A Lesson from COVID-19

Ok, this is a management textbook standard: your best resource is your human resource. Who hasn’t heard that before? Yet, I often have the impression that as obvious as it is, it is one of the most forgotten and neglected truths of management.

If you really want to experience the value of your human resource, a workplace with an undermanned, ultra lean structure, is the right place where to begin.

At the newspaper and even now, at the ministry, the pressure for ‘more and better’ constantly weighs on me as a manager. Yet, somehow, this request for ‘more and better’ is hardly ever matched by a realistic promise of more resources, especially in terms of engaging new employees. Regardless, there is always this expectation looming that more can be done, that your current resources can be stretched more and more, without incurring additional costs.

You can pressure your employees to up their game and even make them work at frenetic rhythms. But that is not sustainable in the long run. They will burn out and with the first opportunity that comes their way, they will leave. In this kind of working environment those who remain are usually those weaker elements within your team, that either lack motivation and ambition or have a narrow-ranging, limited skills set. You end up losing the best people, with their learning, experience and hard work.

The first time I encountered such a situation was at the newspaper. Ours was a Sunday paper and by some bizarre thinking – whereas everywhere in the world the Sunday paper is considered the flagship of a publishing house and every edition is expected to be a mini-masterpiece of all-round journalism – the top executives in our company harboured the false impression that it required less work and resources to publish a weekly paper than a daily. My team, with myself included, totalled just seven people. We had ancillary services from a shared newsroom and a shared sports team on Saturdays only. All exclusives, in depth features, interview, editing of op-eds, design and impagination had to be done by my team – and with that not including occasional supplements, a monthly magazine and special editions. The system was pretty rigid – punching in at 7.30 am, punching out at 4.30 pm, Sundays and Mondays off and on Saturday a morning/ evening shift basis till 11.00 pm. Working within those parameters, increasing the number of pages, features and exclusives, like I wanted, entailed that my team worked a regular number of overtime hours that became ingrained in the system.

It wasn’t long before the company executives started putting pressure to reduce this load of overtime. My reply was that reducing overtime would mean a reduction in content and quality, something which they absolutely didn’t want. They were very happy with our results. In a very short span of time we had upped the quality and in a context of fastly diminishing newspaper readership we managed to keep our numbers. However, the tug of war between the demands put by executives and the reality we were operating in was having its toll on my team. Enthusiasm waned and when a moratorium on overtime was imposed none of the team was willing to do that extra bit that was giving us the cutting edge. Having been on a high from the success we were having, acknowleged even by our competitors, this sudden slip in moral and desire to achieve within my team weighed heavily on me. I was drunk on our success and I wanted more. I felt frustrated and angry that I had to compromise all that because of the short-sightedness of our executives. Their argument was that the company wasn’t in a happy financial situation so they needed to cut on costs. Obviously, overtime was the first thing that had to go; that was a luxury for better times. With my team we designed a way forward, including a full online version of the newspaper, but the response we had was very tepid and the company seemed to be dragging its feet on every aspect that involved changing mentalities and work practices.

It was within this context that I had a second look at my team. Rather than looking at them as a group, I began to look at them as individuals. Rather than measuring them by their output, I started looking at their needs and their wishes. The older ones liked their early morning start and then finish early in the afternoon. Not so much the younger ones. They would rather start late in the morning and then work late afternoons. Some of them had family issues; kids to take care of, relationships, commitments. Each and every one of them had a different reality and many times had to go at great lengths to structure their lives around their working hours. If they had more flexibility they would be in a better position to manage both their lives and their work. Such an accomodating arrangement would give them an incentive to work better and give more to their workplace.

It was hard work to convince company executives to accept total flexibility for my team. It demanded of them that they adopt a completely new mindset. They came up with such arguments as ‘how will you monitor their output?’ or ‘how will you ensure that they don’t abuse?’ – a rather lousy starting point, in my opinion, if you are not trusting of your employees. My argument was that it was my responsibility to ensure that the team is productive and delivers quality work. If there will be any shortcomings they will be from my end, because I didn’t manage them well. To cut a long story short, with the vocal support of our HR manager, my flexibility proposal was accepted. The staff were granted flexible working hours and were even equipped to work remotely. In addition I also tried to reward them in other ways (but that is the subject of another post).

What was the result of flexibility (including remote working)? The offices remained open for longer time without the need to give overtime. People took pleasure working from home and came to the office with new ideas they experimented on during their free time. They were working happier, not least because they could manage their own time according to their needs. That was the way we managed for seven years to keep the momentum of the journey we embarked upon at the beginning of my editorship. All the time keeping overtime costs at a historical low for the company!

When I moved to the Civil Service I encountered many people whose style of management remains very static and rigid. It had to be COVID-19 to force everyone into flexibility and remote working. To be fair, the Principal Permanent Secretary had already – before COVID – expressed his views in favour of flexibility and remote working. Now, after the COVID experience, I see more managers buying into the idea of flexibility, including remote working. All I can say is that adopting a very flexible approach, at Lifelong Learning we managed to transfer 200 courses from the physical to the online classroom within three days. That’s how long it took us to put into action a plan we envisaged would take us a year to begin implementing. All it took was the enthusiasm to reach a goal and the flexibility to make it happen.

I seriously hope that when the emergency is over there will be no turning back. Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.

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