HR Viewpoint: Nebel Crowhurst on leading in a remote working world

In the fourth in our series of interviews with future of work and HR experts, Nebel Crowhurst, people and culture director at pharmaceutical giant Roche, discusses the new remote work normal; collaboration, agility and innovation in a pandemic world; and why leading during disruptive times is all about having the right mindset

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Edited transcript

Nebel Crowhurst:Within Roche we're a global healthcare company so during the pandemic it's been, like every business, quite a challenge to adapt to the unknown and working in ways we've never experienced before. The services we're providing are obviously very closely linked to our healthcare professionals in the NHS. So we've had to do everything we can to keep the business moving forward, despite the fact we've had to like most organisations transfer all of our people to working from home. And also, we’ve had to keep those people that are front line-supporting as safe as possible.

Some of the biggest learnings that we have had over the last few months are about the shift from being office centric and feeling like good work really only gets done when we're together in the same room within an office environment. What COVID's done for us is really challenge that thinking at an individual level, at a team level and at an organisational level to help us to see that actually we can really still achieve a lot while working remotely and working in different locations. And of course, technology is a great enabler of that.

Thankfully we're not back in the days of traditional conference call phones. I think that would have been slightly more challenging for us to have been able to manage but the beauty of video and being able to connect with people in multiple ways has shown us that we can work differently. And actually we're going to be taking a lot of these learnings into the future, enabling people to work much more flexibly, enabling people to be remote in the way in which they establish where they work from and putting in place an infrastructure to truly support that for all of our people both in the UK and globally across the businesses. That’s an ambition we've got in all areas.

COVID has been a catalyst for us to be able to shift into this new way of working. For any culture change within any size of business, small or large, it takes time and that's something that you can't rush through. But what COVID has done is pushed it a little bit faster than you would probably expect it to. In fact, probably not a little bit but quite a lot faster than you would expect. And that has made people really have to evaluate the way in which they work and the way in which they lead and manage their people. So certainly it's shifted the dial far quicker.

One of the things that's really stood out for me in the last few months is that when you think about wanting to work together collaboratively, the first thought is you would normally think is we need to get together. We need to fly to whichever country is the most convenient and have groups of people coming together in a room. We've spent a lot of money and time on travel and getting people to where they need to get to in order to run some kind of collaborative meeting or workshop or session. And yes, there's still a place for that, of course there is, we are humans and we need to interact with each other. But what we've proven in this time is that you don't lose the ability to innovate and collaborate because you're working remotely. In fact, you can do it sometimes far quicker.

Some of the challenges we've faced along the way are connected to our own mindset. When you work in an environment that traditionally swarms to one space or the office space, there’s a mindset, especially from a manager perspective and we need to adjust this view that if I can see my people, they're obviously doing their work. Instead realising that we don't need to have to see our people all the time to trust that they are doing the work and they're being productive.

That’s one of the early challenges that we faced – working through that with managers and working through that with teams, so that they realise that we should foster a culture within the business of trust and adult-to-adult relationships that allow people to manage their time through their working day. Because it has been really difficult, especially for those people that have children at home with them to keep on going with their work while homeschooling and all the other things that have come with this COVID period of time.

What's been astonishing is how committed people have been to continue with their work, to be productive, to go above and beyond and still manage everything else that they've got in their home lives. That's not to say that should be a long=term thing in respect to people trying to homeschool and do a job at the same time. But I think it's really shifted the mindset of people to realise that, actually, I don't have to be seen in the same room as someone to demonstrate that I am delivering what's needed in my role and still doing a great job and still really committed to the work that I'm doing. So I think one of our biggest challenges, aside from logistics, has been mindset and the shift in that approach.

Trust for me personally is the basis for being able to build good relationships in businesses, with our teams, with our people. Trust in itself should enable people to operate in a way that's much more autonomous and empowering people to make the decisions that they need to make in the role that they're in without having to be in an environment where you're constantly asking for permission.

Within Roche we have a real ambition to work in a more agile way. So again, both globally and locally, we've been bringing into the business agile principles and an agile mindset around leadership, really focusing on how we provide a culture of self-organised teams and people being empowered to make the decisions that they need to make. I think that's quite a shift for us as a business. We've been established for many years and gone through lots of different transitions and changes in that time, but right now it’s really fundamental because we need to move away from top down, directive type management towards innovative, curious, self-organisation and utilising the principles of agile to help iterative deliverables rather than traditional large scale end-to-end projects. So all of those things combined have meant that we've really needed to focus on what are our leadership frameworks? What does that look like for the future?

We're actually using a McKinsey model, which is VACC, around leadership capability. And that focuses on leaders being visionary, being architects, being catalysts and being coaches. I certainly think the real focus for us in the short term is how do we truly understand what it means to be a coaching leader rather than a directive leader. And that in itself enable us to be much more agile in the way in which we work. So where we might have had a focused workshop specifically on coaching skills, for example, we've still done that, we've just had to do it in a virtual forum. We haven't stopped those things.

In fact, it's more important now than ever that, because of the way in which you're working, we continue to develop skills and we continue to work in a way that enables managers and leaders to see that they need to learn, grow and evolve the way in which they work. And we've got multiple avenues to do that. We've continued with loads of really quite innovative virtual workshops. We're quite fortunate at Roche because we're on a Google platform so we've got an internal social media channel type forum. And that in itself enables people across the business to share ideas and thoughts and experiences to learn from one another and enables us to put in place practical ways in which people can access information quickly for them to self-develop and grow and learn in this quite challenging period of time.

The biggest thing for me in large, well established organisations going forward is the shift in mindset between the difference of hierarchy and leadership. I think if you genuinely work in an agile way within a business and you bring that into the culture of the business, you move away from traditional hierarchy – and it's hierarchy that breeds top down command and control directive leadership. And that's exactly what we don't want.

So as we evolve further with the way in which we work in an agile way, we will remove a lot of that hierarchy. That said, you still need good leadership, but I genuinely believe anybody at any time level can demonstrate strength and leadership – individual contributors, managers and leaders. We can all be great advocates of leadership behaviours. So for me, I think that's going to be our longer-term shift – how do you move away from traditional hierarchy into leadership strength across the organisation?

Published 1 October 2020
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