COVID-19: The Leadership Challenge

Written by Sterling Content
March 19, 2020


Written by Sterling Content
March 19, 2020

The British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) has held the first webinar of its new webinar series: COVID-19: The Leadership Challenge.

Hosted at the BCCJ office on March 16, the interactive session featured representatives from two BCCJ platinum member firms: Jeremy Sampson, managing director of Robert Walters Japan, and Jonathan Spraggs, vice president and intercontinental head of tech at GlaxoSmithKline KK (GSK) It was moderated by BCCJ Executive Committee Member Heather McLeish, director at EY.

The panellists shared their respective organisation’s approach to the crisis, before sharing insights on communication, staff welfare, productivity and security. They also provided tips on how leaders can face today’s challenges and the uncertainty ahead.


Current practices

Both firms adopted widespread remote working in response to the Japanese government’s appeal to do so, on February 25.

For GSK, the step was relatively easy; the firm has always had robust plans in place, which are regularly tested. In preparation of all staff teleworking during periods around the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, work-at-home simulations had been carried out company-wide for the past 18 months.

On any one day, about 10% of staff are coming into GSK offices—which remain open—and are avoiding public transit during rush periods if they come in for essential business. Across Japan, GSK staff that normally visit institutions are going to only those that accept visitors.

“When you do scenario planning, nothing’s perfect. You can never predict the exact crisis you are going to have, and adjustments need to be made along the way,” said Spraggs of GSK’s business continuity plan (BCP). “But we have extremely solid plans in place and, so far, they are working extremely well.”

At Robert Walters Japan, leadership “took the plunge” by adopting remote working, said Sampson. The firm had no setup for large-scale telework, only case-by-case scenarios in place for working parents. However, armed with technology and a desire to “provide seamless service to clients and candidates,” the firm introduced telework for all staff within one day of its decision.

“What we were able to achieve would have taken six months of small-scale trials, workshops and discussions. It’s by no means the finished product and we’re continuing to learn every single day,” he said.


Communication needs

Both panellists admitted the difficulty of communicating with staff, while noting the need to balance communicating sufficiently and communicating too much, as it takes up valuable time.

As firms across the country—and the world—are remote working, Spraggs said staff don’t expect leadership to behave the way they would during a regular programme of business changes. He called on leaders to “be bolder, clearer and have empathy,” adding that explaining processes can boost understanding. Surveys completed by GSK staff in South Korea, for example, are shaping GSK Japan’s response to the crisis, which is being communicated to staff.


Productivity and output

Aside from lost camaraderie, Sampson said that remote working results in lost casual staff interactions that spark creativity, innovation or productivity. He suggested leaders recognise the value of these chats and schedule them as short catchups on Skype. Spraggs agreed, noting that, although more difficult to set up, cross-team chats should also be scheduled.

Both panellists advocated greater interaction with staff. At Robert Walters, all calls are video calls and leaders host a daily morning meeting for their team. Skype calls are open all day to act as meeting rooms where staff can pose questions. At GSK, leaders are encouraged to check in on their teams’ work and welfare regularly.

“We are remote working, but it’s business as usual. We have the same processes and insist on the same standards as we would in the office,” said Sampson. Spraggs added: “Keep the same routine … Never expect someone to contact you. Be the first to reach out, set up that Skype meeting. Keep connection points going.”

Spraggs said leaders need to adopt clearer and more realistic outcomes for staff, adding that staff need to be supported through new processes and given time to become comfortable with them.


Technology and training

Equipped with the latest technology, which includes biometric security, the panellists said GSK and Robert Walters are confident that their telework is as secure as working in the office.

At Robert Walters, all staff undertake annual legal, compliance and data security training to help ensure security. At GSK, all staff telework using company devices. The firm also offers refresher courses, drop-in sessions and repeater courses, to ensure staff can gain and maintain the skills they need.

Sampson advocated the need to have a BCP in place. “We were figuring out how to handle the situation, operate as business as usual and hammer out our BCP at the same time. That created additional workload and complexity to the ongoing situation,” he said. 


Leadership going forward

With the end of the crisis not yet in sight, Sampson said teams need “decisive leadership” and confident communication to ensure all staff understand that their welfare is a priority in decision-making.

Spraggs added that managers need to “lead with agility” while showing humility. “No-one expects that we’re computers that know everything; people know we are dealing with difficult situations,” he said.

Regarding the future of work, Sampson said Robert Walters hopes to adopt more flexible working after the crisis. Spraggs agreed, pointing out that lessons learned at GSK could enable staff to do a product launch remotely, use more digital methods and even do international video teleconferencing rather than bringing teams together in person. He asked leaders to think of positive things they want to embed long-term and remember them, even when everyone rushes to return to normal after the crisis.

“Those organisations that plan the future during a crisis will do the best after it,” Spraggs added.

The panellists said their firms will continue to make decisions regarding the COVID-19 outbreak based on government guidance and how the situation unfolds, and that we can expect the crisis to continue for months rather than weeks.