Just what is now ‘normal’?

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought-Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

One of the best managers I’ve worked for used to allocate an hour per day for informal thinking and reflection – sometimes he did it alone while other times he chewed the fat with his colleagues in a completely unstructured way. During my professional career, I’ve seen and heard many people confuse activity with productivity. Further, a friend who works in a managerial capacity in the education sector told me that, at the onset of the lockdown, his boss immediately organised seven hours of Zoom calls for his team. That’s not seven hours in total – that’s seven hours every, single, day. He didn’t allow any time for pre-meeting preparation or post-meeting execution – let alone time to think and reflect. The boss, who is the CEO, clearly doesn’t trust his team to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, his team doesn’t feel comfortable and they are exhausted from being in an artificial meeting environment almost all day, every day.

It will take a while to paint an accurate picture – but, perhaps in a year’s time, we’ll be able to look back and say who had a good or a bad lockdown. The phrase “(s)he had a good war” is little heard nowadays, however, it was commonplace when I was growing up. The example I remember best is Denis Healey, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a potential prime minister during the tumultuous mid-seventies. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was a lowly gunner and five years later left the army as a major with an MBE. He was decorated for his bravery for being in charge of the Allied beach landing at Anzio, Italy. And he spoke fluent Italian due to a number of local girlfriends… By most interpretations, he had a good war!

I’ve been keeping a diary since the pandemic first emerged. The most often-cited issue is the NHS. Has it had a good war? My view is that it’s a nuanced answer. With 1.4 million staff and an annual budget of £130 billion it really can’t be looked at as a single cohesive entity. It consumes about 10% of our national GDP. No other entity, public or private sector, comes remotely close.

Some elements of the NHS are in the “could do better” category. NHS logistics failed in the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of PPE was chaotic and it certainly didn’t communicate effectively. At the 2019 General Election, Comrade Corbyn tried to scare us into thinking that the NHS would be sold to US firms. Thankfully, the public wasn’t fooled by this nonsense – but, it does raise the issue of whether it’s an unwelcome idea. Who would you prefer to run the NHS supply chain: NHS bureaucrats with limited international capability and no plan for a pandemic or global logistics wizards with state-of-the-art technology at Amazon? Don’t get me started about NHSX – did they really think they are better at developing apps than Apple or Google? The heroic efforts of our hospital doctors and nurses can’t be allowed to bury these issues.

We are closest to GP services. A recent claim by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson – that GP surgeries may not re-open until March 2021 – prompted a flurry of responses from doctors who claim to be working just “normally”. NHS England medical director for primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, said: “General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. Whilst consultations may have been offered remotely or virtually to keep patients and staff safe, our practices have been open and offering care.” This is not my experience.

I’m 58 and consider myself fairly digitally savvy. I’m completely OK with telephone and video consultations. For me, in most circumstances, they’re better than face-to-face meetings. I also have a number of close relatives in their eighties with chronic long-term conditions. Most of these people have trouble operating a TV remote control – let alone a WhatsApp video-call on a smartphone. Very few of them actually own or have access to a smartphone! Many have some level of hearing loss, which an aid doesn’t appear to compensate for on the telephone.

Not all old people are technophobes, however it is a prevalent issue. I know old folks who still think the phone is really only for emergencies. A story on the BBC PM show recently highlighted that some old people still prefer to make calls in the afternoon because it’s cheaper than in the morning. (Note for younger readers: this used to be true in the 1980’s). One elderly chap said he only switches on his mobile phone when he wants to make a call. 

GP surgeries closed their doors in mid-March and have only recently started a cautious re-opening programme. Before Covid-19 there were about 26 million GP appointments per month. If you’re elderly the only way you know how to communicate with a doctor is by meeting them in-person. When you meet a doctor, they will routinely assess your body language, your pallor and your general demeanour. How can they do this over the phone? Doctors are expert at listening to what you say and reading between the lines. Many of my elderly relatives will be more honest in the privacy of a doctor’s consultation room than in their own home. They are not accustomed to intimate, private conversations via telephone. The conversation is likely to be a lot more stilted and therefore less productive.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to’. My local GP website says: “You cannot book a face to face GP appointment. Following telephone consultation you may be asked by the GP to attend.” Only 10% of consultations now physically take place. This is a radical change – and hasn’t been properly justified, as far as I can tell. Plus, how much consultation on the issue has been conducted?

Medical professionals need to be protected – but, at what cost? My local authority has an infection rate (in the week to August 21) of 2.1 per 100,000 people. That equated to two people … The physical closure of GP surgeries may have been sensible at the peak of the pandemic, however things have moved on, surely? The medical establishment is very good at pumping out statistics about the number of virtual consultations it’s done. But, have they measured the effectiveness and patient satisfaction recently? It would be good to know. Perhaps it’s time they both thought and reflected.

