As pandemic restrictions begin to ease, business leaders gathered at an online Investec roundtable to discuss lessons learned about working culture and inclusion during challenging times.

Ruth Leas, CEO of Investec Bank plc. was joined by Tangwena Nelson of Investec private companies coverage, to explore the experiences of Fiona McKay, managing director at Lightbulb Leadership Solutions, Kerstin Robinson, co-founder of award-winning drinks manufacturer Nix & Kix and Jonathan Digges, CIO of Octopus Investments. 

1. Working remotely is a challenge

Over the past year, businesses have endured many Covid-induced challenges. But the panel was keen to look to the future rather than dwell on the past. Jonathan Digges identified that working remotely was a good transition filled with energy and innovation, but sustaining it was a challenge:

“What you start to see is fatigue. We’ve all done Zoom quizzes and re-enacting game shows, people have lost energy for that type of thing and the challenge was keeping the grind out of work… that lack of human to human connection gets harder over time. It’s hard to gauge really how people are, we can all put a brave face on over zoom call, but they may struggling once you turn it off. And you see that in the office, but you don’t when you’re doing it remotely.”

Indeed, the panel discussed the future of remote working and whether a hybrid approach could work instead. There was universal agreement that working from home had been successful, but certain elements continue to present challenges. Ruth Leas, CEO of Investec Bank plc, commented:

“The cultural thing is a challenge for the future. How do you preserve that culture going forward? It can make us operationally more efficient if we can employ people in different areas, but what do we give up culturally doing that? We’ve now spent a year apart and some things are working very well and some are worse. It’s time to decide and it is hard to know until you try!”

"Lack of human to human connection gets harder over time. It’s hard to gauge really how people are, we can all put a brave face on over zoom call, but they may struggling once you turn it off. " - Jonathan Digges, Octopus Investments CIO

Mental health and wellbeing were other topics discussed by the panel. Fiona McKay mentioned that it is a subject that should be addressed immediately:

“For me, it is not a post-pandemic thing, it has to be a fundamental part of how we do business. How we work that out will become more valuable the more transparent we are, the more questions we ask and having the kind of people in our organisations who care about people. We’ll look back in years and say ‘do you remember when we were incorporating wellbeing into our business models, can you believe we actually had that conversation?’”

2. The gender pay gap has grown

The gender pay gap was already being discussed at the start of the pandemic, however, it has again widened. Kerstin Robinson expressed her frank view on the strains for women in the workplace:

“It has become even more unfortunate because, according to a recent IFS report, mothers spend four more hours a day on average caring and doing the workload at home than fathers, and that’s huge… this makes it difficult for a woman to put the hours in and compete in the workforce."

Ruth Leas, Investec Bank plc's CEO
Ruth Leas, CEO Investec Bank plc

We are all learning together, the way out has no playbook. In some ways, it is liberating that we can make mistakes and we should not be fearful of trying new things.

Robinson continued to describe the further challenges in the business community: “A couple of years ago I wrote an article on how little investment goes into female-founded businesses and back then that number was tiny. Venture capital funding for female-founded business just under 3%. And actually, during Covid, that number has decreased again. As a female founder, it’s very sad to be talking about that.”

Robinson said more investment in female-founded businesses would have a long-term impact because it would continue the cycle of female investors investing in other female-led businesses. The panel was in universal agreement that the pandemic has added significant additional strain for women in particular. 

3. We must rebuild even better businesses

The pandemic has offered an opportunity for businesses to take stock. Sentiment has shifted and many industry leaders are contemplating what the future looks like. The panel in particular concentrated on ESG as a core focus for the next 10 years. McKay highlighted the societal aspect:

“It’s not just nice to have an ESG agenda, it’s what you do. Businesses are actively seeking investments that have a really interesting aspect of ESG. And while the environmental one is easy to pick out, the societal bit is so important as well and how you can demonstrate that. In any sector, you need three main dependencies and it’s how we position our future around our colleagues, our consumers and how we impact our communities is vital for everybody.”

“It’s not just nice to have an ESG agenda, it’s what you do." - Fiona McKay, Lightbulb Leadership Solutions, managing director

British businesses have certainly emphasised the importance of ESG in the way they have conducted themselves throughout the tough pandemic-induced conditions. McKay praised the work being done by retail and hospitality companies in particular:

“They’ve spent good time doing amazing things through lockdown in how they can produce less waste, have a much more integrated ESG profile and proposition that really benefits those three main dependencies I mentioned before.”

Ruth Leas concluded the conversation with the panel by touching upon the comradery shown within the business community: “We are all learning together, this is a new experience for everyone, something unprecedented and the way out has no playbook. In some ways, it’s liberating that we can make mistakes and we should not be fearful of trying new things.”

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