The lessons I've learned from COVID-19

Clare Woodman, CEO of Morgan Stanley EMEA, discusses the three main business challenges she has faced during the coronavirus outbreak, and how’s she’s learned to manage them.

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Going into 2020, most employers already offered flexible working arrangements. But the past few weeks have tested those capabilities to the extreme. The workplace has been forced to change dramatically, with over 300 million office workers now estimated to be operating remotely across the world (US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Boston Consulting Group).

The pace of change has been challenging in many ways and has necessitated snap solutions, with the result feeling like a parallel universe for many. To add to this, not only are people suffering from workplace challenges, but they also may be having to deal with personal and family trauma and loss.

In this article, I wanted to share the three main business challenges I have faced in this environment and some of the ways I have found to mitigate them.


One of the biggest challenges I have faced is to lead a geographically dispersed team that is so used to working in close proximity. While technology companies have been managing teams “virtually” for many years and can therefore provide useful insights, in many service-based industries we have found that effective teams are built on strong ties and clear communications, and so we are used to building and maintaining relationships in person and face to face.

Clear and consistent communication is more important than ever, while at the same time avoiding micromanaging and accepting that colleagues need to have autonomy to get the job done in a way that works for them and the rest of the team. In a highly regulated industry such as banking, this is further magnified by supervisory and control guidelines. Communication, connectivity and remaining constant with well-understood values and principles is key.

We are also conscious that we will reach people in their homes, and one positive change I hope will continue is the heightened respect for our colleagues’ personal circumstances. Careful consideration must be given to how we can work best as a team while ensuring people’s individual needs are met, recognising that childcare and support networks that enable people to perform their roles may have changed or disappeared.

As leaders, it is therefore particularly important to encourage flexible working so staff can balance family, household, caring and community commitments.

Belonging, morale and culture

My second challenge is to ensure a strong culture is maintained while the firm is so geographically dispersed. How do we ensure all employees continue to feel a sense of purpose and belonging and are comfortable speaking up when we are physically separate?

While staying connected is important, adapting routines to suit changing circumstances has been vital to doing this effectively. For example, long meetings with a large group seem less effective, so we increased the frequency and reduced the duration of our Operating Committee meeting, which we have found to be more successful and efficient.

Circumstances have pushed mental health to the forefront of many managers’ minds, with most CEOs reporting employee wellbeing is the number one concern.

While many of us may be fortunate not to have been physiologically affected by COVID-19 so far, we are all impacted by it psychologically. The mental impact of self-isolating, in addition to increased anxiety about elderly relatives, illness and loss, has heightened focus on how the external environment can impact outlook and productivity. A supportive, mental health-aware work environment is more important than ever. To help employees, we have run events with Mindapples, Headspace, Place2be and a sleep specialist. I hope regular mental health check-ins will become the norm going forward.

A key way to protect mental health is to have a work-life balance and with this in mind, many of our teams and employee networks have regular bonding activities such as informal telephone roundtables to connect with other colleagues who are also working remotely with kids, work drinks, cook-alongs, pub quizzes, virtual yoga and a multi-faith blog.

Development and growth

The third challenge relates to how we ensure our employees continue to grow and develop during this time. A period of change can be a good time to learn and cultivate new skills, and this should be encouraged. This is particularly important in industries such as banking and law, where a significant amount of knowledge is gained by observing colleagues, which is now much harder given remote working. In order to help employees continue to invest in their career and grow their potential, we have rolled-out virtual workshops, webinars and training courses across a range of skills and mentoring.

What will we take forward?

The pandemic has resulted in rapid innovation, which would have taken years to implement in normal circumstances. Processes are being automated faster; digital solutions have been embraced; and less travel is freeing up time in calendars. Our employee medical health services in the UK are now available virtually, enabling greater flexibility as employees continue to access care.

However, whilst a lot of the stigma and bias around working remotely has certainly been eroded, we need to remain vigilant. Working from home brings its own challenges in terms of switching off and disconnecting from work, and it will take time and caution from managers to ensure their teams are not suffering from presenteeism and long hours. I hope we can take some of the positive changes forward as we map out what the future of the workplace will look like and design a strategy that provides the best of both worlds.

While it is difficult to know what the future of work will look like, we can be pretty sure it will be different. This crisis has resulted in one of the largest and fastest strategic overhauls most businesses have ever faced. We should use this opportunity to look carefully at the lessons learned, look for the silver linings, and most importantly, identify how we continue to incorporate them going forward.

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