Our unsung front-line colleagues are vital to a company’s success
Straight-talking common sense from the front line of management
Q John, what do you think are the biggest lessons people and businesses should take from lockdown? A I will never take anything for granted again. I’m still shocked that our world changed so much in such a short time.
When we discussed the possible implications of coronavirus at our board meeting on March 9, we were heading for another record year and had a record high of nearly £19m in the bank. By the following Monday, my family had put me under strict house arrest.
A week later, all of our 2,100 shops were closed, we were forecasting a full-year loss and we had started talking to our bank about a substantial overdraft facility. Within a fortnight, our ambitions had shifted from aggressive growth to financial survival. Despite this desperate reversal of fortune, many of my early lockdown memories are positive: the generous offers to do my shopping, the weekly clap for carers and the fast-moving action reports from our senior management team, who joined a progress call every Friday morning (which had an added sparkle following Rishi Sunak’s furlough announcement).
Most of us – particularly those, like me, who isolated solo – learnt a lot about ourselves. In retrospect, I should have achieved much more during lockdown. I set out with good intentions to read lots of books, practise playing the piano and sort out the files in my house.
I’m hopefully not the only one who failed to fulfil their lockdown resolutions.
I was embarrassed to hear of many friends who claimed some spectacular successes: heroic DIY deeds, from redecorating to a kitchen makeover; industrious PPE production of scrubs and masks; and a branch colleague who learned to speak Spanish.
Despite my pitiful Wi-Fi reception, I mastered Houseparty, Webex and FaceTime, and learnt about “Zoommanship” (the selfish way to use Zoom). My psychology course at university taught me that meetings with more than six participants are dominated by one or two people. This is certainly true on Zoom; it’s almost impossible to push virtual extroverts off the screen. To make your point, you need to firmly interrupt and talk over the screen-hogger like a news interviewer. The biggest bonus of Zoom, however, is that no one can see you doing the Telegraph crossword while attending the meeting!
Zoom posers are probably the same people who made loud mobile phone calls on the train. I recall someone on my last journey pre-lockdown: “Is that Julie? Just checking whether the other side has surfaced; they’re bound to play hardball, but we’re the only deal on the table. One more chip and we are home and dry. It’s a no-brainer!”
Now Covid has almost emptied every carriage and most mobile phone users are mercifully muffled by their mask. The pandemic has taken us on a strange journey with a new language: “stay at home”, “social distancing”, “essential journeys”, “forming a bubble” and “gatherings”. Now we can’t shop or catch a bus without wearing a mask. These changes make a massive impact on consumer habits. Online shopping and local stores have done well, while City of London shops have been abandoned. It’s too soon to judge if old habits will ever return.
By entering this unexpected world, managers have learned a surprising lesson. Covid has highlighted the vital role that front-line colleagues play in a company’s success. At a time of crisis, enlightened leaders abandoned their normal practice of following policy and process. Instead, they trusted the day-to-day team to use their initiative and find immediate solutions to a new set of problems.
As Marks & Spencer declared last week: “Throughout the crisis, we have seen how we can work faster by empowering teams; it is essential we embed that in our future organisation.” Willing front-line colleagues in organisations big and small (especially the NHS) have shown the power of true delegation – what I call “upside down management”.
By picking a team full of star performers, they have made themselves more efficient. It’s a lesson that must not be forgotten when we reach the “new normal”. Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high street services provider, Timpson. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Changes such as the introduction of masks in shops hugely affected consumer habits