2020: The Year of Leading Dangerously
By Jeff Phipps, Managing Director at ADP
This year we’ve been struck by the COVID-19 pandemic and then a global movement against racism. As business leaders we have taken these events in our stride as if magically all our experiences of recent years had construed to prepare us…. that never happened.
Let’s be honest, we weren’t ready for this. Our societies weren’t ready for this, our experts weren’t ready for this, our organisations weren’t ready and an arbitrary glance at any serious news source shows the preparedness of most of our leaders in a particularly dim light and yet here we are. The lights still work and we have toilet rolls.
I hope that is a good thing, I hope it serves as the canary in the coal mine reminding us to consider the fragility of the planet we call home and our place on it. I hope it will cause us to take a deep breath and reflect on the purpose and outcomes for our organisations, those we serve and those we depend on. For now though, I’ll leave the big picture thinking for better scholars and deeper thinkers as like you I’m faced with the reality of running a business today and tomorrow.
Each of us has a story to tell about getting to now. For me I think it started when Donald Trump announced a ban on flights to and from China at the end of January. I remember thinking “Surely if China flights are banned and the virus is already outside China then shouldn’t all flights, indeed all travel stop? Then again that would stop my family skiing holiday in mid-February and that would be awful.”
A few weeks later whilst enjoying the last few days of that holiday I was watching the TV. News was emerging from Northern Italy and I turned to my wife and said, “They can’t stop this”. In that moment it became clear that our world was going to change dramatically and we had better start getting ready. No sooner was I in the car on the way back from Heathrow when I began calling my team asking them to prepare. I remember one of them said to me later that week that on Monday when I called he thought I was being a bit paranoid but by Thursday he had come to the same realisation that I had. Those early weeks were intense and hectic but I had this sense of being like a captain sailing the ship through a storm. We have a wonderful culture at ADP, once described to me as working-class meaning that people look out for each other and, well, big egos don’t really get past the front door. That culture and trust in each other served us well as we prepared. The team were ready and when the call came three weeks after that car drive back from Heathrow we said our goodbyes and within 12 hours a thousand people were working from home here in the UK and shortly afterwards swelling to over fifty thousand around the world as governments concluded this was no time to be in an office building.
I am proud of how we dealt with that first phase. We got a lot right and good fortune was on our side however, as we have come to realise, coming out of the storm is an order of magnitude more complex than going into it. Indeed, the notion that we are coming out of a storm is misleading and it’s more accurate to say that we are having to learn how to live in it. It seems to me that alongside trust, inclusivity is really important in this next phase. Inclusivity will conjure up notions of diversity to many of you but in this case, it’s really about catering for a wide set of opinions, often emotionally charged and susceptible to change.
Like many organisations we’ve focussed on having an open and frequent dialogue with our employees and they have told us how much they appreciate this. A component of that has been a “sentiment” survey to gauge their views on working from home and the prospects of returning to the office. The survey results tell us 71% are happy to work from home for the foreseeable future and just 3% are really struggling. Those numbers have stayed pretty consistent over two surveys we’ve conducted in May and July. It gets really interesting when you start to read the comments as we have a full spectrum of views from those who think we are irresponsible to even consider re-opening offices to those who can’t understand why we continue to work from home when reported local case numbers are low. This backs up my sense we are dealing with three issues here; a health issue in the form not just of the pandemic but of all the indirect physical and mental health consequences; an economic issue risking unemployment and high debt levels and a dynamic psychological issue exposing different values, attitudes and behaviours from whether people will wear masks to whether they will send their kids to school.
Like many economists and science-based forecasters we’ve used a Bayesian approach to our planning. In simple terms we look at the potential outcomes and then weight likelihood of outcomes based on knowledge, adjusting as knowledge improves. When you have no knowledge, you assume it’s a coin toss or roll of the dice depending on outcomes. Hopefully you get my drift. The problem at the moment is that the breadth of outcomes is wide and we still have relatively little knowledge. We don’t know what will happen to the economy, we don’t know when we will get back to pre-COVID levels of health, let alone indirect and long-term consequences and that makes the understanding of how attitudes and expectations will evolve impossible to determine.
