For all sorts of reasons, Covid hasn’t necessarily been the great equaliser some people - including Madonna, naked and philosophical in a bath of rose petals - initially predicted.
But while some have suffered horribly in 2020 and others have been (relatively) lucky enough to wait it out and watch the grim spectacle unfold, we’ve all learned some things that we’ll be carrying with us from now on.
I certainly have, as the founder and chief executive of an ad-tech startup and it seems like the right time to attempt to identify the five human qualities that this year has tested the most. We won’t miss you, 2020, but we certainly won’t forget you.
When it’s illegal to go to the office and the team is scattered across the map, you can cope badly or you can cope well, and the willingness to be flexible has appeared to be the key to doing the latter.
We resigned ourselves early on to the fact that five-day-a-week office-working wasn’t going to come back for a long time, if ever. So our task wasn’t just to survive this temporary hiatus, but to reinvent our professional environment to hit the necessary notes under very different conditions.
In the first lockdown, we did our best to recreate all the subtly important aspects of office life - the encounters by the coffee machine, the reassurance of a friendly team around you – in a virtual context. Part of our solution was regular check-ins and heavy-duty team socialising. We had baking competitions, distributed make-at-home pizza kits, sent out oddboxes to our homebound team members .
When rules lifted a bit, we implemented a work-from-Rome policy - egotistically inspired by three weeks I spent in the Italian capital myself. Since we’re already scattered, why not go and work from somewhere new for a while, as long as it’s in a compatible time zone with decent broadband?
Our lease had helpfully expired shortly after lockdown hit, so for a new office, when we needed one, we eventually got a WeWork with space for six people and access for all ten of us, and people just use it whenever they want. Why not turn this period of enforced flexibility into something that works for us?
It has never been so important to have structured, motivating goals as in the last eight months. We implement OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to set everyone measurable, meaningful targets, especially when they are doing more qualitative, non-revenue-focused work.
It’s about providing a framework to make sure everyone is in a position to be self-motivating. Even the most entry-level person knows what they need to achieve over the next three weeks, and when they wake up every day, they don’t have to ask anyone what they can do - they already know.
Motivation and fulfilment go hand in hand, and fulfilment is one of the big things we focus on - making sure people feel like the work they do is meaningful and fairly rewarded.
At Picnic, we are very aware of mental health and the potential to burn out. I entirely burned out myself at one point, and I am happy to be open about it. In September and October, work was hard and I was really, really stressed, with a pit-of-stomach feeling the whole time. With that comes complete apathy and a lack of focus
At Picnic, we’ve subscribed to a service called Spill, which gives you access to a video session with a therapist, via Slack, within three clicks. Discussions about mental health shouldn’t just be something that is kicked over to the HR department. We see this as being like mental health insurance for the company.
Without this one, none of the others will do you much good. From a business perspective, I don’t think anyone has survived this year simply because they really deserved it, since so many others who worked just as hard have found themselves in severe difficulties. Everywhere you look, dumb luck has been such a huge component of how people have fared. It’s a good lesson, in a way: that ultimately, you are not really in control. And even when you think you have been brilliant, quite a lot of the time it is all down to pure chance.
That said, there’s a small proportion of your luck that you can make yourself, and that’s where preparation comes in. You need good principles in place that allow you to be flexible, to successfully motivate your staff, to have the right team and well-thought-through business plans and models so you can react when things hit you. I always talk about fixing the roof when the sun shines. You still have to be lucky, but if you don’t think ahead, you will be exposed.