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This piece was written for our website.

Post Covid-19: have we and will we change?

GUEST POST: Leon Cook is Founder and Managing Director of Atticus Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

UK GDP fell by over 20% in April, more than three times the drop experienced during the 2008 great financial crisis. The impact of Covid-19 on the health and well-being of individuals, let alone businesses and the global economy is hard to quantify.

And yet the country is focused on getting ‘back to work’. Last month, the government announced the creation of five new taskforces responsible for the safe reopening of some of the country’s key economic sectors. With the easing of lockdown measures, businesses are gradually bringing back furloughed staff and ramping up operations. Just as quickly as we were forced to adapt to remote working, companies across the board are reassessing their workplace and work methods. The Coronavirus hasn’t just changed our office footprint. We are and will hereafter continue to communicate differently.

Corporate responsibility and action

Time and time again, companies are advised on the importance of social responsibility and purpose, yet many fail to fully engage with this process despite the benefits to employee morale, the corporate brand and overall productivity.

A GlobalWebIndex study found that 84% of consumers think that a company’s poor environmental policy could result in them parting ways with that brand. In a world rocked by Covid-19 and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, businesses must recognise that consumers and employees are watching. They must be engaged and communicated with in an empathetic way.  

Leaders must listen – and act

If it wasn’t already the case, Covid-19 has put employee well-being at the forefront of concerns for every business, irrespective of size or sector. Now more than ever, staff need reassurance from corporate leaders. With jobs and livelihoods on the line, employees require transparency and openness from those in-charge. 

In the wake of the recent racial equality protests, businesses globally have taken notice and started to ask themselves – what are we doing wrong? One way of answering this question is by asking employees themselves. Simple top-down messaging on its own is ineffective. There must be genuine two-way engagement. As we transition out of lockdown, messages and programmes of inclusivity and good culture must be upheld – and as such communicated. What has this crisis taught you and changed in respect of your corporate culture?

Engage with government

We are in a period of major change, undoubtedly. We’ve witnessed an upheaval of our societal, political and economic norms. Peacetime interventions by governments across global economies have never been so extraordinary. As we transition through the crisis, it is arguable that the government will and should be more attuned than ever to the needs of industry – the very dynamo that will kick-start our economy.

With the old rules being rewritten, businesses need to be at the forefront of any regulatory changes, especially with Brexit looming. No company is immune. It is vital that organisations use this opportunity to the fullest and engage policymakers effectively, and widely to ensure better and fair policy-making.

Take action

We are witnessing permanent changes across the business world. Organisations must ensure that they are agile and prepared to meet these changes. A renewed focus on improving internal communications will be vital to garnering the respect and trust of employees. Carefully watching and influencing policy will be key to staying ahead of the curve. Companies that can swiftly adapt to an agile style of working will prevail in the post-Covid era.

Covid-19 has changed us forever. The opportunity for business lies in ensuring that this mark is not a scar, but merely a footprint in corporate history. Businesses that continue to operate as they did prior to the crisis will, in the long-run, be eclipsed. Operate with integrity. Put employees first. See the change coming. Communicate.

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This piece was written for Public Affairs Networking.

WFH: with trust comes freedom

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

In response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, the government has advised businesses to enable their employees to work from home (WFH). For many, today was the first time they’ve done so. As someone who already benefits from a company policy that allows people to WFH from time-to-time, I wanted to share some thoughts and best practices for making a success of this new-found freedom. More freedom should always be a good thing!

Now is the time for everyone to stop all non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the first daily press conference on the coronavirus pandemic

For most industry sectors, working 9-to-5 is a thing of the past. In fact, for many in public relations and public affairs it hasn’t been a thing for a while. After the initial introductions, most interactions can be done over the phone or email. I don’t expect anybody to eat breakfast at their desk, hit ‘reply all’ to group emails or stay five minutes past 5pm – just to be “visible”. I do encourage folk to attend morning meetings, read (the daily news and books) and attend industry events – such as those hosted by Conservatives in Communications – to improve their knowledge and skills, and build their networks.

The key to making all this work is for managers – i.e. line managers not managers of other functions – to trust their teams. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

  • Higher productivity. Don’t take my word for it – try Googling academic studies on this.
  • Greater availability. For example, people are more able to join calls with Asia and the US.
  • More time, be active. Spend more time with your friends and family. I use some of the time it would take me to get to and from the office to exercise and I’ve lost a stone and a half (10.5kg) since January.
  • More money. Instead of spending your hard-earned cash on overpriced coffees, £10 lunches and transport, spend it more wisely.
  • Support local. Where possible, spend it in the local community.

