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Lockdown Thoughts from Chief People Officers

Lockdown Thoughts from Chief People Officers

When summarising the observations from Chief People Officers across multiple sectors, there were 3 main themes. These were marrying the needs of business and people; new ways of working and well-being, the latter being, by far, the most consistently mentioned.


Businesses have become agile and moved faster. People have responded well but are tired and uncertainty still reigns. Everyone craves clarity, consistency and certainty which is not yet forthcoming. Leaders look to HR for help when combatting burnout, but this is an issue for all leaders. In a recent ‘School of CEOs’ assessment of how leaders were doing through Covid, the results suggested many leaders are burnt out and tired.

Interestingly, the older the participants were, the less burned out they reported feeling. There is a huge emphasis across businesses for initiatives to keep people engaged and combat fatigue. Recognition of effort has become vital and awards have been reinstated or created and employees regularly surveyed.


The relentless need for change/transformation whilst balancing agility, liquidity and people as well as future strategy has been a challenge and for some leadership teams, fatigue is now very real. For most, the reality was – deliver the 2020 numbers despite the tiredness.

Businesses are chasing revenue but must also ensure the foundations for the future are in place. How a business has acted with regards to such things as furlough or redundancy, will be a measure by which future employees will assess the appeal of the organisation as an employer.

Organisations which have invested in communication and employee engagement, are able to measure the sentiment about tough commercial decisions. One organisation measured social media observations on their redundancy programme and were rightly proud of getting only one negative comment.

There are big decisions around who to train/invest in given the potential redundancies in 2021. Also, decisions around office space, especially in big cities like London, where leases are coming up for renewal. Most businesses have made immense progress globally in terms of more remote working and want to keep that momentum. For some office-based businesses, this is a huge shift culturally.

There was a novelty to Lockdown 1 and people were galvanised into action, determined to ‘make it happen’. Senior Leadership often became very bonded and the very best of human nature prevailed, at least until late summer. There was significant effort on scenario planning and daily trading reviews in the beginning. For many, the business now needs a return to the discipline of longer-term planning.

Businesses are discussing realignment and re-organisation with an eye firmly on People and Planet as well as profit. Can the same energy be applied to sustainability and the notion of “Build Back Better” as has been seen in the general approach to Covid?

Another role of a leader is one of developing people. To unearth talent and create a culture in which it is safe to learn (and sometimes fail) and which fosters diversity of thought, a culture of performance enablement, agility and continuous improvement.

When it came to performance, several organisations report learning a lot about their employees in terms of who stepped up and who ‘leaned out’. These were not always the outcomes they expected. The pandemic has given many businesses the opportunity to reassess internal emerging talent.

There has been a real challenge in induction and on-boarding, especially of junior staff who learn from observation and perhaps have very little business experience behind them. It seems the younger generations are not coping as well with the lockdowns as the older generations. This is sometimes because of the practical, in terms of living situation and space, but equally there seems to be differing resilience across the generations.

We know mentoring of staff, especially the younger and less experienced, is almost impossible across technology. One organisation has increased communications, transparency and learnings for more junior members of staff by inviting them to meetings online that they would not normally attend. As a result they observe and learn as a silent participant.

As Remuneration Committees gather there will be a fine balancing act necessary to reward leaders who have worked harder in 2020 than ever before but not delivered the numbers due to the pandemic. It is likely that many will not see any bonus and here is the balance between organisational values and affordability.


Communication is key and most businesses have put an enormous effort into this. Forming global or regional networks of leadership to establish different communication groups and networking tools. It is also vital to introduce some fun and equally important to give people ‘permission’ to have that fun.

It has been tough for working parents of young children to be home based. There are some great examples of companies helping by providing online lessons for children, dance events and story time. For the adults, there are exercise classes and coffee breaks as well as a raft of quizzes.

A key theme discussed is about empowering employees and being transparent as leaders in admitting they don’t have all of the answers. Businesses have priorities but leaders need to give their teams permission to tell them what they are going to stop doing. Sometimes the issue is compounded with very engaged employees who don’t want to let go of things. One tip: ask these employees “if you could stop doing one thing a week and no-one else would really notice, what would that be?”

