
Our lessons learned from the lockdowns during this period and any productivity gains we’ve observed from increased remote working should not be lost if we’re to not only survive but thrive through the next big challenge.