The reality is this: people need very little to do their job. In a similar vein to my blog post about 10 PR things to consider in 2020 and beyond, here’s a list (not exhaustive) of 10 tips on how to make a success of WFH and remain productive amidst the chaos:

1. Make space

Ideally, you’d have a home office – a separate and quiet space just for work. Not everyone has that luxury however, including most people who live in city apartments. Instead, it can be the corner of a spare bedroom or dining/living space. Preferably, it won’t be the kitchen table as you should avoid mixing home and work life. It also becomes difficult if there’s more than one occupant WFH or on holiday.

2. Right equipment

At a minimum, you will need a PC/laptop, internet/wi-fi and a mobile phone. If possible, buy a printer, shredder and a lamp.

3. Create routine

Establish one early on – that works for you (and hopefully for others). For example: get up by 7am, check inbox and social media channels, do exercise, get ready, work from 9am-12pm, pop out and grab some lunch, read the daily news, work 1-5pm with a break in between, do some personal chores, cook dinner/ attend event/ see friends and check emails etc. once during the evening. For the record, I don’t cook!

4. Be available

Be online. Be available. You shouldn’t have to prove yourself or over communicate, because you’ll be sat at your desk – albeit in your home.

5. Stay connected

Stay in contact with the outside world – colleagues and further afield. Setup phone/ video meetings, create colleague WhatsApp groups, follow social media channels and have the news or radio on in the background. Don’t hesitate to ask for what you need.

6. Get organised

Unless you rate them (I don’t!), you don’t need Microsoft Teams and other tools like Slack to do your job. Good old Microsoft Outlook, Google Suite and Skype are enough, and do share invites for personal time off.

7. Purposeful meetings

In terms of meetings – the fewer, shorter and more purposeful they are the better. Avoid scheduling meetings for meetings sake. Weekly should be enough – consider making them bi-weekly or even monthly. You don’t need to use the full hour – 45 minutes is ideal but aim for 30. For this to work, test connections, be on time and avoid all the clichés. Every meeting should have an agenda, which you stick to, and everyone is responsible for recording their actions.

8. Face time

WFH does not mean never seeing colleagues again. Face-to-face interactions are vital. Where possible, you should meet in-person at introductory meetings, networking events and yes, team socials.

9. Go outside

As mentioned early on, just because you’re now at home doesn’t mean you can’t go on the balcony/ walk around the garden/ go to the shop. It’s important to get fresh air!

10. Keep reflecting

Continuously reflect on what’s working well and isn’t, and shake-up accordingly.

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This blog was republished by the public relations firm Vested.

Boris the builder

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

Boris Johnson once described himself as ‘basically a Brexity Hezza’. What he meant by that was that he and former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine shared a penchant for ‘grands projets’.

The prime minister’s announcement that, despite ballooning costs, HS2 would go ahead underlined his fondness for giant infrastructure schemes. At the same time, he also gave the green light to Northern Powerhouse Rail and promised massive investment in the bus network and in cycle superhighways. As if these were not enough, there were also announcements about 5G roll-out, and plans for up to ten freeports.

Aside from his personal predilection for such projects, the stream of announcements around HS2 also reflected the hard-headed calculation by Tory strategists that the best way to signal to former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands that their Damascene conversion would not go unrewarded was to at least start to address the long-running imbalance between investment in London and the South East, and the rest of the country. In order to do so the government had to tear-up long-standing Treasury rules on return on investment.

Aside from the cynical political calculation of the announcements they were also designed to take advantage of the historically low rates of interest on offer to stable governments, such as the UK’s. An added bonus is the prospect of, over time, using infrastructure investment to help to address the issue of low productivity that has plagued the UK for many years.

Boris Johnson’s track record of delivering on giant infrastructure projects is patchy. He can certainly claim much of the credit for the effective delivery of the 2012 London Olympics, and Crossrail was on time and on budget under his watch when he was London Mayor. However, the Garden Bridge scheme across the Thames was a costly fiasco, and during his time as Mayor he had vehemently opposed Heathrow expansion. Instead he championed ‘Boris Island’, an airport in the Thames Estuary – a feasible but controversial project.

But these past, present and future ‘grands projets’ – including talk of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – are like their progenitor; they are not just very big, they are very bold.

The prime minister is proposing and championing them partly because of political and economic necessity, but also with an eye to his legacy. Boris wants to go down in history not just as a winner, but as a builder.

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This piece was written for our website.