Leadership and culture: what we’re learning from COVID-19
Estimated reading time: 6-8 minutes
What have you learnt from your experiences during the pandemic? Just a few months into my new role as Chief HR Officer at Philips, it’s great to see how the company’s purpose has shone through in an unprecedented time of challenge.
If there’s a single red thread connecting my career choices over the last 20 years, it’s the pursuit of purpose. Working for a business that offers more than just great products and solutions has always been important to me. It’s why I fell in love with Philips and joined last November: for its absolute commitment to improving lives and a unique culture that has evolved over 129 years.
This pandemic is rewriting how we live and work, creating new challenges for everyone, and our priority has been taking the best care of our people, our customers and our business. It’s what we call our triple duty of care.
Two learnings stand out for me from this experience – the power of purpose to unite us, and the importance of the employee voice during a crisis.
The relevance of our mission has been accentuated in recent months as we’ve stepped up to support healthcare providers and patients in the fight against COVID-19. At the same time, we’ve been making sure that we’re living up to our purpose internally. It’s been no small challenge to connect with and engage over 80,000 employees who were suddenly thrust into new working conditions, under different national guidelines across the world. But being highly visible as an employer and as leaders was vital to guide, reassure and clearly communicate at a time of great uncertainty. We also wanted to acknowledge the commitment shown by our employees, from those who were suddenly remote-working, to the front-line workers supporting healthcare providers and at our manufacturing facilities, wearing appropriate PPE.
In spite of such adversity, however, I’ve seen the finest aspects of our culture come to life and make a difference, over the past few months. Our colleagues are passionate about innovation and problem solving to meet consumer, customer and patient needs. They have found new ways to apply this to meet the challenges at hand, with more agility and speed. From ramping up to quadruple production of ventilators and other essential equipment to help treat COVID-19 patients, to our colleagues installing 10,000 pieces of medical equipment in China despite the pandemic - there are countless examples!
As well as a potent reminder of the importance of strong leadership and culture, the crisis has also accelerated positive trends in those areas. This progress was reflected with a clear increase in our employee engagement survey results from the first three months of this year. Now, as we stand on the cusp of a new, longer-lasting phase, it’s timely to reflect on how these trends have improved team engagement, enhanced empowerment and therefore faster decision making. More importantly, how can we sustain them?
Active listening will be vital to answering this question. Keeping closely aligned with our employees’ needs and sentiments has proven more critical than ever and will continue to be so. As the crisis has developed, we have increased listening across Philips through a short ‘Pulse Check-In’. We’ve also encouraged our people to share their stories on our internal social media platform of how they’re taking care of themselves, each other and our customers during these challenging times. We were pleased to see that home working at scale worked very well, while noting that this also can put strain on people with long “screen hours” and combining work and home commitments.
We will soon kick off an organization-wide approach to continuous feedback, which builds on this momentum of deeper engagement we are experiencing. It also helps us embrace a learning mindset where we continuously reflect on how we can improve and grow as we strive towards our goals. In the short-term we’re seeking to understand what our people appreciate but also expect from our leaders and our culture in the times ahead – such as increased flexibility in where and when we work. We won’t be able to fulfil every wish, of course, but elevating the employee voice in a meaningful way is vital. Without it, we will not be able to take a holistic approach to shaping our future.
One thing we’re already hearing clearly from our people is how much they value the more human side to leadership that they’re seeing.
There’s an openness, candour and empathy that’s more apparent than before. After all, we’re navigating this challenge together and many of us are juggling family or caring responsibilities as we do so. Interestingly, we’re also learning that, with work travel currently reduced, people are connecting and communicating more regularly and spontaneously, leading to an enhanced sense of community and togetherness. At our next virtual leadership session, we’ll consider how we can preserve the key elements of this in the months ahead, and beyond the crisis.
Ultimately, the next phase will impact how we work and live much more significantly than the first. My aim is to ensure that the true legacy of the crisis from a culture and leadership perspective is a positive one. We’re already considering how we can embed the learnings, for example by looking at which types of roles lend themselves well to more frequent remote working, and how we can leverage technology further to build engagement. As leaders, we have been pressed into letting go of an organizational reality that we were comfortable with and have evolved at a much faster pace.
Reflecting on this first phase, I can confidently say that it’s been one of the biggest challenges of my career. Not just professionally but also personally. Having recently moved to the Netherlands from Switzerland with my husband and 11-year-old son, building a new network and creating a community around us has been challenging during the pandemic, but there are many positives that I’ll take forward. It’s the same for the leadership approach we’ve taken at Philips. By learning from this unprecedented experience, I’m confident that, as we establish our ‘new normal,’ Philips’ culture and people leadership will be stronger than ever before.