Through an exchange of letters, Marjon Kaper (CEO ANWB Reizen) and Erik-Jan Mares (CEO Zeeman) provide answers to four questions posed by Bram Gilliam and Jasper van Rijn (IG&H Retail), focusing on how they address and institutionalize the challenges and changes they are facing as a result of the corona crisis.
During one of his first press conferences on the corona crisis, Mark Rutte emphasized the measures introduced in our country were of unprecedent scale. All of a sudden, our main concern was focused on feeling safe, whether at work, in shopping streets or on holiday, something we never experienced before. Safety currently comes in the form of a 1.5-meter society. A society in which we always keep our distance and a travel ban applies to many countries. At the same time, the need for personal contact and interaction is bigger than ever, in order to motivate employees and retain customers. It feels like a contradiction and creates a challenge for organizations to add social value to their offerings. It does not only require adjustments in communication towards customers, on the shop floor and within the supply chain, but it also requires adjustments in the organization itself.
Today, we are aware that the measures stabilizing the spread of the coronavirus will have a structural impact on our society. The Dutch government asked all branches to provide action plans on how to rebound business, while guaranteeing safety of customers and employees. A strict entry policy, clear store routing and high tolerance in rebooking of travel plans are examples of the rebound plans in your branches. Personally, it makes me wonder what the 1.5-meter economy does with the people behind these plans. I can imagine it takes various approaches and requires scaling up at different paces for every single business unit, from head office employees to front line staff and travel guides. This brings a high level of complexity.
What actions did you take to make your employees feel safe and secure?
This question takes me back to March 13th, the day that the coronavirus reached our country and things changed. Up to then, Zeeman only experienced some delayed inbound shipments from China, but from that point onward it became clear the virus was going to have a much bigger impact. To make things more complex, Zeeman is operating in seven different countries, all reacting differently.
The most important thing we did was communicate frequently to keep our teams informed and simply to show that we care. ‘We can imagine how you feel, that you are scared or uncertain and that you wonder why your store is open or not‘ – these are all examples of topics we wanted to talk about. We mostly worked with videos to get across a more personal message. Next to that, I personally visited 19 stores (1 in each of our Dutch regions) in the first three days of the lockdown to show our support and to really understand what was going on. An intensive, but very rewarding thing to do.
Afterwards, people felt a little more confident and at ease. In this crisis, safety and business continuity seem to be on opposing sides. This brings up a discussion which you can move away from or directly address and we tried to do the latter one.
What a strange situation we are in, right? Who could have imagined that the entire organization (in our case over 300 colleagues) would work from home for more than two months? After Mark Rutte announced that we “should stay at home as much as possible”, we quickly arranged that all our colleagues, including the ANWB Reizen customer contact center, could work from home. In the first weeks, there was a lot of work to be done. As ANWB Reizen, we are active in tour operating, camping and leisure activities (a day out, walking and cycling in the Netherlands) and we run ANWB Golf. In a short time, we had to cancel all organized trips and activities, inform our customers and repatriate 2000 travelers from all over the world. All this was achieved from the attics, kitchen tables, or living rooms of our colleagues.
This experience made me realize that you do not have to be physically together to get things done, and that there are endless possibilities to work remote. I believe that leadership and creating trust are always important, but the physical distance created by this crisis poses the real challenge. In times like these it is more important than ever to be transparent and approachable. We try to create continuous insights into how we are doing as a company and emphasize that we are part of the larger ANWB, which is a healthy organization with healthy financial buffers. Also, we have continuous and open contact with the works council, having constructive discussions on a weekly basis. We regularly communicate to our people through vlogs and blogs and next week we will be meeting with senior management to catch up on the latest details. We have a great way to enable all levels of the organization to speak up on what is on their mind, through our internal social platform “ANWB talks”. The platform offers the opportunity to discuss and share all kinds of topics. This can be a specific group, in terms of interest, but also top down. We encourage colleagues to respond and interact here.
