Date: 07/04/20 | Duration: 00:25:11

We have heard many times before that we are operating in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and few would argue that current developments aren’t case in point. The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) is without question testing businesses on an unprecedented scale. But having a well-designed organisation to respond flexibly and rapidly is only half the battle.  Some organisations are having to rework their business models to deliver outside-the-box-offerings, while many others are grappling with the challenge of business continuity.

Join Jaimini Lakhani, Director at Lumiere Consulting, David Frost, Director of OD at Total Produce and Peter Cheese, Chief Executive at CIPD to discover how organisations can and should respond to the coronavirus crisis, and vitally, how you can support your workforce through this difficult period.

Nigel Cassidy: We’re all in this together but is your organisation showing its true colours? Help is at hand, this is the CIPD’s coronavirus survival podcast.

Hello I'm Nigel Cassidy. So how was your day trying to make sense of ever-changing crisis decisions that you have to make work; maybe breaking bad job news; putting staff on government furloughs or worse; or trying to gee up a scattered, isolated and scared workforce? And yes all this when people managers are worried about their own family’s health, about feeding, finances and future employment. Some in HR will be glad that they previously did some disaster planning but we all sense that when this finally eases the world of work will never be quite the same again.

Joining me online three top guests with unique insights on business survival in the age of COVID-19, each suitably holed up I know not where. Jaimini Lakhani is of , Lumière Consulting, she was on the crisis team dealing with the transatlantic bomb scare at Heathrow in 2006, the one that changed the way we travel. She was also head of organisational engineering for Terminal 5 and has helped a string of big named companies redesign how they do things.

Next look busy because here comes the boss it’s our CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese who writes and speaks widely on the future of work, leadership, people and skills.

But first let’s go to someone from a £4bn fresh food business in the eye of the storm David Frost is Director of Organisational Design at Total Produce, who work in 39 countries bringing fruit and veg, exotic and otherwise, from field and farm to consumer.

David let me start with you, it’s been fascinating to see this new overnight respect that we have for the people who can't work from home and have to soldier on keeping us supplied. I mean really they come next on the list don't they after NHS workers?

David Frost: Yeah that's right I mean it’s been a massive change, an incredibly rapid change and in our business we do have a combination of people that can work from home, can work remotely, but also we have a lot of our colleagues who need to stay within our operations to grade the produce that we supply and to pack the produce, and of course distribute it onwards to our customers. So it’s a real mixed situation for us. And we’ve also had huge volumes going through the business that supplies our retail customers as well. We’ve all seen the huge demand that retailers have been put under with the supply of food. So we’ve got a situation where some colleagues have very quickly adapted to working from home using technology very, very quickly, and then others who are going in but looking after themselves, wearing protective equipment wherever possible, to obviously protect themselves from infection.

So yeah it’s something that's affected us all over the world. We saw it happening in our markets in Italy very quickly, where we operate, and then coming through Spain, and of course then we’re monitoring it very closely as it develops into the UK, Ireland and the US.

NC: Now Jaimini the rest of us either have no work or we’re trying to work from home and we know that the CIPD polling says that there’s a lot of anxiety about that and that’s the worst problem, not least because of those school closures, now it’s obviously partly about the available technology but give us some thoughts about how you think organisations are managing this so far and how they could make this scattered working a bit more productive?

Jaimini Lakhani: It’s a really good question. Interestingly I thought that I would have quite a lot of difficulty doing the work that I do in terms of organisation design, if you ask any organisation design specialist they will tell you that what they really want to do is they want to get a feel for the place and getting a feel for the place is about being in that place, being able to experience the multi-sensory of doing that. But I have two clients at the moment, one in Singapore, I was actually due to fly out there early February, and very early on when we started to see the escalation of the virus in Singapore my client and I decided to cancel my visit to Singapore but decided to go ahead. So we charted new waters really to be able to do organisation design with me sitting in the UK trying to work with the client team in Singapore. And for that entire project we used the Google platform, we used Zoom technology, we did semi-workshops. So I think what I'm finding is when there is no other option that really clients and colleagues are adapting and they’re finding different ways in which to communicate. So I've used WebEx, I've used the good old telephone, I've used Zoom, I've used the Google platform. And we’re all getting a lot more proficient I think with different technologies.

NC: Okay well let’s go to Peter Cheese. I've seen managing remote workers being described as conducting an orchestra without seeing or hearing any of the musicians, I mean clearly some organisations have always had remote working but suddenly it’s forced on everybody and there's this scattered workforce

Peter Cheese: Yeah it creates of course different management challenges as Jaimini has touched on but it’s also true to say of course many organisations have had some parts of their workforce or some workers working in remote ways. But, oh my goodness, is this the biggest trial of homeworking that we’ve ever had and it is of course stretching us in lots of ways. But I think that it’s also calling out some very fundamental things which are important to leadership and management everywhere. Our ability to remain connected to people; to care and worry about their welfare, because this is not just about the work they do but recognising that their mental health and wellbeing is all of our responsibility, so there are all the technologies, as Jaimini said, but it is I think really calling out the need for some very fundamental good management and leadership practice which is to keep in touch, keep connected, to share things and to use technology to make all those things happen and work for us in different ways. 

