It’s probably fair to say the last 18 months have changed us all, and that the COVID pandemic will have a long-lasting impact – both on our personal and professional lives. As we begin what we hope is the transition out of the pandemic, what will we return to?
It’s a true mark of the human condition that while grappling with devastating life changes, the likes of which most of us have never experienced, the world has tried its best to roll with the punches, quickly adapting to new ways of living, working, and surviving.
We only have to look to our children for examples of this – adapting to home schooling and Zoom lessons; many probably don’t remember the time before wearing masks was ‘normal’. They are dealing with it and adapting, and so are we.
In no way do I mean to diminish the devastating personal impact COVID has had on countless lives across the world, but as we start to emerge and consider the ‘new normal’, I have been reflecting on the business opportunity to accept, adapt, and avoid.
This period has been pivotal for business leaders. It has presented a challenge and opportunity to fundamentally change the way we operate our organizations – for the better. We have the chance to consciously decide HOW we run our businesses; what needs to change, what needs to remain, what is vitally important now that may not have been 18 months ago – with the aim of creating more sustainable, efficient, effective, profitable, and happier workplaces.
Regardless of industry, sector or global region, business leaders have had to think outside the box with work arrangements, and we’ve taken great leaps of faith that our employees can keep the show running from their individual homes, rather than working together in an office environment. Uppermost in our minds at all times being the safety of our team, their families, and broader stakeholders.
If we can do this, we can do more.
Leveraging employee hubs
Flexible and remote work is undoubtedly here to stay – for several good reasons, from environmental to family and mental health benefits. Our collective workforces across the world have proven that productivity and commitment have continued unabated, regardless of where the work itself is being conducted.
But what about our connections? The power of in-person networking? Our social selves? Our conversations with the many varied people we encounter each day in and around the office, whom we have no need to talk to remotely over Zoom?
And, while virtual meetings have been a technological blessing over the past 18 months, they can also reach a point of attrition, where employees become worn down by back-to-back video calls, and seek variation and fresh interaction. How do we keep meetings and interactions interesting, energizing, meaningful, and results-oriented?
For these reasons, I believe employee hubs in key markets will remain very important for culture, efficiency, and impact. The optimum model may well be a blend – a balance of time in “the hub”, on the road and at home … a blend that optimizes our performance, environment, enjoyment, satisfaction, and work-life balance. Giving employees the freedom to determine their balance (assuming good performance) means mental health and personal needs now become an acceptable and necessary part of the equation.
For Smart Wires, I envisage a new, open, and collaborative environment that better facilitates great work and personal growth; where employees feel efficient, effective, happy, and healthy. Employees will be encouraged to blend an optimal mix of work from home, collaboration in a hub, and being on the road … focusing on achieving greater personal and professional impact, outcomes, and balance.
Our hubs need not be the size and shape of traditional offices, as realistically we are probably only catering to reduced percentage of employees at any one time for a given location, and in more collaborative, open working environments.
Building culture in ‘the new normal’
Where an employee is based, from individual contributor to executive, has become more open. We’re thinking about it differently, often pushing location to a secondary factor, or not even a factor at all – creating dispersed workforces, on a global scale. This is enabling fantastic opportunities in how we build teams: opening our minds and facilitating authentically well-balanced, diverse, and highly effective employee bases.
This is not without challenges though, and remote working is not for everyone. There is also a critical question of building and creating the right culture in a business. This is where the blend and balance of hub + remote + travel could come into its own: combining the opportunity to get the best talent from anywhere, with the opportunity to work in a business hub that fosters the right culture, and the opportunity to blend location choice that best matches business and employee need.
Ultimately, I believe there is a critical need for both choice that enables a healthy balance for the employee, and a critical mass in hubs that enables the right business culture to flourish. Being too focused on each end of the scale (all employees dispersed or all employees in an office) will – I believe – greatly limit the environment, job satisfaction of employees, and business results.
Taking climate action
Like many, I have enjoyed more time at home, and hope for a future with less travel, certainly for work, and a deeper focus on the value of and need for travel. The potential for meaningful climate action and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions due to less air travel, is phenomenal. As the CEO of a clean energy company I may be expected to say that, but I truly believe COVID has sharpened our view on the significant impact the slowdown of human activity can have.
Jonathan Watts writing for The Guardian, sums it up well:
“During the northern hemisphere spring, when restrictions were at their strictest, the human footprint softened to a level not seen in decades. Flights halved, road traffic in the UK fell by more than 70%. Industrial emissions in China, the world’s biggest source of carbon, were down about 18% between early February and mid-March – a cut of 250m tonnes. Car use in the United States declined by 40%. So light was humankind’s touch on the Earth that seismologists were able to detect lower vibrations from “cultural noise” than before the pandemic.”
The respite was too short to reverse decades of destruction, but it did provide a glimpse of what the world might feel like without fossil fuels and with more space for nature.”
It is incumbent on us to not lose sight of our power to affect this impact. Face-to-face meetings and site visits will always be necessary for good, long-term business relationships, but I suspect when business travel kicks back into full gear again it will be considered more thoughtfully, and undertaken with more purpose, focus and intensity. We are now far more cognizant of our impact, and the impact of others, each time we leave the front door.
As we continue to assess how sustainable we are, it’s not just about what our business delivers (at Smart Wires we enable the Energy Transition) but also how we deliver it. This means fully understanding our footprint and ensuring we work towards being net zero quickly, and then moving beyond this to carbon negative.
Smart Wires recently announced a new location for our global headquarters – moving from California to the next-generation tech hub of RTP in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Our criteria were many, but key among them was easy access to our growing global markets, costs, and access to talent (we intend to add a further 250 employees over the next five years in the US alone). As we build out our new HQ, we are focusing on building a space that is flexible and adaptable – keeping employee wellbeing top of mind in all decisions from aesthetics to ergonomics and ensuring there are spaces to recharge without having to leave the building.
I am incredibly proud of how the Smart Wires workforce around the world has adapted to and thrived in this new world. Yes, there have of course been negative business impacts due to COVID, and far worse, there have been personal impacts. Despite this, our company, and society, has opened itself up to new approaches and horizons we may not have previously considered.
This is an opportunity for all of us to overhaul the way we work – our processes, tools, logistics, and most importantly, our mindset. This is a multi-faceted opportunity we must grab with both hands so that we may work towards a more efficient and effective working environment that our employees love.
Peter Wells is the Chief Executive Officer of Smart Wires, a global power technology company advancing the delivery of affordable, clean electricity worldwide. Peter joined Smart Wires from GE Renewable Energy, where he served as CEO of Onshore Wind for the Europe and Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) Region for two years. Peter had previously held the role of Senior Vice President and COO for Services and Projects with Vestas Americas.
Prior to Vestas, Peter had spent five years with UpWind, where he was CEO, growing the business 10X to create the leading Independent Service Provider in the US, before successfully selling the business to Vestas in 2015. Before joining UpWind, Peter spent ten years with GE in various roles, including Six Sigma, Marketing, Parts GM, and VP New Plant Project Operations in different GE Energy business units. Peter, who is originally from the UK, previously spent time at a variety of European companies, mostly in the EPC (Engineering, Procurement & Construction) space as a Chartered Surveyor, dealing with the commercial management of large and complex infrastructure projects.