Robert Half held its second online CEO/CFO roundtable at 8.30 am on Tuesday 16th June 2020. Normally run as a face-to-face event, the roundtable presented an opportunity for senior board leaders to discuss emerging COVID-19 related ideas, challenges and opportunities in an open forum.
Attendees included Katy Tanner, Director, Leadership Development at Robert Half; Charlie Grubb, Managing Director, Executive Search at Robert Half; Guillaume de Pommereau, CFO EMEA; Andrew Manning, Chair & CEO; Tony Hayward, CFO; Roi Lustik-Cohen, CTO; Naintara Agarwal, Group Head of Underwriting Performance; Emma Pearson, CEO; Andrew Eddles, Finance Director; Mark Futyan, CEO; Tony Buss, Managing Director; Bev Dew, CFO; and Catherine Bland, CFO.
Leaders are facing new challenges, such as how to maintain their company culture, both now and in the near future as staff continue to work from home, and how to address the emotional fatigue that is emerging within some teams. This report captures the leadership challenges discussed at the event and an overview of the findings.
16 June 2020 Key Takeaways
- Consider some new and different ways to keep employees engaged, such as massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs).
- Spend time communicating with teams about the purpose of the business and the impact of important socio-economic trends: be available for people with concerns.
- Seek out tools and technologies that will help bridge the gap between home working and the office.
- Be aware of differing appetites for returning to work and canvass teams for their views about what to keep and what to jettison from life on lockdown.
Maintaining company culture
Leaders at the event said that they are spending a lot of time considering how to keep their teams engaged and motivated, especially now that the novelty of a new way of working has begun to wear thin. They had noticed higher levels of emotional fatigue which they are addressing with sometimes novel approaches.
These include the usual video calls and meetings, plus online events including Friday pub quizzes, fashion shows, baking competitions, virtual Escape Room games and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. This last tactic helps to fill the gap left by team building days, for example.
Some leaders added that formal methods to score the wellness temperature of employees are proving useful in plotting whether morale is improving, worsening or staying the same. Making time to talk through important issues of the day, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, and making yourself available to employees with concerns, is another way to stay close to staff.
On the upside, leaders running organisations with field-based or other remote teams are finding that they are more connected than they had been in the past because they can be included in activities that would have been office-based only pre-crisis. Mixing teams from different locations is also easier to arrange, and it’s possible to have regular all-team meetings once a week on Teams or Zoom.
Leading from the top
Whatever tactics are used, it’s important for the board to take the lead on maintaining a strong culture, which depends on the usual steps of deciding what, when and how to communicate strong messages about the future of the organisation and its purpose.
Instead of just focusing on how organisations worked in the past or even how they are operating now, it’s important to think about what success for individuals and teams will look like in the next six months to a year. This can have the effect of re-energising people as they start to look forward to change, even if it can’t happen overnight.
One leader at the event said that it’s important to consult staff to see what they would like to keep from current arrangements and what they would like to leave behind. More flexible hours and a casual dress-code would be particularly welcomed by his team, for example.
A blended model is likely to become more normal, said another leader, whose finance team have found it problematic to manage month end accounts when they are working in different locations. This will require managers and the board to learn new skills, such as chairing meetings when some people are at home and some in the office.
The pandemic has had a positive effect of breaking the mould of the 9-5 working model. This was only introduced relatively recently to suit the needs of manufacturers, who needed people in their factories to operate equipment.
Productivity gains and losses
Participants had mixed reports on productivity levels in their organisations during lockdown. In many ways they are operating in a false environment in which productivity is difficult to measure, since absence and holiday leave are both now reduced, while work throughput and new business activity have generally fallen.
Despite this, organisations say staff are more productive, although this may now have plateaued. One reason for this could be that top performers are less likely to be furloughed, leading to more effective work being done and a more positive team spirit. This will be an important issue to monitor as everyone is brought back into the workplace.
There is plenty of research out there to help leaders understand more about the effects of working from home on employees, including a National Bureau of Economic Research study into impacts on productivity.
How different will tomorrow be?
Opinions were divided about how different organisations will look in the future. One leader thought office life would be pretty much unchanged, with just a small percentage of people working from home.
Others believe that small organisations in particular will take big steps to enable flexible and remote working, and that this will become an important element of terms and conditions included in recruitment advertising. It’s likely that more tools and technologies will be adopted to bridge the gap between home and office, such as shared whiteboards, for example.
One CEO agreed that the workplace will look different, with less boundaries between various teams, more hot-desking and fewer executive desks.
In a final comment, one leader from an insurance group said research with her staff showed that women are keener to return to work than men, probably because they are currently shouldering more of the burden of childcare and home schooling – as well as doing their day to day jobs.
Those with more transactional jobs are also more likely to want to come back to work, simply because they are missing the social part of their jobs. While having more time to think about strategy and communicate with staff makes working from home is attractive for senior leaders, they should consider that transactional work can become boring without the social interaction that normally goes with it.