John Harper - Part-Owner at Complesso
What is your role in the company and how has that changed over the last few months?
I am the part-owner of two companies, Complesso and an agency called 247 Professional Health, which provides care and nursing staff to care homes predominantly. Complesso provides care packages for complex needs for NHS and local borough councils.
Working within health amid Covid means that everything in a business context happened very quickly and required an immediate response. While other companies were furloughing staff and trying to find a way to survive through this, for us it went crazy overnight.
One of the hardest things to begin with was playing catch up. I’d just come back from holiday to everything that was going on and there was so much government information coming out daily from PHE, from Directgov and the NHS, as well as constant messages across the media and press speculating about what might be happening because lockdown wasn’t in place at this point.
The first thing that we did was put communication strategies together because within our companies the majority of our people work remotely and in 247 Professional Health, they all work in care homes. In Complesso, 80% of our workforce work independently on their own either in someone’s home or in the community, so the number one thing was to communicate with everybody.
We looked at what we knew was happening and had to think about how staff could protect themselves and protect the person they’re supporting. Then it was our job to start looking at the wider picture, reading through all the daily updates and breaking it down into what we needed to communicate. It was a sheer volume of communication like I’ve never seen before.
What appealed to you about the case study project?
I think from the process point of view, this case study is important as there will be a lot of things lost during this time when we look back in five years. It’s great to be part of a project that is going to provide something at the end of this, almost like a blueprint that gives pointers, guidance and best practice that you can use - being part of that is positive, whether it’s by contributing to it or using the information later.
If we are doing something good, I’d like to share it and if someone else can use it and put it into practice then that’s great. Similarly, I can also take inspiration from other people.
I used to work at George at Asda with Karen where I worked for almost 11 years. Karen was in charge of HR at that time, while I was in operations. They’re also from Wolverhampton, the same as me so there’s that link. AMOC put something on Facebook about the project and I went back to them on there.
What does a new reality look like to you?
Short term, I think communication and speaking to staff will be key. The process of putting things in place that are different each week will continue for a while and as we reopen shops and as people venture out of their houses the chances of catching Covid becomes higher. We’ve been operating in the last three months in a lockdown situation. The people that we support have been isolating in their houses while our staff have also been isolating as much as they can so that they can remain protected. The initial thing for me still centres around communication; seeing what the government have been saying each day and putting that out there for our staff, but we need to make sure that people don’t get complacent as we start to ease out of this. We support a lot of people that are very vulnerable and that’s our biggest consideration.
How has this process helped you to see challenges in a different way or identify new opportunities?
The initial leadership approach is dealing with having your head in the trenches. Day to day its very tactical because the information we were being given and the way it needed to be communicated was moving so fast. But as a leader it’s about trying to diffuse that down in some respects. Lots of people are anxious, lots of people don’t understand, people read and digest things differently. So, it is about communicating in a way that people understand but also being able to react constantly and give leadership in an ever-changing world.
I think it’s changed the way that we operate. We’re better at remote working as are a lot of people up and down the country. Obviously since we closed the office, we’ve been in touch via Zoom and WhatsApp, relying on posting things online and having groups for communication. We’re listening to people and have done reviews of everyone during the last few months, so all staff have had one-to-ones over the phone, but we’ve also done surveys to check how we’re supporting people.
With that in mind, I think it’s changed for the better and we’re communicating more in a remote way whereas in the past we relied too much on that face-to-face aspect, so if we couldn’t see someone for four to six weeks then that simply limited the communication that we had with them. Now we can communicate weekly and, in some instances, daily. That’s a new reality that we’ll be working towards. The last three months has moved us closer to our staff and to the people that we support. Despite having meetings online, the agenda, outcomes and actions aren’t any different to what was being done before.
How have you found the process and has it helped inform your decision-making or changed your attitude in any way?
People are looking for someone to lead in these circumstances and I think certain leaders will, but others won’t be as successful.
Having spoken to leaders in other organisations that do a similar job to us and having spoken to their staff there’s a lot of organisations that haven’t taken a lead and staff feel very vulnerable, very isolated, and not connected to the main business - a lot of people have started looking for other jobs as a result.
