The Executive Search Practice of Robert Half held its first CEO/CFO roundtable of 2021 on Thursday 4th February. Through 2020 these virtual roundtables have evolved during the course of the pandemic, but their basic premise is still the same: They aim to provide an intimate and safe environment for senior board leaders to honestly 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 – Director, Robert Half, Andrew Manning - Managing Director, Know Progress Ltd, Andy Ferrington – CIO, Spire Healthcare, Guillaume de Pommereau – CFO, ex- Hitachi, Ian Teague - UK Group MD, iPipeline, Jonathan Goldthorpe – CFO, Thomas Miller, Katie Bedborough – CFO, TBD, Kay Smith – CFO, THB Group, Mick Axtell - Chief Financial Services Officer, University of Bristol, Philippa Spencer – Psychologist, Bath Psychology Centre, Richard Ring - CFO UK & North America, apetito Ltd, Roi Lustik-Cohen – CTO, Arkk Solutions, Tony Buss - Managing Director, ARAG, Tony Hayward – CFO, Previously BAT
Phillipa Spencer is a chartered psychologist, coach and specialist on mental wellbeing, burnout, resilience, and compassionate leadership.
Charlie Grubb – Senior UK Managing Director, Robert Half Executive Search “For many of us 2020 became a year of transformation. As a group throughout the year, we discussed all the ways our businesses have had to pivot and adapt to our new, remote working environments and how we established fundamental changes to the way we do business.
After speaking to a number of you individually it has become clear that employee wellbeing is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds as we continue to juggle work, home-schooling, caring for vulnerable relatives and other personal commitments.
With that in mind, we are kicking off 2021 with a conversation around what resources, tools or ideas you are using during lockdown to improve your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of your staff.”
A Broader Context
Our participants were all in agreement that, as the pandemic has evolved, staff wellbeing and mental health awareness have swiftly moved up the Executive agenda with much broader levels of engagement and involvement from all of the C-Suite. The theme has broadened its scope from perhaps a more narrow view on the impact on staff productivity, and that if you look after your people they will look after your customers, to something more all-encompassing.
The impact of physical lockdowns, personal loss, general anxiety and the pressures of home schooling have resulted in real life drama and tragedies that leaders and managers are having to learn to deal with on a far greater scale than ever before. Implicit in this is the balance between the level of support offered to staff, but also that impact on business continuity especially in smaller, less well-resourced organisations. In the words of one of our attendees, there is a “big and scary debate of individual wellbeing versus business wellbeing.” The way an organisation deals with these issues will have far reaching consequences for its employees, business culture and future development.
Home Balance and Home Schooling
For individuals working from home, those looking after family experience higher levels of challenge and stress. The days are massively longer with employees juggling early morning meetings with childcare and late nights to catch up on work. A common word associated with homeschooling is “guilt.” There is a Catch 22 situation where you feel you are failing as both an employee and a carer. This has a detrimental impact on wellbeing, feeding higher levels of anxiety. The implications for smaller organisations can be much more severe as they do not have the people or the spare capacity to cover for employees overloaded by out of work commitments such as homeschooling.
Isolation & Poor Mental Health
It is undeniable that irrespective of the various lockdowns many professional workers have been working from home for almost a year now. This situation, whilst initially embraced by the majority, is increasingly resulting in higher levels of isolation and a negative impact on mental health. It is apparent that a majority of staff crave those personal interactions that a physical work environment provides and technological solutions have only been partially effective in combating isolation. From a psychological perspective, the pandemic has created a perfect storm of awfulness for human beings with a very real physical impact on brain chemistry.
For many organisations the muscle memory with customer relationships and teams has ensured continued success in 2020. However, we now have the situation of work colleagues of 1-year service who have never physically met. In this scenario, leaders are finding it harder to get engagement and to preserve a distinct organisational culture. These purely virtual interactions are creating very different management challenges, especially when assessing mental health issues and the impacts of isolation.
One of our participants was able to quote data from their continual feedback loop surveys. This data suggests that isolation is now acute with 20% of their staff having family problems and 5% being acutely anxious. The impacts of isolation are particularly tough on the younger workforce living alone. Incidents of attempted suicide are no longer uncommon. Leaders trying to read the signs of stress and anxiety in others virtually is incredibly difficult. Having open and honest conversations with individuals in their home environment, which is often the root of the problem, can also be incredibly difficult.
The Workplace of the Future
There is a general realisation that it is impossible to underestimate the value of social interactions in all shapes and forms (from the boardroom to bar). Goody bags and virtual quizzes are nice, but the physical office will be the glue that holds organisational cultures together when employees return. Future office moves and refurbishment projects will provide the opportunity to develop a hive concept which is the cultural home of the organisation where employees can interact, learn, develop and foster a sense of improved identity.
Prior to COVID, there was a move in office design from 'battery chickens' to 'free-range' with designated core spaces. There is a major opportunity for organisations to provide a variety of spaces to suit different working styles and bring the best out of everyone. Facilitated by a hybrid model of WFH & WFO, smaller but better quality workspaces can promote well-being and become the future of what work could look like.
There is no silver bullet!
One of our participants likened COVID to a big house fire that we are still trying to put out. You can’t solve this, so as a leader you must take the pressure off your shoulders and focus on what you can do.
Are you really OK?
Less experienced managers may have a fear that they have to come up with all of the solutions. This is unrealistic. Their job is to recognise the issue and pass it on to those qualified to help. It is vital to encourage people to talk honestly about the issues they are experiencing as self-help will only take you so far. As a leader, you have to show humanity and recognise that this is not an admission of weakness. Showing leadership vulnerability is very important at the moment.
It is important to be very visible with your team, using compassionate listening and empathy, creating a psychologically safe environment. Regular contact enables leaders to spot changes in employee behaviour in most cases, but this is based on knowing your people well already. This is the time for co-creation with your staff. Ask them as they will have the answers that you will not necessarily have.
With the progress of the vaccination programme and being optimistic, over the next 3-6 months we will be getting back to some form of normality, so now is the time to plot our escape. We will need to plan an exit strategy as the mental health issues are not going to go away.
Impact on Leadership
In leadership roles, you are not always in a position to talk openly about the challenges that you face which create its own stresses and feelings of isolation. It has always been said that being at the top is a very lonely place, which is not a great recipe for mental health.
Senior Executives will often work with coaches external to their organisations as a way of getting a much-needed sounding board and objective views. Personal, trusted family relationships are even more important than before in providing a support structure. From a survey of 50 CEOs, virtually all of them exhibited high adrenaline/positive emotional characteristics. Stress used positively for its adrenaline impacts can be very positive in general. However, the imbalances caused by the pandemic can exhaust these reservoirs of positive energy in the Leadership cadre which can lead to burnout and poor decision making.
The regulatory mechanism of dialling up or down Executive responses to situations is not working due to the extended nature of the crisis we are encountering. Those in Leadership roles are probably looking forward to things getting a bit routine again. The sense of being constantly reactive rather than in control and executing a pre-planned strategy is another key area of stress for Executive team members.