All of this should make leaders seeking to demonstrate a command of the situation feel somewhat hot under the collar or these days I guess it’s probably lounge wear. The first step in dealing with this is to accept that there are aspects we don’t understand and/or know how to deal with. I was recently at a meeting of business leaders discussing what we should do in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Personally, it was reassuring to hear a number of these unsurprisingly white men admit they didn’t have a good understanding of the issues or what to do. But in the same moment it highlighted the scarcity of diversity in the board room that has left organisations deprived of either the knowledge or the credibility to act appropriately. The black people I have spoken to in the last few weeks don’t expect me to understand or to have answers. They want me to care, to show not just that they matter in words but also in deeds that have longevity. The best advice I have received in relation to racism was from a young black actor who said we should start by educating ourselves, then engage in conversations and learn how people feel and how it is impacting them. Finally, we can act and commit to making a difference in the long term. We can echo this approach in how we understand the diverse views of our workforce in regard to the pandemic, now and in the months ahead, explaining our actions, being transparent about our motives and failures whilst making space for people with a wide range of views and needs.
Whist there are so many uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 I think we must now accept that early expectations of things returning to normal after three or four months have faded to make way for the realisation that we have some long-term adjustments to make. There is no imminent solution to the health issue and even when it is found it seems likely that the way we work will change permanently. How you view that will vary by business and circumstances but it seems to me it presents an opportunity to innovate and find better ways of working. Levels of workplace engagement had remained stubbornly low in the decade preceding this so the slogan “Make Work Great Again” isn’t going to cut it. Many businesses have quickly and successfully adapted to working remotely but now we know we are in this for the long haul we have to progress from “getting by” to “getting good”. I see three elements to that – technology, behaviours and policies. Technology is about how we utilise tools, data and systems to collaborate and innovate, building a better understanding of how we can work and live better. Some colleagues who were previously disadvantaged by being the lone person dialling into a meeting where everyone else was in the room, are finding the world of digital meetings a great leveller whilst I was forced to admit I’m yet to discover how to use the white board facility in the tool we use. Laggard! The same technology could be used to help us understand unconscious bias and preference in how we interact with colleagues. Behaviours are how we learn, progress, hire, manage when we can’t meet face to face and including how we have difficult conversations. I consistently hear that people miss the corridor chats, the serendipitous moments of fun and ideas and we have to forge new ways of making those interactions happen. Policies are about determining where the guard rails get placed and enforced in this new world of work.
Whilst I see bumps ahead, I am optimistic for the longer term. I believe this could trigger a period of innovation not seen before in my lifetime. We really could learn how to be more productive, healthier and happier, we could learn how to collaborate more fairly and more effectively whilst hopefully we might just do a little less harm to our planet in the process. Moreover, we could finally understand and promote the behaviours in ourselves and others that encourage diversity, inclusion and equality. There are of course dangers and unintended consequences that we need to be vigilant for. Of course, we could choose a different path, retrench, defend the status quo and forage a way back to a pre-COVID way of working but I hope we will resist that temptation for in the words of John Maxwell “We’re not good enough to stay the same”.
Jeff Phipps is Managing Director of ADP® UK, a leading global provider of Human Capital Management (HCM) solutions. He joined ADP from Systemax, where he was Executive Vice President and General Manager for Germany, Austria & Switzerland. With a strong background in the technology industry, Jeff has previously worked in IT consultancy, sales and business leadership roles at Tandem, HP and Dell. He also has a background in IT management at a number of leading financial services firms.
Jeff has relished joining ADP, and being able to focus on the side of management he loves most – people. He has a number of passions which he has incorporated into his strategy for the business, including learning and development. Jeff is of the attitude that you’re never too old to learn, and he is living proof of this, currently undertaking his MBA alongside his challenging role.
From a management position, in an expert HR company, he’d love a chance to discuss upskilling, alongside a number of other areas of interest; the future of work, automation replacing people in the workplace and diversity in the workplace. Currently, his priority is retaining a strong internal culture during a period of growth.