That comes down to the fact that they’ve not been embraced by their company and have been sent home and told to work remotely but haven’t been given a PC or a phone or any guidelines. They’ve simply been told to get on with it. Those things that people are struggling with say a lot about an organisation and that’s where I want us to do things differently.
Lots of people have been given redundancy rather than furlough for example, and no communication, and it shows that there are a lot of companies out there that generally don’t treat their staff very well and usually get away with it. When it comes to something like this where people are anxious or upset, confused and isolated it actually brings to light their company’s values.
Leading from the front and distributing information down ensures that we can communicate, and we need to be there listening to the team. We’ve got people that are not upset whatsoever but others have been petrified that something will happen to them, so you’ve got to be there for different people. One approach doesn’t suit all.
Leadership is more around adapting and looking at the good things that have come out of Covid like comms strategies and different ways of communicating. I think that we all have these crisis management procedures that we have to have as insurances – those processes are typically written, stored in a cupboard and forgotten about but that needs building on.
That’s a priority for this year because something like this could well happen again and we need to get everything down in writing and make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes again. We can be quicker to react because we already know from being there before. We need a few more protocols in place and the time that we’re spending with people, more so than we did before, has got to continue.
What is it that appeals to you about Karen and Lesley’s approach throughout this project?
Talking to Karen and Lesley was good because they’re asking you questions and prompting a response. It also reaffirms that there are things that we’ve done well because a lot of it you take for granted. We just did what we felt we had to, to be told that no one else has done that. You don’t know if you’re doing a good job until someone dissects what you’ve done, especially as we have nothing to compare it to. It’s been good to get the feedback to suggest that what we’re doing is over and above a lot of other companies. For me it’s a good thing to know that we’re going the extra mile.
What reflections did you have as you went through the interview and how will you take those into the workplace?
I evaluated a few things and, while I was speaking to Karen and Lesley, I wrote down and discussed whether they needed changing and they gave me feedback from a couple of other companies that had done something different to us. There were a couple of good ideas that we ended up using as well. I am a great believer in that if someone has done something really good, you can adapt it and use it. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If something works then embrace it.
Will you continue to capture your learnings over the next few months and use them in your team?
We are capturing learnings over the next six months around what Covid has shown us. You have challenges in every business, whether that’s clients not being happy or even economic recessions. At the time they all seem really important but compared to what we’ve dealt with over the last three months they’re all quite insignificant. It’s important that as a senior team within the company we talk about our learnings more and share our experiences. Normally you just get on with things or you’re busy and every day becomes another day and you don’t really take the time out to look at what you’ve done well or what you could have done better.
I would like to think that over the next six to nine months we will continue to process decisions in this way because everybody can challenge within the leadership team - there’s nobody that can’t.
Would you recommend this process and why?
It’s given us the confidence that what we’re doing is the right thing based on Karen and Lesley’s feedback. They asked what we were doing, and I went through how we were operating and their feedback was positive, which gives us confidence that our approach is on the right lines based on the other conversations they’ve had. They’re in a good position where they’ve had lots of conversations. The biggest thing for me will be understanding all of that when it’s put together. It will be beneficial to get a good picture of what everybody else is doing especially as a lot of industries are all very insular and don’t share ideas or best practice. It will be great to get the opinions of people across different sectors and hopefully correlate that so we can all take something from it.
There’s lots of things that we can learn from cross sector collaboration, and some good ideas are emerging. It might be that you need to adapt something to suit your business but you wouldn’t be able to do that in the first place if you didn’t know about it – some things you can lift and other things will need to be adapted to your sector. It gives you the opportunity to take time out and learn because we’re all in the trenches every day.
What areas of the business will benefit from this programme?
I think the communication between people will benefit. One of the biggest things to come out of this has not only been the build on forms but quality and quantity of comms.
Mental wellbeing is something that you take for granted. I mentioned as part of our conversations that we had been taking the time to do one-to-ones with all of our staff over the phone, asking them how they’re feeling outside of work first of all. All of that is good stuff and a lot of what we have been doing has been around supporting the wellbeing of our staff although that wasn’t our primary focus with it. We’ve allowed staff to talk and talk openly and that’s been a big learning curb.