Now, it seems that we can meet each other again soon, in person. We prepared a plan in which approximately half of the employees can come to the office, considering the 1.5-meter distance. We aim to maintain the efficiency that working from home has brought us, reducing travel time and traffic jams as much as possible. The office is increasingly becoming a place where you want to be, every now and then, especially to meet your colleagues, but not a place where you must be present every day to sit behind your desk at 8.30.
Managing and supporting employees has become top priority in organizations due to the corona crisis. Organization leaders are called upon to lead organizations through the crisis. This requires a delicate balance between masculine (a directive and decisive approach) and feminine (focusing on connection and intuition) leadership styles. On the one hand, leaders must project calmness and control to remove uncertainty of employees. On the other hand, inspiration and trust must be projected to keep employees motivated and confident. We see examples of organizations doing their utmost best to inform and involve employees. For example, CEOs who take the time to share thoughts and developments with their organization through weekly of even daily video messages. Moreover, we see decisions being made fast and decisively, for example in expanding e-commerce capacity.
In your opinion, what are the key leadership traits you rely on in times of crisis?
My preferred leadership style is to give trust and responsibility to the team. However, in times of crisis, I temporarily switch to a more directive and decisive style. The management team participated in a training last year, making the team well-prepared for this switch in style when the crisis hit our country. Still, we discussed as a team how to allow for fast decision-making and consciously decided that this would centre around very few persons only. I think the whole team appreciated this discussion, including myself.
One example is on the communication we discussed earlier. I had a clear view of how I wanted to bring that forward, in what tone of voice and with clear focus on empathy, which I guaranteed by personally staying on top this. Currently, the responsibility is fully back with the team. So, if you ask me, the most important leadership quality required during a crisis is decisiveness, hand in hand with keeping the human dimension (‘menselijke maat’)
Next to that, leading by example is a practice I strongly believe in. You do not know what goes on in the minds of others, if you have not experienced it yourself. Creating visibility, showing that you care and starting a conversation. In this way the store visits I talked about earlier are very important for me as they provided a real opportunity to be in touch with so many people.
In general, I do not think there is a big difference between leadership during a crisis or leadership during “ordinary” times. As a leader, I believe it is always important to indicate the direction in which the organization is going, that you make quick decisions and communicate them, as well as being approachable and accessible to your colleagues. The current situation does present additional challenges to the leaders of the organization. For example, communicating with the right tone or remaining visible and approachable, as mentioned above, are more challenging from a (physical) distance, when everyone is working remotely. As management, we write blogs and record weekly video messages for our colleagues. We also try to pay special attention to the social aspects of working, for example by organizing digital drinks. Fortunately, we are not unique in this and we see many organizations around us who do this.
“Only a crisis produces real change”, economist Milton Friedman once said. Changes, which typically take years, are now gaining momentum. These changes become visible in many areas. There is an increasing demand in home delivery, children are following online classes and elderly know how to use digital channels. A similar movement is shaking up organizations. A digital working environment is slowly becoming the new normal, possibly bringing structural benefits. New partnerships arise, deeper as well as wider into the supply chain. These changes seem to be accelerated by employees showing a greater amount of decisiveness and focus. In my opinion, the challenge is to institutionalize the positive side of these changes to unlock a structural, more efficient way of working.
Could you describe how the Corona crisis changed the culture within your organization and how you attempt to institutionalize the positive aspects?
The culture of Zeeman focuses on frugality (‘zuinig’), on genuine care of people, resources and society. We are a family business with a high level of involvement, acting differently and being a little bit headstrong (‘eigenzinnig’).
At the start of the crisis, the way of working at Zeeman changed drastically. It used to be slightly old-fashioned: for instance working from home was not done commonly. Currently – and I believe that this will continue after the crisis – attending a meeting at Zeeman is possible regardless of your workplace.
Next to a new way of working, the ability to focus on a few things only enormously increased. We have always been a very lean organisation with the ability to act quickly. However – now more than ever – our focus is on ‘getting things done’. We switched from thorough and deliberate decision making, to fast, less comprehensive, but still thoughtful decision making. Herein, the key is to focus. Prioritize and focus on the three things that matter most. An example is the application we use to share the videos I referred to earlier. Within a week, we launched this application, an introduction which usually takes much more time. How to preserve these changes in the future is ‘the million-dollar question’, since the list of possible projects is already growing. Leadership can help in prioritizing and serving as an example. However, the main question is whether the organisation is ready and whether people are capable and willing to internalize this way of working.
