I think it’s no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 has changed our lives forever - for the business, for our customers, for me in both my personal life and also as a business leader. It is a phenomenon that we have only ever imagined through the eyes of the film industry, yet we did not expect would happen in reality. And it is an event that we are still learning from every day.
As Managing Director at Keyline Civils Specialist, I like so many others, have had to adapt very quickly to be able to navigate our business through this time. It has forced me to reassess business priorities and industry routines, to find new ways of working whilst retaining our culture and values as we operate in the ‘new normal’. There have been challenges and difficult decisions - but there have also been positives, driven by determination and a passion to succeed - prevalent in all of our Keyline colleagues. And at a time where we did not and cannot know what the future holds, our business has evolved because of COVID-19 and because of how Keyline colleagues have responded.
QUICK, EARLY ACTION
As a business, we began to prepare early on – as much as anyone could for the unknown. Rumours were circulating about lockdown and we could see what directives were being put in place in other European countries. As Keyline and the wider group, Travis Perkins plc, we knew that to protect our colleagues and the business, it was critical to arm ourselves as much as possible for what was (potentially) coming.
At both Keyline and plc, the senior management team became crisis action committees. Our board meetings of old, (meeting once every month) changed to daily meetings. We posed potential scenarios, from every angle, to agree on tactics and initiatives that would help keep our colleagues safe and well, deal with the impact, as well maintain business continuity. From the beginning, the safety of Keyline colleagues and our customers was at the forefront of every proposal and decision.
We asked a lot of ‘what if’s’ and it paid off.
When the government formally announced lockdown, our immediate action was to close the business to keep everyone safe, but we quickly became aware the closure needed only to be temporary. We had safety processes already planned and in place, and colleagues stepping forward to volunteer to continue to work. We spent a day getting clarity to decide the best course of action and realised we could reopen within 24 hours of closing.
Reopening was based on government advice and 100% ensuring colleague safety - throughout the crisis, and still to this day, safety has been our number one priority and from the outset, we have been committed to doing nothing that will jeopardise the safety of our colleagues, customers and suppliers. Our approach was to transition our colleagues back to work on a case-by-case, and personalised basis - so only those who were comfortable to, did so.
Furthermore, we invested in technology early on, so that the (potential) transition from office to home office would be seamless. When working from home was eventually mandated, this foresight and planning worked brilliantly for everyone and we are still successfully operating with the majority of support functions working from home.
We assessed how we could best utilise our colleagues on furlough outside of their usual remit, by bringing a number back to the business to work on initiatives to drive new projects forward.
Underpinning all, we have implemented strict social distancing and safety processes across the entire business - from how we operate in the branches and sales offices, to handling materials in the yard, and a new process for managing customer collections and deliveries, so that we can continue to work safely and with care.
While many were safely working from home, a number of colleagues being furloughed and face-to-face meetings as well as visits to branches restricted, we have found new ways to preserve the culture and keep our workforce engaged.
One of my main priorities during this period was to create clear, transparent and regular lines of communication at all levels of the business. It was my responsibility as the business leader to give guidance and reassurance and to alleviate concerns and this continues today. I have made it my policy to be inclusive, visible, open and honest - without sugar coating the challenges that COVID-19 has posed.
From the very beginning, the business implemented a weekly ‘Check-in-Tuesday’ survey to act as a ‘temperature check’ of the entire workforce. This posed just a few simple, yet important questions: ‘How are you feeling?’, ‘How do you feel about communication?’ Are you comfortable with our safety measures?’ Colleagues responded and shared their personal experiences and concerns and using this feedback, I have shared a weekly video and a more detailed follow-up email to respond to the key topics and questions asked, as well as providing updates on the company performance and changes.
For anyone who knows me, being on camera is completely out of my comfort zone! However, from the outset of the crisis, I knew I needed to lead from the front in a visible and open way. With this approach, colleagues have felt empowered to ask questions in the knowledge that those questions will be genuinely addressed and I have made a point of not shying away from difficult topics - which although not easy, has been the right thing and necessary to do. I feel that this has had a huge impact on our culture and my own leadership style. It’s fostered a more open relationship across the company and I have taken a lot of positive learnings from it.
Staying in touch has been crucial for the wellbeing of our colleagues and the ongoing operation of our business. So whether it was, or is, a line manager checking-in on a member of their team or a project team catching-up - all of our face-to-face meetings and calls have moved online, and as anyone who worked through the crisis will recognise, this has meant a lot of video calls! But, despite living in a 2D video conferencing world, I actually feel closer to colleagues in the business than ever before. We have taken the time to focus on what is important and really got to know each other better in the process.
Increased communication across the business, at every level, has had a huge, positive effect on our agility and ability to implement new processes and ways of working - some of which have been on the table for years.
Regular board and senior management meetings have allowed us to make decisions quickly and move the business forward. The strategies we have put in place have helped to ensure the long term future of business is stable and in a strong position as we come out of COVID-19 and beyond.
We are still a company that is relationship oriented – we like to see people, to meet each other and network. However for now we have found new ways to work, communicate and adopt new processes and strategies whilst maintaining our values. I’ve learnt that adversity brings out the best in people and I have seen the capabilities of my colleagues at all levels in a new light, learning more about them than ever before. Being a leader isn’t just about rallying calls and chest beating at conferences, it’s about being authentic, human and open and that, for me, will continue.