Working from home has become a part of the ‘new normal’, and the challenge for big organisations is keeping staff informed and motivated while maintaining operations. Here Seyi Obakin, CEO of Centrepoint, explains how he has been navigating through these unprecedented times.
How do you keep your services running while maintaining the safety of your staff and the people in your care?
Those are the unique challenges that Centrepoint, the charity for homeless young people, has been juggling within the wake of COVID-19.
With no template to follow, the organisation had to act swiftly, work out plans for how and where to quarantine homeless youngsters who contracted the virus, find enough PPE and still raise essential funds. At the same time, Seyi Obakin had to establish how best to support, encourage and motivate staff working remotely.
Nothing in his 11-year tenure, including the financial crisis, prepared him for the impact of coronavirus. “It is different and much worse,” he offers. “It is an exceptional time to be in leadership, dealing with issues that no one has before. It’s not the sort of thing that we learn in business school.”
Obakin’s first approach was to look after himself, on the basis that he would be in the best position to support his staff, especially those working remotely. Self-preservation included taking walks to acquaint himself with his local area, which commuting to work had not given him time to do.
“That breaks up the day and allows me to think things through,” Obakin reveals. “I have been mindful of my diet, and I try to get more sleep, which is essential to maintain energy. People need to see that you have energy; otherwise, you can drag them down in this atmosphere of uncertainty, ambiguity and fear.
Find the silver linings
“So, looking after yourself is the first thing, the second is to stay positive. Keep finding silver linings and talk about them; let people know. And, keep your purpose front of mind – it helps to clarify your thinking.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I made sure to reiterate what as an organisation we were there to do – despite the ground shifting around us. The question was, ‘how would we anchor ourselves in the face of these shifting sands?’”
Obakin set three principles. First, was keeping services open for the young homeless people who need them. Second, keep all the Centrepoint staff safe and, third, keep young people safe too.
Maintaining services and ensuring the wellbeing of all involved meant being more “agile and flexible” and bringing people along on a journey of daily change based on trust. Especially as managing people working remotely requires a lot of trust.
Obakin points out: “Most people respond to that trust well and want not to let you down. When you put faith in your people, they generally respond to the best of their ability.
“The second reason why trust is important is, if you want to chase down what everybody else is doing, you will do nothing particularly useful. You will spend all your time on a carousel of peeping; peeping at Tom, peeping at John. It won’t do you or them any good, so you have to trust them while giving them the tools to be effective.
“A lot of us as leaders have learned that most people are trustworthy and work effectively from home.”
Tell it as it is with care
Obakin prides himself on leading with real candour. In other words, telling it as it is. But, he also recognises that, as a leader, you have to earn the right to do this by proving you care about an individual.
“If you just tell it as it is when you don’t care, or they don’t know that you care, you will come across as aggressive and unhelpful,” Obakin explains. “Or you might come across as manipulative. Eventually, people work out that that’s what you are doing and, and walk out; that’s when you lose their trust, which will be very hard to get back.
“I have a set of people that I manage directly, who know that I care about them. But I also have hundreds of other people that I don’t manage directly; how would they know that I care about them?”
The answer is keeping them informed by phone regularly, and making sure that they know that they are being listened to. He adds: “Sometimes, even though I‘ve captured the point someone is making, I ask them to clarify it. Or I repeat it and ask if that’s right, which lets them know you are listening.
“Check in regularly, so they don’t feel isolated. Show kindness, show empathy; that’s what gives people the sense that you care about them.”
This way of engaging provides fertile ground for discussions about work progress and how to tackle any issues.
For Obakin, an important part of looking after himself has been having a network of people to whom he can pick up the phone and have a rant. He says candidly: “I’m grateful and blessed that none of them has any reservations at all about responding to the right way to whatever it is I’m talking about.”