The new normal - with Ceinwen McNeil

CEO of BVT Engineering, Ceinwen McNeil, looks at how the business is changing post COVID-19. 

How prepared was BVT when the COVID-19 lockdown required staff to work away from the office? 

The business was established about 11 years ago by Matt Bishop just before the Christchurch earthquakes struck. The quakes required BVT to adjust to working under unusual conditions quickly. Systems and processes were set up, which allowed the company to work anywhere, anyhow, anytime particularly when staff were unable to access buildings, or servers and other assets. The foundation work that was done over a decade ago allowed the company to more than meet the demands of the COVID-19 lockdown. 

BVT is a very technology-enabled organisation with almost all of our work done on G Suite. We initiated a trial to test our procedures and equipment as soon as it became apparent that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would require a different way of working. We conducted the trial on the Tuesday before lockdown and staff had made a seamless transition to working away from the office by the Thursday when the level four lockdown began. 

What steps did BVT take that allowed staff to work away from the office? 

The key issue we had to take into account was the health and wellbeing of our team. We needed to identify what our staff required practically, particularly in the way of equipment that would enable them to be as productive as they are in the office. The majority of our team are aged in their twenties, and many of them share houses and flats with others. This required us to be mindful that some people would be setting up an office in their bedroom or maybe even their garage. We made it clear to our teams that the company would help if they needed to purchase a desk or chair to ensure they could work comfortably from a new location. This process may have been a little different from other companies as our staff are quite young, and we didn’t want to add to their anxieties during a period of high stress and uncertainty. 

From a wellbeing perspective, we increased our communication and ensured all staff knew we have an independent Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place. We also put in place buddy check-ins, to enable our team members to support each other.   

How did your teams adapt to the virtual world?  

They took to the online work environment like ducks to water. Our team members are very digitally engaged, so there were no significant issues to sort out. The critical difference to their work-life was that our daily stand-ups, which generally occur in the office, changed to an online platform. 

Our normal work processes include chatrooms and digital communications but, as leaders, we had to ensure that we not only focussed on work engagement during the lockdown period. We moved our thinking to focus on the social and cultural elements that were required to connect people within our business community. A Facebook messenger group was established, which included a mix of organisational information and personal interaction between staff. Our teams could use this platform to provide a little insight into their world by posting videos of their workspace or perhaps a cute photo of their pets. We also had staff taking part in bakeoffs, some mixology and posting videos of their daily lives. 

Your annual awards night was scheduled for the beginning of April. How did you handle those events? 

Our whole team was due to fly to Auckland for the event, but of course, that couldn’t happen. We elected to make the awards night an online event and encouraged staff to dress up and create cocktails or mocktails at home. The event became a real highlight for our teams during a particularly difficult time. 

How did you connect with staff while they were working away from the office? 

There was very little change to our usual contract delivery, but Matt Bishop and I amplified our social engagement and communication with staff to ensure they remained actively connected with the business.  

During a typical working day, there are times when we are not accessible to staff due to time and work constraints. We both felt that it was imperative to create more time for our teams to hear from us during the lockdown period, both at a professional and personal level – the team certainly saw lots of my daughters and dog on daily Zoom calls! I think the level of connectedness that we achieved right across the organisation was enhanced over this period. 

What has BVT done post-COVID-19 as far as work arrangements are concerned?  

Some of my colleagues in similar management positions appear to be struggling with what approach to take to their working arrangements. I think several options can be considered, including having all staff return to the office, have all staff work away from the office or create a hybrid of those arrangements. 

We have taken a slightly different approach than some other businesses and have been very explicit with what we expect from our staff as far as working flexibly is concerned. We have had a flexible working policy since I was appointed CEO in January 2018. This policy has resulted in a small number of people with commitments (including a semi-professional race car driver!) during the working day or with young families to work flexibly. 

Post lockdown, we requested that everyone stops, pauses and reflects on what they have learnt from being forced to work away from the office.  

Many people have asked that they continue to work flexibly and that will become the default position for BVT’s working arrangements. We have a substantial amount of trust that our staff will do the right thing by the company, and our productivity levels during this period have remained high. 

What does working flexibly mean for your teams? 

Staff will be allowed to work anywhere, anyhow and at any time. During a given week, there is a certain amount of work that needs to be completed, but that doesn’t always require staff to be in the office to deliver the desired outcomes. Some of our people have chosen to return to the office as they don’t have a suitable space to work from at home. However, the majority of our office space is now designated as a collaboration zone. Staff now use this area to meet clients, hold workshops or collaborate with other members of their team. We simply ask our staff to work in the best interest of BVT and its clients.  

How do you cater to social activities with more staff working away from the office? 

We recognise that our business isn’t just about work but includes connecting with people. Every second Thursday we have a company-provided lunch where all staff are invited into the office for 90 mins. Here we can celebrate birthdays and have a general catch up with all our people. Our team has come to value this initiative, and it has allowed us to determine just how valuable this social activity is in creating a vibrant workplace. Staff are now excited to go into the office rather than seeing it as just another day at work.   

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