Have we learned anything from these unprecedented times?

Have we learned anything from these unprecedented times?

How many of you, like me, are getting a little bit weary of hearing about ‘unprecedented’ and ‘uncertain times’? It’s been five months now since the pandemic lockdown started and some of us seem as if we’re still stuck; like the rabbit in the headlights of a car that freezes, unable to move, not going back but not going forwards.

I know it’s tough because we don’t know what the future holds. We are navigating the global responses to the pandemic, reviewing government guidelines and watching what the big corporates are doing. We are all wondering how severe the recession will be. Will there be a V-shaped, W-shaped or I have even heard of K-shaped recovery? Will we see a second spike of the virus?

My question is, ‘Is it about time that WE defined what the new normal is going to be rather than waiting for answers to impossible questions or asking others to define it for us?’

As leaders in the corporate world, surely it is up to us to decide what the new normal will be?

A couple of months ago, I wrote that when we are governing during a crisis a number of things may need to be decided and agreed. They are:
a) strong leadership and agreeing the roles and boundaries between the board and executive team;
b) relevant governance structure and therefore deciding on the terms of reference of the board and committees, meeting frequencies and (currently) their virtual nature;
c) diverse teams and enabling the talent within the organisation to be unlocked, and finally;
d) having a robust decision-making framework.

Boards need to provide the guidance on these core areas and be flexible enough to respond to the ever-changing landscape, because who knows what the next catastrophic event will look like and when it will be? Climate change is just one of the global discussions that commentators predict could have similar, or even greater, impact than the pandemic on the world and the way that we live.

Since boards are tasked with ensuring robust oversight and challenge, and will want to ensure that they have the assurance of the effective and efficient operating of the organisation, board meetings and the paperwork they receive for those meetings are a crucial component.

What can we learn from the governance of our organisations over the past few months and how can we integrate these components into our strategic operations?

Here are a few examples of what has changed during the past few months.

People who had never attempted video conferencing before the March lockdown suddenly embraced Zoom and Skype. New user accounts on Zoom grew by 2,000%. It had 659,000 users in January and 13 million by April. It quickly became part of the English language. It’s now used as a noun that everyone understands: “Shall we Zoom?”
Zoom expects sales as high as $1.8 billion this year – roughly double what it forecast in March. When the firm sold its first shares to the public last year, it was valued at $15.9 billion. That shot up to more than $58 billion in June this year. We have seen Zoom used for board meetings, business meetings, teaching, networking meetings, family catch-ups, yoga classes, consultations, pub quizzes and much more.

But, the Zoom success story wasn’t all plain sailing. The massive growth in users exposed flaws in its security, which the company rushed to fix. In the long term, this didn’t seem to dent the confidence of customers and the question now is how Zoom will capitalise on its 2020 success.

Working from home, and flexible working, had been discussed for years before lockdown. Some employers were wary of a perceived lack of control over how employees were spending their paid time and security issues. The pandemic changed all that. YouGov reported that before the crisis, only 7% of workers said they worked from home full-time, with an additional 20% saying that they did so occasionally. By May, more than four in 10 of the pre-crisis workforce were exclusively working from home with another 8% doing so some of the time.

PricewaterhouseCoopers and Schroders are two City firms who have said they will allow the majority of staff to continue to work from home after the pandemic. The accounting company PwC, which employs 22,000 staff in the UK, is predicting that the majority of employees will move to a more even split of home and office working on a permanent basis. This month (August) PwC had a little over a quarter of its staff spending time in one of its 20 UK offices, a spokesman said.

Many business leaders have found that their people can be productive, engaged and happy working from home. It will also lead to reduced running costs as office space is likely to be reduced.

Schroders, the FTSE-100 listed fund manager, has told staff that they will not have to return to the office full time. Before lockdown, its staff had the flexibility to work remotely one day a week. Under the new plan, staff members are free to agree working patterns with their managers, with no set expectation of a number of days in the office.

We expect to see flexible hours and staggered start and finish times in other companies and organisations, so that those who need to go into offices, shops and factories can maintain social distancing.

Board and committee meetings have been held virtually during lockdown, through necessity. This has created challenges, such as internet connectivity and the ability of participants to concentrate and communicate effectively. One bonus is that it has become easier to schedule meetings now that people no longer have to travel physically to a venue.

It is likely that in the future we will see a hybrid alternative for meetings where some people dial-in via video conferencing and others are physically at a venue so that social distancing can be observed.

Meetings need to adapt, with shorter contributions by members and more concise information and reporting. The chair of a virtual meeting needs to keep people focused, because attention spans can be shorter online, and ensure that it is clear when a decision is being made as opposed to a point merely being noted.

I’ve been thinking about the changes that organisations need to be making and I think it’s time to have a New Way of Working (NWW) review.

We need to carefully examine questions around the role of the board and the CEO; creating new role descriptions; the authority matrix and which matters that are reserved for the board. Questions around frequency of meetings, membership and timings will also need new terms of reference.

There are questions around tapping into talent, which means we need new skills matrices and new skills audits. There are questions around productivity at meetings and decision-making protocols, which means developing new assurance criteria, risk assessments and how information is presented.

I would suggest that organisations review the issues around virtual meetings, through surveys, workshops and facilitated discussions. Some of the specific questions you may want to consider, when carrying out a survey or workshop as part of this NWW review, are:

Roles and Boundaries
• What roles, taken on by the CEO temporarily, should be kept in future?
• What aspects of the board’s role changed during lockdown and what do you think should be kept?
• How can non-execs continue to be supportive and add value without interfering?
• What changes need to be made to the delegated authorities?

Communication and Contribution
• Are you happy with the culture of questioning and challenging recommendations?
• What is the most important aspect for you in how meetings are chaired?
• Do you have any preference about how often you are kept up to date outside meetings?
• How should executives contribute in meetings?
• What ideas do you have for tapping into talent and diversity in the organisation?

• What should be the key elements of front/cover sheets?
• Should there be an Executive Summary for Papers and what should they look like?
• What should the size of reports be?
• How should reports be presented and by whom?
• What changes need to be made to the assurance methods?

Frequency, Format and Timing of Meetings
• How do you rate board meetings overall?
• What elements of the board meetings need to be updated?
• How do you rate committee meetings overall?
• What elements of the committee meetings need to be updated?
• What element of the meetings conducted virtually do you value most?
• What element of the meetings conducted virtually do you dislike, if any?
• What could be done to make the virtual meeting experience better?
• Do you agree that future meetings should include hybrid physical/virtual meetings?
• Are meetings too long, too short or about right?
• Which video conferencing platform do you prefer?
• How often should boards and committees meet in 2021 and beyond?

Board Portal
• Does the board portal platform work for you to access board papers?
• Do you use the document library in the board portal?
• Are there any other ways the portal can be used more effectively?


We should not underestimate how far we have come in a few months this year as we have responded to the global shift in the way we work, live and play.

It’s inescapable that business will operate differently and so now is the time to dictate how your organisation will work towards its goals and objectives and conduct itself in the future.

You will need to do some soul-searching and hold meaningful consultations so that your organisation stays true to its purpose, which remains consistent throughout these times.

Make the time to conduct a thorough New Way of Working (NWW) review in your organisation. It’s going to be an effective way to highlight the new documents and the new governance framework you will need for the new normal.

If you haven’t got new role descriptions, new terms of reference, new skills audits, new reporting structures and new decision-making frameworks, then can you honestly say that you have really benefitted from the opportunities and learning in these unprecedented times?