So there's no doubt we’re all learning and I think there's a lot of debate about will we all go back to the old ways of working or what are we going to take forwards, because sometimes you need a crisis to jolt us all into a different way of thinking. And I think a lot of the barriers to flexible and home working have not been about technology they’ve been a lot more about our cultures and our ways of thinking and very long-established paradigms of work which begin with an idea of presenteeism to your point that managers don't feel that they can trust what their employees are doing or know what they’re doing unless they can see them in front of them. And that has to change. It had to change anyway and this crisis is demanding that we think differently and connect with our people and understand how they’re working in these different ways. 

DF: Yes I mean I completely agree with everything that's been said. We’ve seen some really interesting mindset shifts I think where people who’ve historically travelled regularly during the week, they’ll jump on a plane into different parts of Europe or North America and people are already saying, ‘Do you know we can do this differently, we don't need to keep doing that. Isn't it amazing how effective that Zoom meeting was,’ and people are actually finding they’re quite enjoying it, which is really interesting. So that's a really big shift. 

The other thing that I've noticed is, for example speaking with a colleague yesterday in Hamburg who has responsibility for a German operation and an Italian operation, he's staying in really close contact with our colleagues in Italy who are now homeworking and he's been really, really conscientious to run regular Zoom meetings, they’ll have coffee breaks and informally chat about how the family’s doing, really, really working hard at that. But he’s noticed three cycles he's describing. He said that the first week or ten days people were finding this quite novel, they were quite enjoying it actually, it was nice to have the time at home and do a few things that perhaps you wouldn’t do. The second phase was normality, it’s kind of normal now, we’re getting used to this, it’s fine. And he's just noticing now as things are moving on that colleagues are starting to feel a little bit perhaps removed. They’re seeking company. He had one individual, for example, that's moved in with a larger group of her family because she needs to be with some people and starting to get a little bit agitated as to when do you think this is going to start to change? When can I have some human contact again? So I think it’s an interesting one. People are making use of technology but there's that human side as well that we’re seeing which I think is worth perhaps just noting.

NC: Now Jaimini Lakhani I’d like to turn to what I think’s maybe one of the trickiest issues for people professionals, it’s how you handle situations where your legal or your professional duty overrides your caring instincts, you know when you’re obliged to deliver bad news to people, and the CIPD tell us that these decisions do weigh on people very heavily.

JL: I mean I guess if I can just touch on the human aspect of it I think one of the interesting things that I'm finding is because we all have a commonality with regards to the Coronavirus in terms of what we’re dealing with and so naturally as I'm approaching clients that I’ve never seen before, that I've never met before and all of a sudden there's this automatic common denominator to be able to connect with each other in a very human way, with such a serious topic as it is in and of itself. So I think that has been quite interesting to me to watch the dynamics of talking to different leadership teams.

NC: Well okay you’re taking quite an optimistic view of that but Peter Cheese organisations are often making quite hasty decisions, this accountability really is making people feel quite isolated, I mean there's so little time to think and an overwhelming urgency to act. So how do you balance those two sides of your roll?

PC: Yeah it’s a really important question because you’re right I mean the realities of the current situation, indeed the other economic cycles where you’re forced into a position of having to make these very tough choices about potentially letting people go engender very difficult conversations. But you can do them in human ways too. I mean I've worked with organisations that have gone through downsizing in the past and come out of it with more trust in the organisation, not less, because of the way they’ve gone about it, the way they’ve communicated, the way they’ve engaged even with the people that are perhaps losing their jobs. So I think in this crisis it’s a lot about how you do the right things in the right way and if you have to take the hard choices about redundancy then how do you communicate that effectively and make sure that you are retaining the trust of people. 

And I've been saying that I think in these times you’ve got to balance three really important things as HR professionals. One, of course are the financial imperatives and one of the good things, and we’ll probably talk about it a bit more, is that there are new mechanisms being created like furloughing which is allowing us to be able to sustain our workforce even when there's a period of time when historically we’d probably just had to let them go. 

So you've got the financial imperatives, we’ve certainly got to understand the legal imperatives, and there are a lot of legal issues in all of this, ranging from consultations and other things which we have to be able to go through effectively. But the third, and equally important, is the ethical or moral. And we’ve got to balance all of those three things and it’s a challenge for us all but I think if we do these things right and do them in the right way and do them ethically and communicate effectively then we can ride out this storm and hopefully emerge stronger in many ways through what is a crisis that's bringing all of these different experiences that we’ve had as a profession to a head, in one place, at one time with some very, very critical decisions that need to be made very quickly.

