Running a Global business in a Global emergency

Bev White, CEO, Harvey Nash Group, reflects on her first six months

It’s been an extraordinary first six months in my role as CEO of Harvey Nash Group. Little did I know, as I happily stepped up at the London HQ in early February on day one, that in just a few weeks’ time the whole world was going to be turned upside down by Covid-19…

Thinking back to my first days at Harvey Nash Group – which seems like a long time ago for sure! – I was entirely focused on getting stuck into the fantastic opportunity in front of me. Harvey Nash Group is a strong business with a lot more diversification than many people might realise. As well as its market-leading position as a recruitment consultancy specialising in tech, and its Alumni business offering executive search, Board practice, assessment and coaching, the Group has several IT solutions businesses such as Crimson (that delivers solutions exclusively from the Microsoft world) and NashTech (which offers solutions across tech houses), as well as Spinks which specialises in supporting start-ups and scale-ups.

So, as you can imagine, I was raring to go. I am very much a people person, so my priority in the early weeks was to meet as many people as possible, really understand the cultures in the businesses and get a feel for its underlying heartbeat. I tend to think in three year cycles, and I was keen to reflect, in my discussions and meetings, on which parts of each HNG business needed to accelerate and evolve over the coming three years as part of the organisation’s growth.

It was six weeks before the UK’s lockdown began, and in that time I met a large number of people and got to several HNG offices around the UK as well as to Ireland and Belgium. I was actually in Belgium when lockdown began and only just managed to travel home in time. Otherwise, perhaps I would still be there now!

In fact though, while the severity of the situation did come on with what seemed like surprising speed, at HNG we were perhaps thinking and planning around it earlier than most here in the UK. The Group’s international footprint proved its worth, as we have an extensive operation in Vietnam (employing around 2,000 people in IT solutions and servicing), so when the virus took hold in China we began to take measures to bolster the Vietnamese business. Teams began to alternate between working in the office and working from home, and we addressed network and hardware issues given that many of our staff there work on desktops rather than laptops.

The experience in Vietnam meant that we were soon live planning for the rest of the business too. Our IT team went into overdrive and performed some amazing work, upgrading our network capacity where needed and migrating systems to the cloud that weren’t already hosted there, in case of difficulties further down the line accessing on-premise data rooms.

When lockdown began, we were ready in terms of systems and connectivity. Everyone began to work from home. I immediately set up daily (nightly) Teams calls with my leadership team. The first question was always, “Is everyone in the business healthy and safe?” followed by “Are we still functioning effectively and supporting our clients?” We produced weekly updated forecasts for the next three months and the rest of the year. We held these calls every night for five weeks, before eventually reaching a point where we could loosen the frequency.

I made it a priority that as a business we should be there for our people, clients and candidates, communicating, updating, supporting and being visible. People really kept in touch with their clients and candidates, and it wasn’t long before there were some brilliant social activities going on over Teams or Zoom as well – quizzes, exercise sessions, cookery classes and more. More formally, we entered into a partnership with Uhubs, providing content for our people, clients, contractors and staff, and running sessions on multiple different topics from mental wellbeing to self-management. We also set up a website which showcases some of the incredible and inspiring stories out there of people in the tech business who lost their position or contract due to the virus but then moved on and found a new role.

Internally, we were equally active. It was clear that everyone would need some support, especially those who led a team, and so I reached out to my network and was delighted that three senior contacts agreed to run virtual workshops (as well as ‘drop-in sessions’ for in the moment coaching) on areas such as managing and leading in a remote environment, effective communication, spotting who in your team may be starting to struggle, etcetera. We also took the decision to furlough a small number of staff, but set up a special programme of content and learning & development materials via Microsoft Teams that they could access if they wanted to keep their skills developing during that time. We also enabled furloughed staff to draw down their wages at any time during the month should they need to from a specialist platform. It’s a system that could have multiple ongoing uses In the future, such as helping people on maternity, paternity, adoption and long-term sick leave to transition back to work more easily.

Now of course we are beginning to come properly out of lockdown, and I am very actively thinking about the model for the future in front of us. It certainly won’t be just a return to the past. We will enter a new kind of normal that will feature much more remote working than before. Remote working has really proven itself and it’s been amazing to see how much can be achieved. We will be super-flexible in terms of any ‘return to the office’. It will absolutely be a choice for every person, certainly until a vaccine is found. Some people are keen to come back to the office; others are more reticent. That is fine. We will work hard to introduce social distancing and enhanced hygiene in all our offices and then people will be able to take it at their own pace.

It has certainly been a busy six months. I am conscious that everyone across the businesses have been working incredibly hard. The recruitment market has slowed down of course, but there has still been activity. In the contractor market, tech demand has held up better than most so we’ve been a little bit insulated there. Permanent positions have slowed down somewhat harder, but there are some signs of a pick-up again. Meanwhile on the solutions side, demand for outsourced services and support with automation, digitisation and cloud is only set to grow.

In short, there is a busy future ahead of us despite the uncertainties. We are starting work on a three year strategic plan – it’s great to be lifting our heads up a little and looking ahead. We have recently become a sponsor of the Fourth Industrial Revolution workstream of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) which is an exciting prospect.

If there’s one thing my first months have shown me, it’s just how well-placed we are as a business for what is to come. I have been constantly surprised and delighted at the skills and abilities of people within the Group and their commitment to what they do.

Across businesses and communities, the pandemic has shown that we’re all more resilient than we think we are. It’s shown the importance of people and networks – caring for each other, supporting each other, communicating with each other (from kitchen tables and dining rooms that have given such a refreshing personal slant to meetings and conversations!). There have been good days and bad days for everyone – but what I have seen has, in so many ways, given me more confidence than ever in humanity.

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