We definitely see acceleration in digitization. Some processes digitized at an accelerated pace during the past weeks and it is fantastic to see how skillful we have become with organizing digital meetings. A cultural change I observed, is that remote working has increased the need for trust that you must have in your people. I sincerely hope that the amount of traffic jams in the Netherlands will reduce, as a result of increased amount of trust and responsibility we give to our employees in deciding how, when and where to work. Now, the corona crisis reinforces that trust, even among managers who might have found this difficult in the past. I hope we can continue to assume that people are motivated to work to the best of their abilities. Ideally, we would only come to the office because we think it is valuable for certain activities or meetings, and not as a habit.
I also see positive changes in our way of working. We are in the middle of a transition of our internal organization and are merging a number of business components. Since January 1st, colleagues have taken up their new positions and we see that people are getting to know each other quicker and seek cooperation more easily since the crisis requires us to do so, for example in repatriating customers. The crisis is disastrous for our business, but it is an accelerator for our transition.
The big question remains, how do we hold on to these positive effects? Personally, I intend to never schedule a meeting again for which people require to be stuck in traffic; from now on I will always take that into account. I understand that this will be challenging, but in my opinion, this requires leading by example and persevere.
While physical distance between people is greater than ever, social connection is intensifying. People look out after each other more. Spontaneous support initiatives for neighbors or local entrepreneurs arise and additional gratitude to healthcare staff is shown. Moreover, grocery shopping is no longer a daily activity, but a fulfillment of primary needs. The corona crisis puts society under a microscope, resulting in enlarged focus on the societal role of organizations. A study done by Nielsen, tracking changes in consumer behavior caused by corona, also indicates this. It shows consumers have an increased interest in the supply chain, demand increased transparency and prefer buying more local. Changes like this evoke reflection and ask organizations to think about what they truly want to represent. I am curious to what extent you reconsider your positioning in order to (re)connect to the changing world.
Does this crisis affect the role you want to fulfill in society and your company’s purpose?
Prior to the Corona crisis, Zeeman already had a clear vision of its purpose and role in society. Our way of working, with its human dimension, is who we are and what is being reinforced by the crisis. The paradox of balancing between people’s health/safety and business continuity is a topic we already discussed at Zeeman. When the government decided to keep the Dutch stores open, we felt the obligation to continue offering our products, while guaranteeing safety for employees and customers.
Another example is our CSR policy. We were already investigating how to reuse materials and increase local sourcing. From a CSR perspective, it makes no sense to circulate goods by sending them back to China to recycle. As a result, we need local facilities that can do this close by. The crisis confirms that the things we started are more valid than ever.
To be honest, the crisis is an opportunity for Zeeman to strengthen its position. We mainly focus on slow fashion, basic products that have a permanent rather than a seasonal profile and are offered at discount rates. The amount of people interested in slow fashion with great value for money might only rise as a result of the crisis.
All in all, I believe that our companies purpose together with the mentality of our people is going to make us emerge even stronger out of this crisis.
The purpose and mission of ANWB is to let its members go out or get on the road, carefree and with great pleasure. By carefree, we mean for travelers, as well as with the least possible impact on the environment. For this reason, we compensate for CO2 emissions of all trips that members and customers make with us through ANWB Reizen. Obviously, this is not enough yet. We strive for further sustainability of the tourism sector. This was already our vision and it is strengthened by the current crisis. We do expect consumers to be more critical of travel organizations, airlines and hotel chains after the crisis, but we do not consider adjustments to our purpose necessary.
With special thanks to Marjon Kaper and Erik-Jan Mares,
Director at IG&H
E: firstname.lastname@example.org T: 0622564054
Jasper van Rijn
Partner at IG&H
E: email@example.com T: 0653376760