Two key components for a new way of doing business - people and work, with Andrew Read

Many businesses are currently defining what "business as usual" means as New Zealand battles with COVID-19. Christchurch-based electrical engineering firm Pedersen Read director Andrew Read shares the lessons he learned from the Christchurch earthquakes and how he focused on his businesses priorities. 

''At the time of the quake, our company dealt with a large number of clients that had significant projects underway. Suddenly we were out of our office with some staff living in quake-damaged homes. One staff member had evacuated to their garage; some staff were isolated in Sumner, and I was unable to contact others for a time.

The priority was to care for the welfare of our people and then contact our clients to check on their safety and figure out the way forward with their projects.''

What were your business continuity options?

The company was fortunate as I had been involved in assessing safety and analysing risk for many years. The lessons I had learnt from these projects resulted in all the company's electronic information being stored on a hard drive. Following the quake, we evacuated the office and took the small portable disk with us, which allowed our business to be up and running again relatively quickly. Within a few days, most of the staff were working from my house, and I had purchased new computers which made the transition to remote working more comfortable.

How did the staff react to a new way of doing business? 

There were two key components – one is the people, and the other is work. We tried to create some office normality in our home for the staff by sending our children to stay with their grandparents in Wellington. It allowed our house to have more of an office vibe with people setting up computers and contacting clients. So we did have an office; it was just entirely different from the one that staff had become accustomed to.

Some enjoyed the experience of working in our home as the lady next door would bring muffins for morning tea. Yes, there was a different dynamic, but staff were engaged in a new way of working, which was extremely important at a time of great hardship for many people. Later staff commented that maintaining engagement with fellow workers and removing them from the devastation of their homes made a big difference.

What steps had you taken for business resilience prior to the COVID-19 lockdown? 

The critical difference between the 2011 earthquake and the COVID-19 lockdown, is following the quake, we all came together in an office in my house, while the pandemic is pushing us apart.

Post-2011 we had a good look at our systems and identified what had worked well and what hadn't. Fortunately, we undertook a massive upgrade of our operation in 2019, and this had allowed us to be more prepared when we moved into the lockdown scenario. We had worked on gaining an understanding of the Microsoft Teams app over the past month or so. This ensured that all staff were competent in accessing the functions of Teams which is now a vital component in working remotely and keeping in touch with each other. We also initiated a trial on how staff would communicate via Teams and how the interaction between staff members would be carried out.

We are now working to ensure that all staff have interaction with their workmates and don't feel alone. We are trying to ensure that staff members can have morning tea together, albeit in separate homes and in some cases, different parts of the country.

Gazing into a crystal ball, how do you see your business operating post lockdown?

Post-earthquake, I was involved in an assessment for the Institute of Professional Engineers (now Engineering New Zealand) where we looked forward 40 years and imagined what the work environment might look like. The project looked at people with individual areas of expertise working remote from each other. They would come together for a project then go away again. It appears that this scenario has come to pass as we fight COVID-19. We are working separately; we may come together for a project which during the lockdown will be by virtual link and then we go back to our cells again.

I think some people are going to struggle with working from home. Many people like the regimentation of getting up in the morning, going through a set ritual, then heading off to work. That allows them to separate their home environment from work altogether. On the other hand, there will be people who absolutely relish working from their home.

You spoke earlier about the isolation aspect of the lockdown. Will you encourage your staff to have some video interaction that doesn't directly involve work?

Absolutely, I want to encourage that sort of interaction to ensure all staff feel that they are still an integral part of the team as they were before the lockdown. Some of our staff are living on their own, which could make them feel a little isolated while one of our staff members has given refuge to a tourist who has been caught here in New Zealand. I believe the lack of social communication will be the most challenging part of the lockdown for many people.

Next steps

Read our tips for Caring for your staff in times of stress