NC: And David Frost we’ve all seen the reputational damage that can be done if you’re too hasty, too cavalier with your workers, and yes Britannia Hotels, Weatherspoon’s, Sports Direct bosses we’re talking about you!

DF: Yeah I mean we have been impacted, as I mentioned earlier on, in increased volumes in some respects, so we have colleagues who are working incredibly long hours to fulfil customers’ order requirements, that's put people under pressure from a demand point of view, but we also have part of our business that supplies restaurants and catering establishments and of course they’ve seen volumes drop. So we have had to use the furlough process in that situation with a number of colleagues and really building on Peter’s point we absolutely recognise how critical the communication is in terms of how people are dealt with, how we explain the situation, listen to their concerns, but also, I think, another important point is staying in regular contact with those colleagues as well to update them on the situation so that they feel very much still in contact with the business, they are still part of the business. So I think having that mindset and following that through is really important. 

We’ve also seen how creative colleagues have been as well. So for example when we have an area of our business that's maybe underutilised very quickly turning that into a service operation for customers who need help in different ways. So we’re utilising assets in a different way and I think that’s fantastic. 

The other area I think that we always see in any crisis is actually how if you’re honest with colleagues, you’re really open and you listen, share the reality, people are remarkably supportive, remarkably resilient if you treat people with respect. And I think that’s where it really just highlights those different leadership styles actually and I think people will look back on today and will remember how they were treated and it’s back to what Peter said you can build trust actually at times like this as well. 

So I've seen the huge pressure that HR colleagues have been particularly put under who were trying to really quickly learn about legal issues they’ve never had to deal with before, consult very quickly and consult remotely. And I think perhaps you'll want to remember those colleagues as well who have been really at the front line and incredibly challenged.

NC: Jaimini people are being forced to do things differently, creatively, I mean my doctor sent me for an x-ray, got me drugged up and sorted out all on the phone and I mean why go back to the cumbersome old system? There's a pub near us which is closed but it’s sending out not-for-profit cooked pub meals to isolated people, a fiver a go. We’ve had car engineers designing and making ventilators, booze firms making sanitiser, coffee shops turning into grocers, how can we try and hold on to this kind of creativity?

JL: Well I think what we’re seeing now is incredible creativity, incredible innovation. I think when we’re pressed to really look at our processes, look at how we do things, and from an organisation design standpoint we’re always working with organisations to say, think about your core activities, think about what’s really essential, think about your critical decisions. Let’s think about who needs to make them. And so really an interesting scenario when you’re not pressed with a crisis you tend to take more time but of course some of the choices and decisions that businesses are making, individuals are making, even more organisations, I mean in many cases we can see it, these are a matter of life and death and when you’re really pushed to it you can find ways to really streamline those processes. 

So I hope there will be a calibration, an ability to look back at some of those activities, the way in which teams have worked together, the what worked, what didn’t, and really try and build in that innovation into the processes. I think people are experiencing a very different way of working. And I think humans are resilient. I think we’ll come back from that and we’ll make better choices about how we do things better going forward. That's my hope.

NC: Peter all this is pretty raw at the moment is it too soon for organisations to learn from everything that's happening to them?

PC: No I don't think it is. I think we’re already learning things. I mean I've heard people comment that if it all blew over and we went back to work next week even would we not take forward some of these learnings from things that we’ve already talked about like agile working, remote working, and think about these things differently? So I don’t think it’s too early, but of course there are many other things that I think can emerge from this crisis that could be very positive. 

The idea of the centrality of humanity at work and wellbeing, people being treated as whole people, flexible working we’ve talked about, a lot of these sorts of ideas which they’re not new and we’ve been talking about them arguably for too long but not seen enough really systemic change. And I think it’s that old adage of don't let a good crisis go to waste, this crisis will drive, I'm absolutely sure of it, some really fundamental rethinks about what’s important. 

And at the end of the day what could be more important than people and how you treat them, how you manage them, you’re building the trust, you’re getting the best out of them and you’re understanding them as people and supporting them as individuals. And I think it’s those sorts of things that will be very central to what we learn along with recognising we can do some extraordinary things. It doesn’t always have to be a crisis to make this an event to think differently but a crisis as Jaimini said can help us innovate much more. 

So I think we’ve got a long way to go for sure but I think we’re already seeing signs of things which I think will endure as positive changes in the workplace.

NC: David Frost I was intrigued to see more than one mention of solidarity on your Total Produce website. I mean your company’s a tough, global player but let’s try and draw some conclusions here. I want to get a bit more of this sense of a new mood, it’s like the new politics, it’s almost as if pure business goals are bowing to something a bit bigger?

