Lockdown leadership - The highs and lows of a difficult year

Reflections on forming a new business during covid-19

We're a year on from the first coronavirus lockdown. For me, that's meant two lockdown birthdays, and the whirlwind experience of bringing together a number of the companies in our wider Group and creating a new business - almost entirely remotely.

Taking a bit of time to reflect, I can see both sides of the coin. I'm hugely proud of our achievements in creating a new company during a global pandemic. But along with the positives that have come out of a year of unexpected events, there are also those more challenging aspects of leading a remote team through a merger – and more - in a time of huge uncertainty.

A year in covid

Foundry4's year in covid has been busy, to say the least. Our coronavirus journey began in January 2020, when Neal Gandhi - the head of our parent group, The Panoply - saw the impact of the pandemic very early on. We began to plan for what could happen, placing our primary focus on supporting our people. February continued pretty much normally, but – as with the rest of the country – we became fully remote in March, closed our office, and stopped attending client sites.

At a practical level, we always knew that the transition to working from home would be very easy for us. We're cloud native, used to running high intensity, distributed teams; we have high levels of trust and autonomy in our people, and strong, open communication practices.

This enabled us to hit the ground running, throughout what was an extremely demanding time, particularly for many of our clients who were at the heart of the UK response to the pandemic.

In the early days, lots of our government clients turned to us for their emergency covid work. From mid-March to the end of the summer we built a variety of covid related products and services: a platform for the manufacture of ventilators; products that matched need with supply at local councils; PPE portals for some London NHS Trusts; an application to match clinical skills with need for a Nightingale Hospital and a national volunteering platform for the British Red Cross - with many clients launching in a matter of weeks what would normally take several months to create.

In a way this extreme period played to our strengths; we were busy forming, storming, norming, and performing and - because of the kind of people we are - we enjoyed the pace, finding motivation in the real difference we were making in the pandemic response.

It's worth noting though that we were still four separate companies at this point. For us, the real change was yet to come...

The foundry point

As the virus began to claw its way through the summer months we – as The Panoply Group – started to appreciate the size of the challenge we were facing. It became clear that covid-19 would be with us for some time, impacting our country and our economy on a scale measured in years, not weeks or months.

Even early on in the pandemic it was obvious that the organisations that were coping best were those that are already modern in their approach to design, data and technology, that are already agile and able to pivot quickly according to need.

What the pandemic was exposing in many of our more important institutions wasn't that they hadn't done enough with AI, or looked into the use of blockchain (as conversations around technology are so often framed) but that the basics of the way they worked around tech and data were not fit for purpose.

As a group of companies, we realised that we were ideally placed to help organisations with their challenges. However, we knew that if we wanted to apply ourselves to the biggest problems, we ourselves needed to think bigger. We had to come together.

This was the initial driver for doing something very different during a difficult time. As business leaders, we were excited about what we could achieve. But the hard work lay ahead.

The nature of remote change

The events of the rest of the year taught me a lot about the opportunities and limitations of remote communication.

The work that we do, and the way we partner with our clients, has transitioned really well to a remote setting. But when you undertake complex change to yourselves understanding your context is vital. When it comes to the really difficult, sensitive topics, something gets lost in the ether if you can literally never meet up in person.

Once we made the decision in June 2020 to form a new company, I tried to make it all happen remotely. Some things worked, but I eventually got stuck in exhausting cycles of organisational charts, job descriptions, roadmaps – I simply couldn't break through. In normal times, I'd have jumped on a train, bought myself a cup of tea and a Twix, and relished the opportunity to come together with people to create something new.

It became increasingly clear that's what was needed this time. We had to all be in a room together, to coalesce around our new proposition, to get fired up and focus on what we needed to do to drive this forward. In one day in a covid-secure setting in August we made more progress than we had in the previous four weeks, and we were then on track for the official launch of Foundry4 in October.

The business has been running really well since then. As a wider Group we are always looking at opportunities to consolidate further, but we are also very conscious of the trickiness of change in a lockdown setting.

Change is exciting but also challenging. It's tiring, both mentally and emotionally.

We have become increasingly aware of what we might be asking of our team, to go through further periods of intensive change when – as individuals and as an entire country – we are all dealing with huge amounts of uncertainty in our lives.

My take away from all of this was about the difference between being able to get together occasionally when going through change, versus never being able to get together at all.

The former works really well. There is a certain efficiency to the planning and design aspect of change in working remotely but then you can be conscious about the times when you do need to come together in person - either as a group or in a one-to-one setting.

But when you can never meet in any circumstances I think your change programme has to take that into account and cut its cloth.

The good, the bad, and the future

Looking at the bigger picture, the past year has been transformative not just for Foundry4 but for the way the wider world thinks about work. A huge positive is an opening up of the talent pool: now that clients aren't insisting we are on site full time we have the opportunity to build a more diverse workforce, as people with wider personal responsibilities (the majority of which are women) benefit from more flexible attitudes around work.

Digital communication is in many ways easier. You might need to give it a bit more structure, but there's a much higher chance of getting everyone together on a video call when you need to tell them something important. People can also ask questions in a few different ways, giving those who are more introverted alternative ways of voicing their thoughts or raising concerns.

As a leader who has been known to talk too much sometimes it becomes very obvious that you can't talk to a large group of people on a video call for more than five minutes... So there's a greater need to call on others, giving more people the chance to own their work and making your organisation more democratic in nature.

In a year where our staff has grown by 150 per cent, our Group share price has risen from 44p to £2.60 (at the time of publishing), and we are now branching out with a new Managed Services division offering even greater capability to our clients, it is clear that we have achieved a lot.

Has it been fun? Not in the traditional sense of the word... But it's been fascinating and stretching. And comfort is overrated.

We're still waiting to come together as a team, to meet each other in person, and put some of the fun back into work. When that day comes, I'll be ready with my train ticket, my tea and my chocolate bar of choice (for the record, that's either a Twix or a KitKat), to meet everyone in person and celebrate how far we have come together.

So here's to the future. To coming out of lockdown, and having the chance to dust ourselves off and find some kind of release. If this past year has shown us anything, it's that the real work still lies ahead.


James Herbert
James Herbert
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