Five months after the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered offices in the UK and across the world, a picture of the new normal for businesses is slowly emerging.
Working from home policies, once considered a perk, are now at the core of company operations – bringing with them a fresh set of challenges for leadership. What’s the right level of transparency when communicating with a remote team? How do you provide hands-on support to employees without seeming intrusive? And, crucially, how do you protect the culture you built in a completely different environment?
Capdesk Co-Founder and CEO Christian Gabriel joined Founders Academy COO Asha Haji and Soldo CFO Dynshaw Italia for a webinar last week to discuss these new dilemmas and share their advice with other leaders. The conversation was moderated by leadership and business coach Sara Sabin.
Here’s what they had to say about their experiences of shifting to remote work.
Dynshaw observed one unexpected effect, explaining that "when a big company with multiple locations becomes entirely remote, it equalises employees – you no longer have the problem of some teams feeling left out."
“We saw something similar happening with inclusivity on a social level” added Christian. “Hosting online socials suddenly meant that parents could join in, and even involve their children. It pushed the company towards a set-up where everybody could come together – not just our employees who are free for beers after work on a Friday.”
But without serendipitous opportunities to meet in the corridor or by the water cooler, new starters can take longer to find their feet, said Asha, whose Founders Academy programme places participants into high-growth startups for six months as part of their course.
“In lieu of face-to-face networking, we’ve been encouraging our 2020 cohort to look online for the company’s ‘culture vultures’ – those who often contribute in meetings and on Slack, and have influence over their peers – and form connections with them directly."
The typical pre-pandemic perks – from foosball tables and cinema vouchers to lavish socials – are fast losing their appeal to employees. Instead, leaders must look for alternative incentives.
In the wake of the economic downturn caused by Covid-19, Capdesk is seeing an uptake in equity options for employees as a form of financial incentive.
“With the instant gratification of something like a gym membership off the table, equity’s real value is becoming clearer. If a side effect of this challenging recession is that companies reevaluate the way they compensate employees – provided routes to liquidity are in place – then that’s fantastic,” shared Christian.
“There’s also an opportunity to reconsider the non-material ways we motivate employees at work,” said Asha.
“People often sacrifice salary, security and a 9-5 schedule to work in an early-stage company – so find out what’s motivating them on a deeper level. Getting to know your employees’ North Star – and where their values align with the company mission – will enable you to develop them effectively.
All three panellists agreed that developing employees and recognising their achievements should now be a higher priority among senior management.
“Investing in learning and developing is an ongoing project – showing an employee that someone within the business cares about their journey will impact their long-term dedication,” stated Asha.
Dynshaw agreed, lamenting the lack of individual recognition that plagues companies today.
“So often the personal touch, such as a CEO telling an individual contributor they’ve done a great job, is missing.”
However, Asha warned that these moments should be combined with honest feedback given consistently. “If an employee hears ‘you’re fantastic’ all the time, they’ll get suspicious. Managers need to be comfortable giving honest feedback on a regular basis," she said.
That’s a real challenge right now, admitted Christian.
“Not all managers are equipped to give constructive feedback remotely. You have to strike a balance between intruding on employees, and being too hands-off.”
“Checking in is very necessary, but there’s a way to stop it from becoming micro-management,” added Asha. “Managers shouldn’t feel like they can’t get involved, but they have to be clear on their motivations for doing so – otherwise employees will feel threatened. It all comes down to trust."
Maintaining trust between managers and remote employees takes a concerted effort, and it’s down to leaders to create an atmosphere of openness and respect.
“Trust comes from the culture of an organisation,” believes Dynshaw. “There needs to be room for mistakes to be made, and talked about, so people learn that they can experiment without fear of punishment.”
At Capdesk, Christian operates a policy of maximum transparency as a way of getting employee buy-in when it matters most.
“All employees are invited to shareholder meetings and can access the minutes whenever they like. The entire Capdesk team has visibility of intentions of shareholders and investors, which makes leadership-level decisions less likely to be misinterpreted.”
Asha concluded the session with some thoughts on culture in a crisis. “It’s easy to have a great culture when times are good,” she said.
“The real test is when things are terrible. When you lose a big client, when you have a down round – that’s when everybody looks to the leadership team for a response. If the leaders act severely, if they catastrophise and don’t strategise, people will pay attention.
“Instead of punishing mistakes, treat them as learning moments. Show your employees that creativity and risk-taking are encouraged, and watch innovation grow within your business as a result.”
Our thanks go to co-panellists Asha Haji and Dynshaw Italia, as well as moderator Sara Sabin, for a thought-provoking session.