By Grace Rothery, Head of UK Retail for Gazprom Energy
There is little doubt that 2020 has been one of the most challenging years to be leading a business. The energy industry, like many others, has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, and with continued uncertainty, it’s increasingly important for businesses to offer stability to both customers and staff. Stability is key for any business, particularly in such turbulent times, and must be driven by those in key leadership positions.
Leadership in a time of uncertainty is about listening to what people are really telling you and responding to their challenges in the best way you are able. In 2020 those businesses that were successful kept their focus firmly on what customers wanted and had a can-do attitude to solve customers’ problems. For many businesses, particularly those that needed to quickly move to remote working, this meant equipping teams with the technology and support they needed to provide a seamless experience for customers. For many customers, lockdown brought about very difficult decisions around how to move forward with their businesses. The service industry had to quickly adapt to the changes in customer requests and the energy sector was certainly no different here. It was important to listen to the challenges that customers were facing and then help them to navigate their way through the difficult times ahead without putting any additional burden on them.
At Gazprom Energy our team meetings shifted from face-to-face to online, but our customers saw no change in the service they were receiving. If anything, customer service improved during the lockdown period. I know that many businesses have faced challenges in this area, and many energy suppliers actually reduced the contact they have had with customers during this time, closing down online chat facilities and closing call centres for all but the most urgent customer queries. I passionately believe in having an organisational culture that puts the customer first and I am delighted to say that our customer satisfaction levels actually increased during the first lockdown thanks to the hard work of our teams.
But customers are only half of the story. As any business leader will know, the key to keeping a business productive is to have a happy and fulfilled team. Although many businesses were faced with the difficult decision to furlough staff, we retained and even grew our team during this difficult period. The lockdown and associated challenges that it brought about for employees (balancing childcare and work, isolating or shielding with elderly or vulnerable relatives) was something that quickly became very important to all business leaders. Supporting staff took a variety of different guises. For some it meant flexibility around working hours, for others it meant regular online check-ins to avoid the feeling of isolation. An increased importance was placed on regular social events to maintain team interactions.
At Gazprom Energy, one of the results of our efforts to put staff at the heart of our thinking during lockdown and beyond was that we decreased the number of sick days that were taken and increased overall team engagement. The social events that were hosted by different members of our management team have had fantastic engagement, and this is something that we are looking to continue into 2021, whether we are still working remotely or back together in an office environment.
What 2020 has shown us is that situations like this can help a business to develop and transform quickly – some would call it pivoting. For many businesses, it has simply sped up many of the discussions that were already underway around flexibility in the work environment. Being more flexible around staff working patterns and more proactive with customers are two ways that businesses have been able to make significant improvements during the pandemic.
As we moved into a second lockdown phase late in 2020, management teams were bolstered by the knowledge they had tackled many major hurdles, but they also recognised that there will be more to come. For some industries, including energy, there will be long-term challenges to face as the country is predicted to enter one of the worst recessions we have seen since the early 1900s. Set against a backdrop of businesses trying to be more efficient, strong leadership is going to be vital for success.
I believe that strong leaders and strong management teams lead from the front and are willing to listen to the all the key stakeholders, from staff to customers. Only by doing this can you navigate the bumps in the road ahead. Regular communication from the leadership team is vital – there can be no ivory towers, and everyone needs to feel reassured that the business has a realistic plan that will enable it to overcome challenges and build for the future. We believe that we have this at Gazprom Energy, and the regular interactions that we have with our teams and with our customers have demonstrated that they believe it too. Although 2020 will go down in history as one of the most challenging years for businesses everywhere, it will also be one of the most transformative and potentially a watershed moment for many who are prepared to adapt to the ‘new normal’.