Setting strategy in uncertainty: CEO/CFO perspectives

By Robert Half on 19th August 2020

Robert Half held its third online CEO/CFO roundtable at 8.30 am on Tuesday 11th August 2020. The virtual roundtable presented an opportunity for senior board leaders to discuss emerging COVID-19 related ideas, challenges and opportunities in an open forum.

Attendees included Charlie Grubb, Senior Managing Director, Robert Half (Chair); Victoria Sprott, International Talent Director, Robert Half; Sharon Kindleysides, CEO; Andy Boteler, Non-Executive Director; Gwyn Hicks, Chief Financial & Operating Officer; Andy Ferrington, Chief Information Officer; Simon Barrett, Finance Director; and Jaron Reid, Commercial Finance Director.

Organisations across all sectors are considering the future shape of their businesses now that more staff are being encouraged to return to the workplace. Leaders are having to take into account the human requirements of their people, some who are keen to return and some who would prefer to continue working from home. This report captures the leadership challenges involved and an overview of findings from the discussion.

Key Takeaways

  • Adopt a top-down, bottom-up strategy for reshaping the business, so everyone is involved and engaged.
  • Remember duty of care towards employees who have been working from home in less than ideal conditions and factor this into decisions about returning to the office.
  • Be aware of the difficulties of managing hybrid models, where a minority of people are in the office but the majority are still working from home – new policies and guidelines may be required.

Operating in a grey area

McKinsey advised in its COVID-19 briefing note dated April 3rd that having gone past the resolve phase of addressing challenges for staff and businesses, the next four stages are resilience, return and reform.

When asked how they are navigating their way through the current period of change, leaders at the roundtable had varying responses depending on the sectors they operate in.

The private healthcare sector is waiting to find out when the NHS contracts it has been working with will come to an end and it can ramp up private business again, for example. Companies operating in the technology space had already started working within flexible, remote and global models and this will only accelerate, along with adoption of more robotics and AI to reduce manual work.

In between are those who have trickier decisions to make about bringing people back, which involve factors such as whether they have enough room for social distancing and which roles would add the most value to customers, as well as the business itself.

One company is going through a re-creation phase on a global basis, with workstreams looking at elements including performance standards, remuneration and training and development. People from all levels of the business are involved and each stream has a strong focus on diversity and inclusion.

Hybrid models are turning out to have disadvantages when three people join a call or online meeting in the office and 10 are working from home, so new policies and protocols need to be carefully thought through.

Leaders also need to factor in shareholder returns and how to rebuild revenue streams: companies that have maintained a strong sales pipeline during the pandemic are wondering whether unusual levels of demand for communications technology in particular is masking the true picture.

Public transport is another sector that faces an uncertain future, with passenger numbers down and people being advised to avoid buses and trains when returning to work.

Overall, there’s an opportunity to reflect on how to adapt to changing customer behaviour and work patterns, and even to brand new competitors that have entered a marketplace. Beyond that, planning for a possible recession and Brexit over the next 6 – 12 months will only add to leaders’ to-do lists.

Preparing for the future

Moving beyond the uncertainties of the past few months, leaders are in the midst of taking practical decisions about the future, whether that’s changing or renewing property leases or setting up ‘zones’ in offices for different employee groups.

Attendees agreed that one piece of collateral damage from people working from home is the loss of team spirit, particularly in sales, where collective energy helps deliver results. Sales-based businesses are only as good as their pipeline, and lack of mid- to long-term visibility invokes nervousness for leaders and stakeholders alike.

One leader said that his business was operating a booking system whereby employees could choose slots to work back in the office, but this needs to be carefully managed so the maximum number of people working in one space is not breached.

Leaders should always be aware that contrary to the maxim that we are all in the pandemic together, some people are more fortunate than others when it comes to space for working from home. Those using their bedroom or shared kitchen to work from have a stronger need to get back to the office, and leaders have a duty of care towards them.

Having to manage a remote workforce has persuaded companies that they can trust people to work from home effectively, and that they can actually do that work remotely. The question now is whether employers should go back to draconian 9 – 5 work patterns, and whether this will lead to the best people leaving to find jobs with more flexible arrangements.

Some companies have already jettisoned the old way of working, with people lined up at desks being overseen by a manager, and believe this model has gone forever. Tools and technologies for checking in and out and working collaboratively will continue to accelerate the trend towards new work models, but leaders will need to recruit people who thrive rather than struggle in more modern environments.

A chance to think differently

Leaders are faced with a whole new set of human behaviours that they will need to consider - and are at different stages of weighing up the moving parts. It may turn out that having a completely flexible or hybrid model turns out to be something of a pipe dream, for example.

An interesting point was made from one attendee that the perspectives of the group were clearly influenced by all of them working in the services sector, which allows them to work flexibly. Many people outside of that sector aren’t necessarily able to do so, and this could lead to an increase in demand for service jobs in the future.

Charlie Grubb concluded the session by explaining why companies need to ‘SHAPE’ up:

It will not be enough for companies to recover revenues gradually as the crisis abates. They will need to fundamentally rethink their revenue profile, to position themselves for the long term and to get ahead of the competition.


Start-up mindset. This favours action over research, and testing over analysis. Establish a brisk cadence to encourage agility and accountability.

Human at the core. Companies will need to rethink their operating model based on how their people work best.

Acceleration of digital, tech, and analytics. It’s already a cliché: the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the shift to digital. But the best companies are going further, by enhancing and expanding their digital channels. They’re successfully using advanced analytics to combine new sources of data, such as satellite imaging, with their own insights to make better and faster decisions and strengthen their links to customers.

Purpose-driven customer playbook. Companies need to understand what customers will value, post-COVID-19, and develop new use cases and tailored experiences based on those insights.

Ecosystems and adaptability. Given crisis-related disruptions in supply chains and channels, adaptability is essential. That will mean changing the ecosystem and considering non-traditional collaborations with partners up and down the supply chain.

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