Does a complete and long-lasting shift in work require the same for our leadership? That was the fundamental question posed to senior technology leaders Charlotte Baldwin, Chief Digital and Technology Officer, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Dayne Turbitt, SVP & General Manager UK, Dell Technologies; Velji Naran, CIO, Subsea 7; and Conor Whelan, Chief Information and Operations Officer, Experian, on their roundtable discussion. Where before, innovation, collaboration and ambition took center stage, remote working has ushered in a far more democratized state of affairs and that, as we’re beginning to realize, has far reaching consequences.
“There is now the real need to prioritize and focus effort where it will impact the business the most,” said Charlotte Baldwin, recently voted as one of the UK’s top CIOs. “And now we’re working at home 24-7 we leaders have to set the example to our teams about how best to work in a crisis: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
It’s almost instantly clear in her advice that Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer’s CIO is an optimist. She wakes every morning and considers what she is grateful for, she revealed, and is a big believer in a positive mental attitude. What’s more revealing however is her honesty: challenging times increases the tendency to burn out, and fortunately at least, we’re entering into a period where we are far more open to discussing mental health.
Velji Naran agreed: “Personally, I’m exercising more than ever before and I’ve taken up meditation. I read more; [lockdown] has been a good journey for me to center myself and spend more time with the people I love.
“Professionally,” he continued, “it’s been hectic and I agree with Charlotte [Baldwin] that we have to lead by example, finish work on time, manage expectations with customers and peers, and understand that at the moment we’re not going to be able to deliver on everything.”
Another positive lockdown story came from Experian’s Conor Whelan who, having “hated” the travel and commute of before, suddenly found himself with three extra hours in the day.
“That’s now dedicated to research and training, which I couldn’t incorporate into my day before.”
Perhaps more importantly for Whelan and his style of leadership, however, was the added insights into his team’s living and working situations.
“I’ve learned this year that we’re not all in equal positions and we’ve almost been spending a day in each others’ lives,” he reflected. “Team members with small families or young graduates working from bedrooms have it tougher and I hadn’t thought that through well enough.
“I’ve become more empathetic to the team and now I want us to think about how we change our business model to suit as many of them as possible.”
Business model rethink
Whelan’s remark about changing a business model was possibly the most prescient of the discussion. If 2020 was the year of disruption and intense, reactive work to ensure the business remains afloat, the assumption is that 2021 is when things can return to a semblance of normality. That assumption would be unwise, however. Not only will it take many months of vaccine uptake to encourage societies back outside, many team members expect to return to a hybrid working environment—some time at home, some time in the office—and that has huge ramifications for how to organize a business. And lead one.
From the vendor’s perspective, Dayne Turbittt agreed that as leaders they are in a privileged position. They have better at home working environments and are enjoying the benefits of being more present within their family. He did, however, disagree with Whelan and the commute.
“I actually miss the commute,” said Turbitt, “because that was when I could slowly switch between parent and boss. I’m still having to learn how to do that today.”
The technology challenge
His reflection points to the incredibly personal responses of lockdowns and sudden remote working. Even amongst technology executives, what is a positive for one is a challenge for the other. Again, the need for businesses to be sensitive to these needs and the range of these needs was made stark in this debate.
For Baldwin, the need was even greater for the technology function.
“One of the most specific challenges is that technology touches every part of the organization and there is a lot of pressure and demand coming from all parts of the firm for that,” she said, “and I don’t know of many other functions spread so thinly or with such an opportune vantage point for the business.”
Between the school runs and the transformation cycles, what’s become clearer is the importance of empathy within a leader. You are not just working with your team today, you are now working alongside their children or pets who cross into a Zoom meeting, or around their schedules as they navigate essential worker family members or home schooling. This will, as Whelan noted, be a benefit for the team in the long run, but only if in the long run the business carefully integrates hybrid working alongside the needs of the team. And for that, it will need to listen carefully to those who know what’s needed best: its leaders.