Over the last six months, senior executives and founders have been navigating the shift to remote working brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we enter an extended period of government-encouraged working from home, we consider three key issues senior leaders may continue to face and offer some practical considerations, which we hope will be helpful.
1. Management and Supervision
One of the most common drawbacks of remote working is the lack of face-to-face supervision senior managers have with their teams. Difficulties include:
• Ensuring quality of work
• Problems around ease of locating and collecting information
• Potentially serious confidentiality issues
• Ensuring adherence to company policies
In some regulated industries appropriate supervision is imperative to ensuring regulatory compliance and associated failures carry personal accountability risks for senior executives under the Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SMCR).
The ability to coordinate a variety of different skills and personalities is essential for managers, but it is made much harder working remotely. Communicating can be rife with problems; managers may accidentally misread a situation or may themselves be misunderstood when communicating without the benefit of personal interaction. It can be a minefield for the executive.
In addition to honing your emotional intelligence skills, use the resources you have available by varying forms of communication and working out what works best for each individual who is a direct report, rather than adopting a “one size fits all” mentality.
Generally speaking, having regular calls with planned agendas, as far as possible, can be useful. Individuals value the opportunity to be heard, so meetings should allow people to feed back and engage. Keep to those meetings as far as is practical, since postponing calls with staff can make them feel undervalued.
Regarding supervision, and if in doubt, managers should seek help from their mentor, trusted colleagues or from compliance at the earliest opportunity. Failure to do so could lead to a formal investigation and if failures are found, there is the risk of termination. In those circumstances, there would be a resultant need to explain what happened to future employers and, in the most challenging situations, to the FCA or other regulators.
It can be easy to overlook the pastoral element of management when everything is done over the phone or email, so leaders should remember to offer praise, encouragement and emotional support where appropriate.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, performance management and grievance/disciplinary processes may be necessary within the team. Managers should continue to apply fair and proper processes, but adapted to take place via virtual mechanisms. If the HR team has not updated their policies during the pandemic (or you don’t have an HR team), organisations like ACAS provide a good guide as a starting point.
2. Creating and Maintaining Culture
A strong workplace culture is invaluable and can often be the differentiating factor between the success and failure of your business, both in terms of attracting and retaining the best talent and in terms of dealing with enforced but necessary departures, which everyone finds hard.
A strong culture exists where there is a clear set of values unpinning your organisation, which colleagues can identify and promote through their behaviours. Such behaviours tend to have to be learned and remote working makes it difficult for the senior leaders, who are responsible for creating, nurturing and maintaining the culture, to exemplify such behaviours.
Walking the talk is crucial. If a business prides itself on addressing a particular issue – such as diversity – then senior executives and founders should be ensuring there is a culture which endorses this, regardless of remote working.
Senior executives and founders should be communicating with their staff about initiatives and policies; they should be investing in online workshops for their team and inviting comments and suggestions from the staff as to what can be done differently.
Do not just rely on company-wide emails about efforts to drive diversity, but really sit down with your team and discuss it. This will let them know that this is something that is of genuine value to the business, and to you, and consequently it becomes easier for others to emulate the efforts you make to promote a fair and diverse workplace. Getting this right is likely to result in fewer claims, whether by way of grievances or, more seriously, in the case of redundancies, legal action in the employment tribunal for unfair selection or discrimination.
3. Mental Health and Wellbeing
It is important to recognise the different dynamic that stress causes for senior leaders, who sometimes get forgotten in the discussion about mental health, during these unprecedented times.
As many businesses feel the pressures of financial hardship, so too do the senior executives and founders who are burdened with generating work, trying to juggle the practicalities of teams being spread out, and striking a balance between ensuring the longevity of the business and making painful decisions regarding redundancies or short time working. These various issues mean feelings of isolation and “burn out” present major risks for senior leaders.
Senior individuals need to recognise that their own mental health is something they cannot ignore and should engage with. There are no easy solutions, as individual circumstances vary hugely but recognising that you are under unique stress, that often cannot easily be shared, is a necessary first step to allow you to rest and be kind to yourself amidst the relentless pressure to save the business and perform. The knock-on effect of this insight and the actions that flow from it are hugely beneficial to the wider workforce.
Regular informal check-ins amongst senior individuals on matters not just related to “work” tend to bring positive effects. Knowledge sharing of what people have found helpful and even just the chance to see that other people have “bad” days too is important. Even for senior individuals who do not believe they are suffering from mental health issues, it is important to appreciate the influence their participation in the conversation will have on a business.
Don’t overlook the basics, such as taking breaks from your personal computer and making time for walking breaks, fresh air and exercise as well as making it clear that these are also your expectations for your staff. If the business can facilitate it, senior individuals should consider whether there are corporate wellbeing initiatives that may be helpful too. It is good to share what is available free of charge or through the business, such as yoga or mindfulness sessions, counselling services, online or employee assistance. For those in strategically important positions, well-chosen coaching sessions on stress and mental wellness management may be one of the best investments that can be made to bring your business successfully through these times.
If you would like to discuss the matters raised in this alert further, or for guidance on your specific rights, responsibilities and potential liabilities, please contact Partner Merrill April or Senior Associate Louise O’Connor, who specialise in partnership and employment law issues for senior executives, multi-national employers, firms and partners.