A look back on Sophia Petrides’ exploration of the problems CEOs faced during the pandemic. Originally published June of 2021.
By Sophia Petrides
Over the last three months I have beenspeaking with CEOs, leaders and entrepreneurs about leading through the pandemic and lockdowns of 2020 and 21. It will probably come as no surprise that the results show that the 50 leaders I spoke to all reported new challenges as they explored new ways of working remotely. They had to learn, as if from scratch, how to manage teams, and engage with clients and how to manage the group of CFOs, CTOs and CFOs sometimes know as the C-suite. The leaders I spoke to head up small, mid and large cap organisations across financial services, technology, healthcare, sports, consumer brands and manufacturing. I am grateful that they gave their time during a period when – as you will see – that is a commodity more valuable than ever.
Encouragingly, all of them shared an overwhelmingly positive outlook for their organisations and each expects to see a strong global economic recovery once our vaccination programmes are fully in place. At the same time most of these business leaders acknowledged that we are unlikely to return to pre-Covid-19 workplace norms anytime soon, if ever. All these CEOs took part on the understanding that my findings would be reproduced anonymously.
When it comes to the specifics of how they approached the lockdowns, it is clear that the direction of travel over the last decade towards a more people-centric employee experience, better communication across organisational hierarchies and more inclusive company culture has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic and the needs of working remotely. As one CEO put it, “The pandemic has a silver lining. It’s an opportunity to do things differently, with the time pressure needed to overcome complacency with the current way of doing things.”
We asked the question: “What are your frustrations and challenges that prevent you from being a better leader?” and it yielded some interesting answers which show the most important friction points during the pandemic. These will likely also affect us all going forwards too. The results can be seen in Fig.1 below.
The fact remains that digital leadership is difficult. A large part of the leadership challenge has always been aligning the company and its stakeholders around a clear vision. However, in the age of virtual meetings such as Google Meet, Zoom, and other online meeting platforms it has become a more significant challenge. In many respects, engaging with teams digitally underpins most of the major frustrations of the CEOs I spoke to – the problem is the loss of those unplanned moments of interaction that are so important to create a sense of momentum and social cohesion behind the leadership team. There’s no office buzz online, and that informal energy is essential to align teams behind the leadership vision.
Another major headache – around 19% of issues – was retaining new talent in an age when many of the new hires hadn’t been able to meet their management and colleagues in person, or participate in any of the usual social, informal onboarding experiences that are a normal expectation of everyday working life. However virtual meetings were noted as providing positive experiences too, in that they also give a safe space where younger professionals can voice their views with confidence.
As one CEO put it, “I miss walking around the floor and connecting with people at all levels. You can’t connect on a human level through virtual meetings, there’s no spontaneity, no chit chat, no watercooler moments. People struggle with burn out, home schooling and not being physically together, you need to find a platform to support innovation because it is lost when people are 100% working from home.”
Also in relation to Figure 1, I found that around 11 per cent of leaders felt that reaction to the pandemic had caused a shift to short-term strategies and away from the big picture plans in place before. There was a sudden need to have a Covid-19 response, and this in turn triggered a slew of new HR policies. 22 per cent blamed the sudden disruption for the loss of normal KPI reporting and measurements, along with the loss of travel and sales activities, for reducing revenues and growth. One leader told me: “You are challenged by balancing staff well-being and HR policies with Return on Investment (ROI) and frustrated because you can’t spend time with clients like you used to.”
NO BOARDROOM BLUES
Secondly, I asked CEOs what support mechanisms they had found themselves seeking out during Covid-19. These results are displayed in Figure 2. One interesting – and unexpected – result of the survey was the overwhelmingly positive response to online board meetings. Over 68 per cent of my survey group immediately said their boards, trustees and non-executive directors were providing an extremely high level of support. This was attributable to the pandemic, as another unexpected silver lining, not just in providing support to CEOs, but offering mentorship and support to the organisation at a higher level than ever before. One leader was particularly enthusiastic about the reaction of their board: “Pre-Covid-19, it was challenging to get the board of trustees visible and engaged with the team. Now there’s 100 per cent visibility and presence through online meetings, which means the board has moved closer to employees.”