Working from home has created isolation and mental health issues. One contributor said they have worked hard to collect employee feedback. One employee asked “can we have two hours lunch break and finish later because it is so dark in the morning and evenings and I want to go out and exercise in daylight and also be able to eat”. On the one hand, it is great they felt they could ask the question but on the other, why did they not feel they could make this adjustment themselves?

The speed of decision making has shifted and the traditional approach to change via talking to big groups of people ‘face to face’ has now become virtual. It has given leaders an agility around being able to reach out to their employees en masse and in a timelier fashion. The ability to capture questions and receive them in real time is seen as a positive with the virtual platforms being used and another big learning for business.

One business asked the question; what do you want to keep when we return to normal? The thing that came back resoundingly from nearly 60% of people, was ‘Flexibility and Agility’ as it is helping them do their jobs. So the future will not be ‘back to normal’ and as such, workspaces will have to change. Some businesses have had to significantly invest in home working. For example, by buying technology equipment for employees in developing countries.

Covid has also provided a momentum to drive many of the changes businesses now need to happen and want to make, in areas such as Diversity and ESG. A number of leaders talked about initiatives being created and ideas put forward, which pre-covid, would have taken years to achieve.

Many organisations are giving employees a more ‘powerful’ voice. In one organisation, they have given leadership of several important networks, such as for women, black employees and their LGBTQ community, to an employee not to leadership. This has been a big challenge for the leaders as given this voice, people have not been shy in coming forward. Some of these initiatives have been tried before but the level of energy feels different this time around.


A lot of work has been done around wellbeing and becoming pre-emptive and proactive, encouraging people to get out and use the commute time to exercise. One organisation reported that half of their senior leadership team are now mental health trained.

It is often recognised that men sometimes find it hard to talk about how they are feeling but one of the learnings has been that young people, more used to typing than talking, are also finding it tough to open up. It is vital for businesses to guard against the potential for a massive succession planning gap in 10 years when these young people have had enough and don’t have the ambition or aspiration to progress.

In order to achieve more resilience, there needs to be greater transparency and acceptance of mental health issues.

The second lock down from a UK perspective was easier operationally. However, it was a real ‘drudge moment’ psychologically especially as it came in winter. The message to all employees and especially leaders should be ‘look after yourselves or you will not be able to look after others’. Most organisations report that it has been a challenge to get people, not just leaders, to take breaks and use their holidays.

Employee surveys have revealed that the majority of employees report having too many priorities and working more hours than they would like to. Organisations are looking carefully at the whole working rhythm from many angles; cost, efficiency, well-being and of course, for the planet.

Increasing resilience is another important theme and encouraging/enabling people to take accountability for their own well-being. Organisations can and have done much to combat fatigue and increase well-being, but for real progress to be made, it is important that people realise the power is also with them.

Many organisations report that people are hitting a wall in terms of physical and mental wellbeing and performance is starting to decline. It was generally felt that people were holding out for Christmas and the break that comes with it.

One big unknown is whether the Christmas break will turn out to be the re-energiser everyone was hoping for. If not, then there is the potential for many people to move or seriously consider a move to other sectors or less demanding roles.


We will come out of this at some point in 2021 and even though it is very easy to focus on the challenges, we must nurture our learnings. The companies that will do well are those that have balanced their improved agility with the well- being of their people, focussing change and developing a clear vision for the future. A massive challenge for leaders who may still be exhausted by 2020, as well as significant opportunities for those who get it right.


Hoggett Bowers are very grateful to all our contributors and a special thank you to:

Cartrin Asbrey, Group HR Director, Keolis Group

Ben Bengougam, SVP HR EMEA, Hilton

Steven Berold, VP HR, EMEA & India, Herbalife

Oshin Cassidy, Group HR Director, Essentra plc

Liz Jewitt-Cross, Interim Group HR Director, formerly McArthurGlen & Jaeger

Carol Muldoon, VP Partner Resources, EMEA, Starbucks

Chris Norbury, Chief HR Director, E.on

Michelle Parczuk, VP People, Culture & Organisation, Avon

Matthew Posaner, Director of People, Citizen Housing

Deborah Preston, Global People Director, Nisbets

Matt Stripe, Chief HR Officer, PZ Cussons plc

Sue Whalley, Chief People and Performance Officer, Associated British Foods plc

Fabiola Williams, Chief People Officer, McArthurGlen Group