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Looking after people

May 20, 2024 by Alistair Enser

There is no contradiction in a tech company putting people at the heart of its business.

As the days grow longer and we inch towards Easter, there is some good news out there. Cases of infection are falling. The vaccination programme is progressing faster than anyone imagined. The Help to Buy scheme has been extended and the rumoured return of children to school in March would start to make the world feel a little more normal.

Look a little more closely, however, and we still have a long way to go. The UK economy contracted by 9.9% last year, a worse fall than the 1921 slump after the first world war and Spanish Flu. And while Covid-19 is beginning to place less stress on hospital wards, NHS providers are urging the Government to maintain spending so it can help address the growing surgery backlog, and increased demand for mental health services.

Managing the pressure

It’s a reminder of the huge cost of the pandemic – both in financial and human terms. And it explains why there was an outcry this week when the chairman of KPMG told colleagues to “stop moaning” during an online meeting about the impact of lockdown on people’s lives.

As I have written before, this lockdown has in many ways been harder than others. While organisations have been better placed to pivot operations once again, have invested in technology and re-engineered business systems, there is no denying the impact the thirdlockdown has had on people. Many are juggling parenting with work, are sharing broadband connections with home-schooling children, or are spending all day on Teams meetings from a laptop on the kitchen table. It is entirely understandable that many people are ‘running on empty’ and need to recharge.

However, leadership is absolutely not about telling people what to do. It’s about inspiring people with a shared vision, giving them the tools, the confidence and the freedom to perform, and mapping out the best route to success – not telling people to stop moaning. There are a lot of people who are struggling at the moment, and as leaders we have to adapt to the changing environment, and ensure our organisations provide the level of support that is needed. Everybody is under new and heightened levels of stress, so we have to work extra hard to support, inspire and keep everyone energised including ourselves. After all: “one dead battery can’t charge another.” How do you stay energised?

Making a difference

Next week, I will talk more about how leaders can address challenges as well as opportunity – for it strikes me that much is written about how to grasp an opportunity, but far less is written about handling crises. In the meantime, here are two examples of the types of initiative we have introduced at Reliance High-Tech during the pandemic and which have gone some way in helping people throughout this difficult time:

Technology is great, but as our reliance on it grows, we risk becoming slaves to our screens, acting as email servers or message handlers, not people with opinions and experience to share. So at Reliance High-Tech we have tried to communicate differently with people, really focusing on the important messages and avoiding overload of information. We have also encouraged all our managers and leaders to create informal chats with their teams. For example, at our Bracknell Head Office we have replaced some of those ‘water-cooler’ conversations with Teams meetings in which we talk about pets, family or just general interest items to ensure there is space and time to chat around subjects that aren’t work related.

A meeting I sat in on last week suggested we are on the right track: some far larger organisations commented that they are also following this policy and introducing the same type of ‘reach out’ meetings, which not only allow people to speak freely, but act as a surrogate for the serendipitous meetings, and which are so important in fostering innovation, creativity and sharing life’s stresses.

At first, this new way of communicating with people may have felt contrived or awkward. But taking a real interest in people in my view really helps builds trust, relieves stress and gives you a much better understanding of what “floats their boat”. The mental health of our people has been a key focus for Reliance High-Tech, and well before Covid-19 we had support mechanisms with partners in place to support our team. Recently we have relaunched and internally remarketed these initiatives. It’s important that people know how and where to access this support. Don’t assume everyone knows – we were surprised how many didn’t.

This isn’t an HR initiative alone – this is across the business, and involves mental health officers – our employees – who we work with, listen to and empower to ensure the right level of support is in place and is being used. This pastoral care has never been more important.

I am extremely proud of how the people in our business have managed through what is a very challenging time and it is important – now more than ever – that all business leaders reciprocate that loyalty and support.

Stay safe.