DF: Yes I mean it’s absolutely true, our group CEO released a communication out to the whole group last week and made direct reference actually to the greater purpose in our organisation, for example, around providing healthy food to people and how critical that is at a time like this. And I just think that's something that's tied everyone together, it’s reminded everybody of what they bring to the wider community and it’s fascinating to see how people have just connected with each other an awful lot more and I've just noticed people making a call or a video conference just to see how are you doing and just to have a chat in a way that I may not have seen somebody for a month now I'm speaking with them every other day just to make sure you’re okay. And I just think it has shifted those mindsets. 

I've also just noticed as well, I was in a meeting today with three other colleagues, we had a two hour Zoom meeting and we’ve never done it before with this particular team and two or three occasions during this two hour session people just paused and said, ‘Isn't this good? Isn't this working well?’ but the other thing we said was, ‘What have we noticed?’ What we noticed is that people were listening a lot more carefully. We noticed that if we’d been in a room together people would interrupt a little bit more but with this technology you have to kind of give people their space and listen. We realised that interruption disrupts the whole process. People were asking really great questions as well. 

So it just made us think about those coaching skills we perhaps had been taught a few years ago we need to brush up on those a little bit and naturally use those a little bit more in the way that we’re working as well. So just two or three things that people have noticed that are different and I hope that will continue as well.

NC: Well Jaimini Lakhani this is really nothing new is it this notion that successful organisations have goals beyond the pure profit motive? But what I want to know is how do organisations try and bottle what they’re achieving?

JL: My sense is that because this has become so interconnected, not just within organisations but organisations interconnected with other organisations outside of their own boundaries, so in this time of crisis where people are working together with their own companies but linking into humanity, understanding the dependencies that we all have on each other, even strangers, for this particular cause, my sense is that we’re all going to have imprinted in our minds this organisational memory. 

Whereas previously we might have thought that the decisions were made by management or by leadership and I think all of us are having a leadership lesson because we’re not only having to manage our own personal wellbeing, our family wellbeing, but we’re coming together as communities. And my sense is that that's going to leave a lasting imprint in our minds and so how do we bottle it? I think we’re bottling it every day. I think our behaviours are changing and almost by that very nature we won’t go back to the way that we were because it’ll just be habit, it’ll be ingrained behaviours.

NC: And meanwhile Peter Cheese what can the government, what can organisations do to make sure that as many people as possible are upheld to at the very least return to their organisations when all this is over?

PC: Yeah I think first of all the government, it’s been encouraging to see how much, you know we’ve all recognised the health crisis is very rapidly leading into the biggest economic crisis that we’ve known and one of the really important things the government’s been talking a lot about everywhere is that we need to make sure that businesses can bounce back and when we get past the crisis that they can recover quickly and therefore providing these pay subsidy schemes and so forth to help organisations to find other ways to hold onto their employees, even where the demand has dropped significantly, are a very important part of that. 

And there are still some details to be worked through and lots of questions and things like the furloughing schemes, but we know from our own work that the majority of companies are now looking at furloughing and even where they’d made redundancies in the first rush of concern at the beginning of this crisis in sectors like hospitality, even there they’re looking at saying, ‘Well actually I could bring those people back onto my books. I could furlough them, they don't have to be made redundant.’ 

So this is a time when we’re all having to work together. We are all in this together and government’s response to step up in ways that we’ve never seen to support businesses, support the economy, as well as of course support the health of our people, are two really, really critical aims and objectives. So it will be fascinating to see if this really does continue for a longer period of time do we end up with more nationalised industries where whole sectors or industries are having to be bailed out, to use the language of the last financial crisis, we don't know yet. But what we are seeing is I think governments everywhere recognising that you have to do all you can to step in to avert, as far as possible, huge damage on people’s jobs and livelihoods as well as of course protecting them from the health side. 

And businesses need to respond to that. And as I said before one of our challenges in the profession and something we’re trying to do all we can as the CIPD is to understand all these different schemes and understand all these different options and what are the right choices to make in response to the crisis and what’s right for my business. And that's challenging but we’ve got more options now in terms of sustaining our workforce than probably we’ve ever had before. And that's something we all need to work on.

NC: So what are we taking from what we’ve heard here? Well certainly for me we’re all being forced to prioritise, to look outwards and not inwards and people professionals have never been more important in supporting a worried workforce. Let’s just thank Jaimini Lakhani of Lumière Consulting; David Frost from Total Produce and the CIPD’s chief Peter Cheese. 

Do let us have your thoughts and comments through the usual CIPD channels, or LinkedIn is good and don't forget to keep checking that CIPD website, there's loads of constantly updated Coronavirus resources and stuff like government aid, sick leave, furlough decisions, legal responsibilities, a ton of other things. But for now from me Nigel Cassidy, until next time goodbye and stay safe.

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