For those without a traditional board structure to fall back on, there was a fairly even split between two other kinds of support network. Firstly, many leaders sought out colleagues at a similar level who they could talk to about the challenges they were facing off the record. Secondly the role of friends – and in particular, family – in their lives became of increasing importance. In many cases, the opportunity to work from home came hand-in-hand with the chance to make a meaningful change to their work-life balance. Spending more time with the family has proven to be a positive way to recoup lost energy and online meeting fatigue.
The Human Side
Thirdly I asked what the CEOs in question had done to humanise their workplace. There was a follow-up in the question whereby I also asked what the surveyed individuals had done to improve the employee experience. These results are collected in Figures 3 and 4.
The results were clear. Covid-19 has accelerated the importance of the employee experience. When I asked how to humanise the workplace there was a split between those who felt the emphasis should be on designing a better employee experience (62 per cent) and those who felt that what was required was more effective two-way communication across the traditional company hierarchy (38%).
When I delved into what an elevation of the employee experience might look like to these business leaders, many interesting initiatives were listed. These ranged from holding nutrition and exercise sessions for employees by providing free access to online personal trainers through to ensuring each employee took a scheduled 45-minute mindfulness break daily. A number of workplaces also prioritised in-office working options for people who were feeling lonely or isolated working from home. One CEO confided: “We delivered fresh food hampers, gym kit, games for kids and Amazon vouchers. It was about paying attention to mental and physical needs and connecting with everyone no matter what level.”
Leaders also emphasised the importance of creating a culture of fun within their teams. Many added that this required more organisation in the virtual meeting world, and included everything from introducing fun icebreakers in meetings to organised weekly virtual events. However the most significant aspect of all the employee experience initiatives was limiting working hours, not sending emails over the weekend and ensuring staff took breaks throughout the day. Another CEO explained: “Burnout is an issue. There’s a temptation to work longer hours, but it’s not all about hours – it’s about your output, and that suffers if you don’t get the balance right.”
In addition, many leaders discussed the importance of making themselves accessible to all levels of staff, including scheduling one-to-one sessions weekly with new recruits to ensure they are settling in. This was especially on the mind of one CEO: “I am very conscious to have regular calls with the team. We have to bring all levels of people closer together and be more approachable and available 24/7.”
The Question of Morale
There are, of course, many different tools available to leaders for improving employee experience. The primary one was focusing on company culture (37 per cent) and trying to build better bonds between team members through the kinds of employee experiences we see outlined above. It is important to note that there are two other broad categories of tool for improving employee experience.
One is Continuing Professional Development (CPD). This is an essential aspect of making sure employees are staying true to their ambitions. This need for training and continuing development for teams represented 23 per cent of answers. As another put it: “Training and development are vital for sustaining a cohesive team and understand how they fit within an organisation.” There is a clear role for training to make employees feel respected and empowered, and many CEOs related this need to team performance. Another said: “Empowered means people who make better decisions more cohesively, without the need for constant supervision.”
In addition, 20 per cent of respondents talked about giving people the space to make their own digital processes, chats, support channels and online activities to boost team morale. 13 per cent suggested that the best employee experience was being on a winning team, and being rewarded as part of a growing business. However, there was a general sense that while digital was essential, automation had a negative effect on team experience because it isolated people during previously social activities like training. Another CEO confided: “We invest billions in making computers more human and making humans more automated. Then we spend billions more trying to humanise humans. Person-to-person contact is impossible to replicate.”
It is fascinating to look back at the lockdown year and consider how much we have learned about
working digitally. It brings new challenges in terms of burnout and a lack of team dynamism. The workplace spark, the spontaneity, the atmosphere of a team environment has not digitised effectively. However, there are clear benefits – and arguably greater long-term gains to come – not least in the way digital working has refocused leaders on authentic communications, a flatter hierarchy and better employee experiences.
It seems fitting to end on a quote from one CEO, who succinctly explained the need for better comms and experiences, as well as the advantages of working together in the same place. These remarks suggesting a new home-work hybrid might offer a renaissance for the modern workplace: “On my first day, I literally took the door to my office off its hinges. I needed to make a statement that everyone is welcome. Everyone deserves time and empathy. It is vital to feel the pulse of the employees, because that’s the pulse of the business.” It is a pleasant thought that, cooped up in our houses as we’ve been, that we might soon inhabit a working world which has become richer as a result of the pandemic.
Photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com