Nobody can have missed the way the coronavirus pandemic has forced business to change. From social distancing to remote working, even businesses that haven’t had to furlough some or most of their employees are operating in ways that would have been almost unimaginable 12 months ago.
Yet despite all the challenges, this forced change has generated some surprising benefits. As well as fresh opportunities for some, the necessary innovations most have had to adopt look set to have a lasting impact on operations even when something resembling the old normality returns.
The step-change for most businesses has been the near overnight shift to remote working - something few traditionally office-focused firms would have contemplated before the pandemic. “We’re a very people-focused business and we thought that, to be successful, we needed to be together - sharing ideas and knowledge across a desk,” says Lynn Walters of recruitment specialists Pure.
“The pandemic has shown this is not true. Moving to a remote pattern of working hasn’t hindered us at all. Productivity has grown and, if anything, our sense of team is stronger than ever. We’re not together but we have video calls, WhatsApp groups - all those different tools to keep us connected.”
Video-conferencing technology isn’t exactly new, but the wide-spread and almost instant adoption of it has perhaps been the revelation of the lockdown. Not just that it works, but that it can work really well. As you’ll no doubt have found yourself, Zoom or Teams meetings are generally shorter and more focused than face-to-face meetings - and most are far more productive.
“We’d all got into the habit of going to meetings. Do you remember when you thought it had been a productive day if you fitted in three meetings?” asks Lynn. “Now you can do five video meetings in a day, have time to write a report, catch up on admin and still not feel that you’ve been overworked.”
As well as the brevity and clarity of meetings, the time saved by not travelling to them is a huge benefit. “This week I attended one of the regular CBI meetings,” says Sadie Lofthouse of brewing and hospitality giant Adnams. "In the past, I’d have left the house at 6 am to make sure I got to London in time for it, not getting back to Southwold until mid-afternoon - all for a two-hour meeting. It's still a two-hour meeting, but as it’s a video call there's so much more I can do in the day.”
The other key benefit of remote working, as everyone who’s doing it has found, is that taking the commute out of the day saves both time and money. “I have a long commute so I can’t see myself going back to working in the office every day,” says Justin Adams of Global Chair Components. ”Though we have noticed that productivity is closely related to people’s home-working set-up. I’m fortunate enough to have a study, so I can lock myself away while my wife does the majority of the homeschooling. Other members of the team who don’t have the extra space find it more difficult sometimes.”
Our survey on attitudes to home-working found that while just over a third of respondents (35%) would like to continue doing that full-time, most people would like some time in the office: 39% voted to split time evenly between home and office, 10% favoured spending three-quarters of their time in the office and 16% were eager to get back to full-time office-based working.
That suggests a blend of remote and office-based work will become the norm, cementing the video meeting's place in business life – it's one innovation that is definitely here to stay. “We’re already making sure we don’t slip back into expecting everyone to come to the Southwold head office for a meeting,” said Sadie. “Whenever someone arranges a meeting, it must include a dial-in option.”
Innovating working practice
Not every job can be done by video conference, though. As the UK’s leading bespoke joinery and fit-out firm, TMJ Interiors assessed how its production needed to change. At the start of the lockdown, it moved to a split shift system, with half the staff working from 5:30 am to 1:30 pm and the other half coming in from 2:30 pm to 10:30 pm – with the hour change over allowing for premises to be cleaned to avoid the risk of contamination from one shift to the other.
“This reduces the risk of contagion because only half the people are in at once. As that gives them more space, it’s easier to do social distancing,” explains chairman Tim Jones. “It is a different way of working for us but the reaction we’ve had is positive. People seem to be enjoying it and we’ve seen productivity increase – the sum of two halves is greater than the whole.”
Adnams also had to rapidly reconfigure its workforce at the start of the pandemic, when online orders jumped – from £2,000 a day to more than £40,000 a day. "Those orders had been handled by a third-party and they struggled to keep up,” Sadie says. “From a financial point of view it’s better to have the third-party process these orders, but from a reputational point of view we had to make sure there was no backlog for customers.
“In 36 hours we changed the operation of our warehouse, to make it a pack-and-despatch centre. We had to adopt new software and bring staff back from furlough, working in a new socially distanced way until our third-party supplier caught up.”
It’s not only working patterns that have had to change: in some businesses, processes have had to adapt to the COVID crisis too. “Social distancing has required us to innovate,” Tim says. “For instance, hanging a door is not a one-person job – but we’ve had to come up with a way to do it using trolleys and clamps so the door can be positioned and held in place, with the height adjusted by an inflatable pad.
“We’ve made videos showing how it needs to be done. That can be accessed through QR codes and we put them up on sites, so if a contractor arrives and hasn’t hung a door that way before, they can scan the code, watch the video and do the job with proper social distancing.”
“There is no playbook for the current situation, no rules for how to operate on and nobody has the experience that can tell you what to do next,” says Justin Adams. “You have to look at every aspect of your business creatively and try to find fresh revenue streams.”
