Naomi Connell is Chief Finance Officer of VolkerWessels UK, a £1bn UK subsidiary of the privately-owned Dutch group VolkerWessels. VolkerWessels UK is a leading multidisciplinary contractor that delivers innovative engineering solutions across the civil engineering and construction sectors, including rail, highways, airport, marine, defence, energy, water, and environmental infrastructure.
What challenge did you tackle and overcome in your business this week?
We’re currently working on a huge systems implementation, which is taking up masses of time and my main challenge is making sure we are all focused on the right aspects and adequately resourced. I’m finding we can cover off an awful lot with different people using MS Teams, so it’s the best allocation of time at the moment. When the crisis first kicked off it was more about crisis management and now we’re on an even keel, most sites are open all the time. Of our 300 sites we only had about 20 closed for a short while and most of those were quite small, with just a couple of big London ones which are all re-opened now. As our work involves maintaining or building critical infrastructure, we had to keep going, for instance, servicing the rail network.
Which ongoing business challenge is occupying your thoughts this week/month?
Topically, the biggest focus at the moment is how we bring people back into the workplace, and one of the things we’re doing is asking employees ‘what would they want to do?’, as we can’t fit everyone into our offices with the social distancing measures. Some want to come back in and others don’t. Some are really worried about the whole thing and others can’t wait to get the kids from under their feet!
Also on my mind is understanding the longer term implications on the business due to delays for new projects coming to market and around market dynamics about when things will pick up. We’ve had no significant impact in certain areas so far and in other areas the client base has just completely changed its requirements. The longer term evolution; costs going up, having to work in a less efficient way and what’s going to happen around the order book, is not straightforward to assess. A lot is linked to government infrastructure plans but there are other parts which are about working out what private customers are going to do, so the challenge is a longer term one.
It ends up with three phases; disaster recovery, then, how do I step back to see the new normal and then, what does the business look like in the future and does it need to be changed?
Best thing about working from home/remotely?
To be honest it’s the travel, as I used to commute three to four hours each day. I live in Kent and the offices are in Hertfordshire and central London.
Worst thing about working from home/remotely?
I’m sure everyone has said the same thing, I’m missing the corridor chats, the bumping into people, ad hoc chats that were so useful, that we don’t have any more. Although people buzz/ping you on Teams, it’s just not the same.
What is the most significant change to the way you work as a consequence of the lockdown?
For our teams it was a huge shift to suddenly be able to run a work site under new Health and Safety restrictions and for the support teams that I have direct responsibility for, to operate transactions from home, for example, the payroll team and the accounts payable teams had only three days to organise how they would be able to work remotely. We got them portable computers, set up means of having home internet in some cases, sorted out for our suppliers to provide invoices and documentation electronically, and so on. The ITC support team had to suddenly be able to divert their calls to keep the service going remotely as well – lots of challenges you might not think about. I am amazed and impressed at how quickly they were all able to respond and adapt.
What changes are you most likely to keep and what will you definitely not continue, post lockdown?
Like many others, the key for me is to maintain the significantly reduced travel time – it is enormously draining, and I think we have demonstrated that there is benefit to using Teams and working from home for a reasonable amount of time. What I won’t continue is being chained to the computer on Teams calls without a break for 12 hours which can happen some days – we are trying to get people to be a bit more disciplined and to build in breaks a bit better.
Who or what has inspired you this week? (They don’t need to be famous)
I was really inspired to receive an email from a friend of mine who has joined forces with another friend to crowdsource investment to provide free masks to charities. They are also now offering washable masks to companies for offices and for every 100 masks a company buys they will provide a further 20 to charities, who are really struggling through this time. I think it is a fabulous idea and we are looking at how we incorporate something like this into our return to work programme. They’ll make the masks in the corporate style / colour / branding which could do a lot for your CSR/ESG agenda and could give a way for your staff to feel comfortable about wearing a mask in the office. They’re called the ‘Free Masketeers’.
Best programme/film you watched on TV/streaming this week?
I tend to record things and then watch a whole series when I can – I am just catching up on Killing Eve which I find quite quirky (don’t tell me how it ends!).
Are you doing more or less exercise than a typical week when you commute and if more, what?
In the time I’ve got back from not commuting, we’ve put in a mini gym and set up a cross trainer in the old woodshed. I am doing about 8km before work every day, in my old commuting time, so masses more.
What are you consuming more of (that you should not be) now you are not in an office environment?
Not necessarily more of but we’ve opened the virtual ‘Cherry Tree Pub’ with two sets of retired neighbours, who back on to our garden. We all bring a chair and a small table, bring our own drink and sit more than 2m apart! It only opens once a week but it’s very jovial. It also leads to more wine consumption but means they get some social interaction each week.
Any words of wisdom?
I’m really hopeful that our ability to create a more flexible approach to working in the future will have catapulted us to a different place to attract a more diverse workforce and have a more diverse outlook. So, letting go of some of the more traditional approaches. I think that this whole period has proved, to those who started with much more traditional views, that they now see there are real benefits in adapting how we work for the long term.