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The diary of a COVID-19 CEO

24 Mar 2020

Written by Simon Rogerson

Just over a week into an environment where all 1,300 of our people are working from home and I thought it would be helpful to share the impact of COVID-19 on how I’m going about my day job.

Stuff (I think) I’m getting right

Communication

I think it’s true in business generally but particularly so in a crisis – you simply can’t overcommunicate. This adage applies as much to your employees as it does to your customers. In the first week I sent four all company emails and on Friday last week I recorded my first video update (more on my technical incompetence below). The communication shouldn’t just be one way though. We use Slido to allow employees to ask questions anonymously, sharing our responses with everyone across the company.

Tell it how it is

In my experience, companies tend to think that drip feeding difficult news bit by bit will somehow make things less bad. That doesn’t work. If there are tough calls to make, make them and then explain why you’ve done what you have. On Thursday last week we made the decision to cease all the transactions on our peer-to-peer investment platform, Octopus Choice. Not because of any investment issue (it’s been a fantastic product since we launched it in 2016), but because lots of investors were looking to sell anything and everything they owned (and this created a liquidity problem). Getting onto the front foot and being open and honest with financial advisers and investors has, so far, been universally well received.

Move quickly

There’s a great expression in business that “perfect is the enemy of good”. So many people (particularly very smart people) struggle to make decisions because they always see so many choices, or they immediately start worrying about the consequences of any decision they might make. In times like this, your gut will be as good a measure as anything else. And if you need input from anyone else, ask the people on the front line. They are the people who are closest to your customers. 

Imagine your business is a person

Too often companies make their decision based around their short-term financials rather than their long-term brand. Remember that great businesses are simply about how they make their customers feel – something that’s particularly true when things go wrong. So, when you’re thinking about how to handle an issue, imagine your business is a person. What would you or your friends do in that situation? In our case, when we stopped transactions in Octopus Choice, we immediately stopped taking our platform fee and increased the target return for all our investors. There was a big financial cost to Octopus in doing so but, in the circumstances, it was the right thing to do and an easy call to make.

Don’t lose your sense of humour

While it will feel very intense for you, you need to keep it as much like business as usual for everyone else. Humour will go a long way and every organisation will be full of stories as you make the transition to remote working. Take Anna, who works in our HR function. She’s starting her days off by going for a 6am run every morning. Always one to plan ahead, she was thinking about what she was going to do later that evening and thought she’d pop into Tesco on the way back from her morning run to pick up a bottle of wine. Turns out Tesco doesn’t serve alcohol before 8am, even to people in lycra.  

The little things really matter

One of the first things we did was to give everyone a budget of £100 to help them create the right set-up for working from home. We didn’t require them to expense anything, we’ve simply added the money to their salary this month and trusted them to do the right thing. This was unanimously well received.

Stuff I’m getting wrong

Getting there (slowly)

Technology allows for a pretty seamless transition to working from home en masse. Zoom and Microsoft Teams are now a big part of everyone’s working day, although those of us above a certain age (in my case 45) adapt marginally less quickly than the younger generation. Take the video I sent round on Friday to the entire company. It required four takes. All different examples of my own incompetence. The first time I forgot to press record, the second time the file was too big and the third time I couldn’t get the file off my computer. I succeeded on my fourth time, but this involved cheating as I called our Head of IT.

Balance

I’m not a big fan of the work life balance so many people write about, largely because I believe that if you find something you love it won’t feel like work. I also recognise I might not be entirely representative. Regardless, this first week would have been about as imbalanced as you can get. Zoom meetings started around 6.30am and aside from emerging to get some food, I’d stay in my study until about 11pm. The normal routine of running to and from work disappeared and was replaced by more work.

This is the biggest thing I want to change. To that end, I have asked Uliana in our real estate business for some help. She will be using an app called Endomondo, which allows teams of people to compete against each other in terms of the physical exercise they do every week. Exco (the senior group of people across Octopus) will be challenging any other group of 12 people from across the organisation.

Things I’m worried about

News, news, news

I’ve always been quite good at blocking out noise. I’m on very little social media and I rarely spend time trawling through the news. But I think I’m increasingly in the minority. My eldest daughter tracks the number of global cases and deaths every day and her social media feeds are at least 50% corona related. This is, in my view, extremely bad for your mental health. We must try to turn off and focus our attention on other aspects of our lives. Thinking about it another way, there probably won’t be another occasion in our lives when we work and live like this. What have you always put off that you’d now like to get on with? 

Financial impact

We’re very fortunate that Octopus is quite profitable, has a strong balance sheet and has good recurring revenue. But, like any business, we will not be immune. The decisions we took in the first week were to stop all hiring and all discretionary spend. The decision about whether to go beyond this is not a decision we can make today. We simply don’t know. We need to wait a few more weeks to see how the world is reacting. The big test will be whether organisations can continue to sell when people are working remotely. For us, it’s about engaging with financial advisers and helping them, in turn, engage with their clients. If we can make this work, our business won’t be impacted too much.

Loneliness

Life as a CEO is lonely at the best of times but over the last 20 years, I’ve become pretty used to it and it no longer impacts me in the way it once did. But for many of our people, the next few months will be really tough. Working from home in a one bedroom flat (where you might be sat on your bed rather than at a desk) isn’t good for your mental health. Similarly, while I’m permanently busy, there will be whole swathes of the company who simply won’t have much to do. There are two things I’d suggest here. First, we use a company called Sanctus which provides mental health coaching to anyone in the organisation who feels they might need it (done remotely over Zoom). Secondly, call out the potential lack of work directly and encourage these people to be open with their managers. Then think hard about other areas of the business where you might be able to deploy them usefully.

Small businesses and charities

I feel most sorry for the self-employed or the small business owners who, in some cases, will see decades of work go up in smoke in the next few weeks. Larger businesses should do everything in their power to stop this from happening. Part of this is about financial help (we immediately brought forward and increased the frequency of our payments to the financial advisers who support us), but a bigger part is about practical help. Help them with the technology required to work effectively from home – run webinars for them, give them access to your own IT teams and go the extra mile without being asked.

Lastly, don’t forget the charities out there, who will be struggling more than anyone. We immediately increased our grants through our own foundation (Octopus Giving). If you also support a charity or run a foundation, please remove the constraints companies normally put on their grants. You should trust those running the charities to do the right thing. Now is not the time to require anyone to jump through hoops.  

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