As its traditional markets went quiet, Global Chair Components was able to help with the NHS response to the pandemic. “One customer needed 2,500 of our table bases, as they’d worked out those could be used as the base on which to build ventilators. We had to restaff just to fulfil that order,” Justin explains. “We also supplied 2,800 bases to another firm making drips for the Nightingale hospitals.”
TMJ Interiors also helped with the Covid-19 response, using its 3D printer to produce face shields for local NHS surgeries and care homes. “As our fit-out sites began to open, we supplied them to our people as well,” says Tim. “They have to wear hard hats on site anyway, so it makes sense for us to provide them with proper face shields as well.”
Tim Jones is chairman of another firm besides TMJ Interiors: Treatt, which manufactures flavour and fragrance ingredients. “We were able to switch to manufacturing hand sanitizer,” he says. “We made it for our ourselves, our workforce and we distributed it to local care homes as well. Being seen to do good stuff in the community has a huge positive benefit on morale."
As well as opportunities to do good, the coronavirus does present other opportunities if businesses can react fast enough. As Global Chair Components been looking at how to create a safe working environment for when its people to return but found that screens, masks, hand sanitizer and other products weren’t so easy to buy. “As we got reliable sources for these things, we began offering them to our clients as well,” Justin says. “This has turned into a potential product range for us.
“It’s important for an entrepreneurial business to look for fresh revenue streams,” he adds. “For instance, with so much remote working, we foresee a rise in the need for furniture suitable for working from home. People won’t go to traditional office-furniture retailers, but to domestic outlets so we’re looking to get our products into more of them.
“We’re continuing to innovate in every area of our business and evolve our products, looking for fresh opportunities,” Justin concludes. “You have to recognise that you may try some things that don’t work or others that have only a limited life span.”
The Adnams team has also adjusted its working pattern to make it easier to adapt to opportunities. “The big shift has been to a more daily focus and reacting faster. We were never a slow-moving business, but we’ve had to become even more agile,” Sophie Lofthouse explains.
"At the start of the crisis, the senior team began meeting daily at 9 am for half an hour and then added another half-hour meeting at the end of the day. Pretty quickly that team expanded from six to 10 so questions could be answered there and then. So the team has become larger and it meets more often, but the meetings are much shorter and more focused.
“We have a new live model that shows the bank balance, sales, stock levels... all information that was already there, but now is in one place. It means decisions can be made much faster – and reversed much faster if necessary. It’s a much faster, more adaptable way of working.”
The rise of the wellbeing culture
As Best Employers, firms like Adnams and Treatt have always placed a premium on the way they look after their staff. However, with the huge upsurge in remote working, it seems that the importance of staff wellbeing – especially mental health – has become more important at every responsible firm.
“There is a noticeable increase in the number of employers using the Best Employers Pillars of engagement resource and Pillar 8 is about creating a workplace culture that is good for mental health. Over the past 18 months, mental health at work had gained momentum, and almost every Best Employer company knows how important this is to ensure the recovery is sustainable for their people and organisation overall. The pandemic has given this area a boost and its here to stay,” said Lynn Walters of Pure.
“Staff wellbeing has always been really high on our agenda at Adnams,” says Sadie Lofthouse. “The challenge has been to translate the physical stuff to a digital world. We have lots of online wellbeing support but nothing beats Zoom or a telephone call.
“We now have open meetings that anyone can join and, after the last one, the feedback was all about how lovely it was to see people,” she says. “Even furloughed staff can join – the last meeting had about 120 people in. They can bring pets, partners – everyone's welcome."
As we look to emerge from the coronavirus crisis, those firms that have looked after their staff well will be in the best position to continue to innovate and find fresh opportunities. “The majority of our innovations have come from the people at the coal face,” says Tim Jones of Treatt and TMJ Interiors. “When you have a culture of encouraging people to speak up when they have an idea or suggestion, all we have to do is support the good ones."
Look at remote working environments
It’s not just about the right IT gear. People are more productive with the right equipment – TMJ Interiors has gone so far as providing suitable desks and chairs for staff who can work from home.
Encourage agile working
Video meetings can be shorter so can be more regular. Don't be afraid to add participants if it means answers can be given there and then, so decisions can be made more quickly. Don’t be afraid to reverse decisions quickly.
Look for fresh opportunities
Yes, this is a staple of all business – but it bears repeating. The ability to find new markets and new revenue streams has never been more important. Merely nurturing what you already have will not be enough.
Innovate from the ground up
The best ideas and the most surprising innovations probably won’t come out of the board room (sorry). Create a culture where every employee feels empowered to volunteer suggestions for ways to adapt, improve or innovate.
Look after your people
Especially with remote workers, make sure people feel connected to the business and to their teams – not by function but as people who are valued. Regular and personal communication, showing appreciation, is the start.
For more information about how Best Employers can benefit your business, click here.
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Lynn is a founding Director of Pure and leads Pure Executive with over 25 years recruiting for Executive appointments. Lynn supports East of England-based businesses with senior management and Board level recruitment. Lynn leads the Best Employer Eastern Region Initiative and the Women In Leadership Programme both of which are aimed at helping companies and people to develop.