Towards a new normal – how COVID-19 is making us think differently

I’ve spoken to several of my fellow CEOs in the last few weeks and it’s safe to say that none of us were prepared for the challenges of grappling with a global pandemic. Sure, we have business continuity plans and experts who carry out regular risk assessments but dealing with an overnight economic lockdown is not something they teach you at business school. So by the end of this crisis, the new normal will probably look very different to what went before.

How the Coronavirus pandemic is impacting different industries

The impact in different sectors is stark, with clear winners and losers. Divorce lawyers have apparently been inundated with new enquiries, whereas the long-term prospects for karaoke bars look somewhat less promising. Here at DPD our B2B volumes have halved – virtually from one week to the next. Simultaneously B2C has doubled overnight – and because we lead the UK market in home deliveries, this has produced the kind of volumes that we normally only see in the six-week pre-Christmas peak.

Customers shopping online rather than on the high street means we’re now delivering more food, flowers, nail varnish, eyelashes and loungewear than ever before! In fact, our Easter volumes were double what we carried last year. And incidentally, Coronavirus has done nothing to put the brakes on our mission to become the UK’s most sustainable carrier. This year we’ve already delivered 2.2 million parcels on all-electric vehicles and our target for Cyber Tuesday (1 December) is to deliver an incredible 70,000 parcels on EVs.

The new normal and attracting the best talent

The parcels sector is known for attracting resourceful people who can think on their feet, but in the last two months we’ve had to become more agile, flexible and innovative than ever before.

For example, it’s taken some pretty nimble footwork for us to recruit 500 new drivers in the last month, with another 500 in the pipeline by the end of June, ensuring that they’re trained to deliver the top-quality doorstep experience that our customers pay for. And given that we now expect our 2020 peak to be 40% bigger than last year, I’m suddenly asking my Property team to find ten additional sites by the start of November, making a total of 15 new depots by the end of the year. Oh, and we’ll also need a further 3,000 new drivers by then as well.

It’s in this kind of crisis that you find out what your people are really made of. Resilience – how well you adapt in the face of adversity – is what will separate the winners from the losers as we navigate these uncharted waters and adapt to the new normal. So, our approach here at DPD has been to focus on what’s most important and on what we can change, while accepting what’s outside our control.

The upside of government restrictions is that, while remaining physically remote from each other we’ve had to find new ways of working together. And guess what, some of them are probably here to stay.

Necessity is the mother of invention

This old saying has never felt truer than it does today. And there’s something really exciting about questioning the status quo and finding new ways of doing things. For example, I now have daily one to two-hour conference calls with my whole Senior Management Team, so that we can discuss the nitty-gritty of running the business. This extra communication has brought us closer together and we are more productive and focused than ever.

But the biggest benefit is that each director has invited several of their people to these virtual meetings. That has meant much faster cascading of decisions to our people at the coalface and much quicker execution of the operational changes we’ve needed to make. And of course it’s also giving some of our up and coming senior managers direct exposure to the C-suite.

The plan for our new normal is to extend this format to our annual Strategic Board meeting, which normally sees 17 of us gathering in a hotel to discuss crucial business decisions for three days. That’s the way our previous two CEOs have done it and when I took over in 2008, I carried on doing it the same way, thinking ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’

But the truth is that three such intense eight-hour days in a row has become an endurance test and it’s fair to say that if you’re the last presenter on Day 3, you probably don’t get everyone’s full and undivided attention!

With the physical boardroom off-limits, the Coronavirus pandemic has given us the opportunity to look at this meeting with fresh eyes. This year we will still do three days in a row, but in highly focused and disciplined two-hour chunks, for a total of just four hours a day. Each of my directors will have their say, but they’ll only present for 20 minutes at a time and we will draw names out of a hat to decide who goes next, keeping everyone on their toes and fully focused.

Time to think

In some ways the parcels sector can be quite traditional. But another myth we’ve exploded is the one that said people are less productive working from home. It’s simply not true, though I have to admit that I was one of the sceptics when my People and Talent Director said: “1,700 of our 13,000 people won’t be coming to the office tomorrow.”

But what we’ve discovered is that the quality and quantity of work is just as high and, in some cases, higher than before. It’s an outdated attitude to think that everyone must be at their desk all day every day – and be seen to be there.

It’s fully ingrained in DPD’s DNA to be a fast-paced culture, often moving at lightning speed to make things happen for our customers. But loads of our people are enjoying the fact that they’re running around a bit less now. Less time stuck in rush hour traffic jams, less pollution, less time away from the family on business…, in short we’re discovering that less is more and that some of our old habits are past their sell-by-date.

For example, I suddenly have much more thinking time than before the pandemic – and I’ve realised that my diary doesn’t have to be crammed with appointments from 08:30 to 18:30 every day. That was just another outdated habit, from old-world conditioning that tells you that this is the way to behave.

In short, there’s a lot of talk about ‘returning to normal’ and at the start of this crisis, I must admit that the question of how to do that at DPD was top of my mind. But what I’m learning is that this pandemic gives business leaders the opportunity to take a step back, take a much-needed breath and then consciously decide which bits of the ‘old normal’ are, at the end of the day, really worth keeping.