Leaders on lockdown: how three big guns kept business booming
By Laura Miller -
Your business runs on reliable management information. Lockdown provided a real-time lesson in the power of data distortion.
Social media in the last 100 days reported that suddenly everyone had enough free time to digest all of Shakespeare, compose a symphony, and bake sufficient sourdough to launch an artisan bakery from their bedroom.
“That certainly wasn’t my experience!” says Tiba Raja, executive director of Market Financial Solutions. She’s not alone. Business leaders up and down the country risked whiplash to get their whole workforce working from home in days.
“This was obviously on top of the business as usual, as we were very busy over the whole lockdown period,” Raja adds. Somehow she also found time to set up an initiative with Benares, a Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair, to deliver 2000 meals to the NHS.
“It was a hectic time,” Roxana Mohammadian-Molina, chief strategy officer at peer-to-peer lending platform Blend Network, agrees, “we all had to step up to ensure our team members were OK and had everything they needed”.
Blend declined to furlough any employees so they stayed on full pay. “We strongly believe you start by taking care of your people, then they take care of their loved ones and that’s how communities get looked after,” Mohammadian-Molina says.
Juggling hats as Vida Homeloans managing director and chair of Intermediary Mortgage Lenders Association, Louisa Sedgwick says she is “still looking forward to all that free time” she’s heard about, after days filled with virtual meetings.
The lockdown load
Working from home while schools and nurseries are closed and distant family members return to isolate has added to the load in many households. Seventy pc of unpaid carers are doing more during lockdown, the Office for National Statistics found; 55pc say they are overwhelmed.
“My two older sons descended on me for lockdown so that was certainly extra hard work,” says Raja, “it’s amazing how quickly they get used to mum doing everything for them again.”
The ONS valued unpaid childcare at £132bn in 2015 (the latest available), with 69pc accounted for by females; for adult care add on another £8bn, with 59pc from women.
“It has been important to have structure in my family as to who does what, almost like the assignment of responsibilities between team members at work,” says Mohammadian-Molina.
“I would not say we shared the responsibilities equally, but each of us do what we are able to do best, and importantly, share the psychological emotions of going through this and discuss openly how each of us feels.”
Positive work/life balances were a pre-lockdown HR aspiration. Emerging from the world’s largest working from home experiment into the New Normal they are paramount.
“My work/life is far more balanced now,” says Sedgwick, who has found more time to exercise away her lockdown-acquired chocolate addiction. “In the ‘olden days’ I would stay away from home and travel an awful lot, which of course impacts on your homelife.
“Though I think my partner is looking forward to me going away again – I can see it in his eyes!”
‘Thinking time’, the space between closing the laptop and getting home, is in shorter supply however. “I now actively need to look to create that time daily,” says Sedgwick.
Remote working was supposed to be better for women. A study in the United States before the pandemic in November 2019, found women were more likely than male counterparts to say they are more productive working from home (50pc vs. 37pc, The Remote Work Report by Zapier).
For Mohammadian-Molina the appeal has been mixed. In an industry like finance, dominated by glittering awards and swanky dinners in the City, lockdown has created more family time.
“But that line between work and life has somehow disappeared,” she says, “I respond to emails at all times, and I don’t like Zoom videos, I prefer calls – the idea of peeking into other people’s personal spaces is not appealing.”
The end of the office may not be as imminent as some forecasts predict. “It can be hard to separate work and life when you are trying to do both in the same house,” admits Raja.
It has always been assumed face-to-face contact is vital for doing deals and giving financial advice, creating a question mark over how much the sector will want to return to the office.
As employers and workers the three women are split – Sedgwick is happy for more remote working, Raja and Mohammadian-Molina seek a greater return to physical presence – suggesting the answer will vary from firm to firm.
Blend Network is planning for everyone to return to the office by 1 July, not least to resume its regular ping-pong tournaments.
“Human interaction is key for every business and relationship building,” says Mohammadian-Molina, “I have attended virtual events in the past few months but nothing compares to grabbing that coffee and interacting with another human”.
Raja agrees: “At MFS we place huge importance on the interaction between teams and I think that is difficult to do efficiently from home.”
Vida Homeloans is taking a very different approach. Based on staff feedback its stance is working from home functions well in most areas of finance.
“Most people I speak to don’t feel the urge to return to an office environment,” says Sedgwick, “I don’t think this is simply an opportunity for change for the greater good of women, but for the wider working community.”
Without exception though, Sedgwick says staff are missing colleagues and social interaction – “I too feel the same” she adds, “so what the pandemic has given us are new choices”.
Management information 2.0
‘Lessons from lockdown’ will almost undoubtedly end up as a chapter in future business school textbooks, full of advice on how to adapt and thrive in the harshest of environments.
Current company leaders say their management information is being updated immediately.
“The 05:59 train to Staines every Monday is no longer an essential part of my working week,” says Sedgwick, who instead has been building professional ties with other non-bank lenders as chair of IMLA, to gather support from the Treasury and Bank of England.
“It’s an opportunity to forge some great relationships that I will continue to work on going forward,” she says.
According to the Resolution Foundation one in four of the lowest 10pc of earners work in locked down sectors, versus less than one in 20 for the highest paid, leaving them vulnerable as UK unemployment is set to hit 10pc of the working population this year.
Mohammadian-Molina says lockdown has galvanised her belief in what she does professionally in helping individuals build more than one source of income.
“We have seen many people lose their jobs and livelihoods or have to take salary cuts,” she says, “my advice to anyone would be to invest to create a second (or third or fourth) source of income”.
All of the women agree the most important lesson from lockdown is a personal one. “It has taught me to not take anything for granted, especially the ability to visit friends and family,” says Raja.
“We will make even more of a conscious effort to see each other regularly once things are back to normal, and not let visits slip.”
And finally, in life as in business, always be prepared – “Carry a book everywhere,” she adds, “just in case you find yourself in a very long shop queue!”