Reviewing 2021: a tough year for business

The past 12 months have posed serious problems for the private sector, including disrupted supply chains, skills shortages and further waves of Covid-19. Business leaders reflect on some of the biggest challenges they’ve had to tackle this year

Bolstering the company’s culture

Katarina Berg, chief HR officer, Spotify 

My biggest challenge in 2021 was to make the organisation more resilient. In trying to develop a culture in which people at Spotify ‘have each other’s backs’, we reminded everyone that it’s sometimes OK not to be OK.

The business has gone into hyper-growth mode over the past year, bringing in more than 2,200 people. How do you create a sense of community when those joining the organisation have never seen their colleagues face to face? 

We haven’t had to make the type of digital transformation that many other firms have undergone, but we did need to rethink some of the in-person elements of onboarding. The hardest task here was to ensure that the replacement digital processes still reflected Spotify’s culture. 

In a well-run company, the proper work takes care of itself, but we’ve found it very difficult to recreate the sense of community and fun you get in an office. It’s vital not to lose that social connectivity among colleagues working remotely. 

Supporting people’s wellbeing, especially their mental health, has proved another challenge, as employees in many parts of the world have been isolated for several weeks at a time during various Covid lockdowns. Such things aren’t usually on an employer’s list of worries, but we’ve had to develop our support system over the past year to account for them. 

Shaking off the survival mindset

Ash Schofield, CEO, giffgaff

In business, the leadership’s mindset determines the mood of the whole company. Given the uncertainty that the pandemic brought, adopting a survival mindset was a necessity for us, but it’s not a place that anyone would want to stay in for too long. 

Moving back to a growth mindset as soon as possible has been essential in enabling us to plot a course for the company’s sustainable expansion.

Getting to grips with remote working

Belinda Finch, CIO, Three UK

The biggest challenge for us has been to embrace homeworking. No one has been back in the Three office full time over the past year. Most businesses that have been able to support remote working since the start of the pandemic are now operating a hybrid model.

But you need to ensure that everyone has the right tools and capabilities to work effectively this way. Remote working tools have gone from being a luxury to an essential. Over the past year, we’ve experimented with different technologies and communication methods, so there’s been an element of trial and error. 

We’ve had to battle with issues of capacity and stability since the pandemic started. Two years ago, if Microsoft Teams went down for half a day, you could simply walk across your office and talk to a colleague. If it goes down now, it’s an absolute disaster. Before this year, I’d never had my CEO texting me to ask why Teams is being unstable. 

My other big challenge has concerned cost. The supply chain crisis has forced some prices up and made it difficult for us to predict what will be available. With the computer chip shortage, it’s been hard to know whether items can actually be delivered. We’ve also had problems getting servers to the UK.

Meeting a huge increase in demand

Nick Kirk, Managing Director, UK & North America, Michael Page 

This has been one of the most unusual periods I’ve seen in my 27 years with PageGroup. When economic conditions deteriorate, it normally happens quite gradually, but there was a punishingly fast decline in performance across the private sector, and therefore in recruitment activity, during the spring of 2020. 

In March this year, the recovery took off, as clients of ours that had reshaped their businesses to survive the pandemic looked to recruit. For example, bricks-and-mortar retailers that had switched to ecommerce needed people with a different range of skills. There were also companies that were rebuilding, having cut costs in the first year of the Covid crisis.

At the same time, a bunch of potential job candidates were sitting on their hands, unready to change employers because they were worried that the pandemic was far from over. These two factors created a meeting of forces. There’s been an incredible spike in demand for candidates from clients, but the supply is by no means matching that to the extent they’re seeking. This has made the market very hot and led to salary inflation, which causes its own problems in the broader economy.

Making remote work more engaging

Sam Fisher, head of dynamic work, Okta

For us, the key challenge has been maintaining company culture and employee engagement when working asynchronously. This involves ensuring all employees, regardless of level or location, have equitable access to information, leadership, mentoring, coaching and opportunities. 

Another key pillar of success is helping set up remote employees to be as productive and supported as those that are onsite. In order to achieve this, companies should provide everyone with a WFH office setup  that mimics the actual office. If someone working at home cannot access something, employees in the office shouldn’t be able to either.

Remote or hybrid working can also lead to the erosion of company culture, which can seriously impact a business’s ability to operate effectively.  It’s up to businesses to think about how to tackle this and implement meaningful strategies to maintain employee satisfaction and belonging – no matter where they’re based. 

At Okta, we’re still working out the best way to ensure culture is not lost as we continue to operate under, what we call, a dynamic work model. For example, we’ve introduced culture champions and have organised charity work to create a sense of community spirit and collective purpose among employees.