23 Jun 2020
What a specialty cleaning and maintenance products CEO has learned about working from home during COVID-19.
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In our final interview with a CEO at home, we talk to Jeroen Mustert, CEO of specialty cleaning and maintenance products supplier, HG International, about his leadership challenges during the pandemic.
What does your work situation look like during this pandemic?
When the Coronavirus pandemic started, we reacted pretty quickly, we got together and took action. Our main priority was to keep the factory going. Since we have one factory that produces for all countries, we took some measures there. That included implementing the 1.5 meters distance guideline, masks, temperature measurement, hand washing, and we hired a security officer to ensure that all these measures were followed.
From that moment on, all office workers worked from home, except for the purely necessary work – the people who had to be in the office. Throughout the pandemic, I went to the office no more than one day a week.
"Since the start of last week we entered a new phase where we basically directed all employees to be at the office two days a week"
We use a kind of registration list, ensuring that there is never more than 50% of each department in the office at the same time. In addition, we have furnished the entire office with walkways, toilet arrangements, temperature measurement, hand washing equipment, lunch arrangements. This ensures that everything takes place according to RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) guidelines.
What type of insights has this COVID-19 situation given you?
We need to sharpen our contingency plans, so if an emergency like the Coronavirus pandemic happens again, we can quickly take those plans off-the-shelf to deal with the situation. This was perhaps not the situation prior to the pandemic.
Another insight is that I learned just how quickly the organisation and people adapt to a new situation.
"Working from home does not impede business processes, but at some point people start to feel a bit lonely and miss real physical social contact, both in the business, and in person"
Working from home means sitting all day behind a screen with very little change of scenery, which of course you have more of in the office. But for us at HG at least, everyone has their eyes on the ball, has their goal and they don’t get caught up in the situation around them, but are busy with what they should be doing.
What do you like and what do you find difficult about the disruption caused by this pandemic?
We had two employees with Corona and a few who had it in the family. That is, of course, the biggest concern. What was tricky was that the situation was very new, insights changed every day and therefore what you had to do changed every day.
We had to adjust our day-to-day operation, the entire business, not knowing when it would be over and how it would affect our suppliers, customers and consumers. The unpredictability and the unknown was difficult to manage. One of the most important things for business operations is to have control. Certainly during the first week, that was quite difficult to establish.
After a first few weeks of getting our bearings, we ended up closer to each other, especially through visual (digital) means. We often sent e-mails with bulletins, had our entire group of 200 people together on one screen, keeping everyone abreast of developments.
We normally have a bi-monthly staff meeting where we update everyone about basically anything and everything in the organisation. Well, we just let it go on in that way.
"We became one, cared for each other and together kept our eyes on the ball"
We came out with an even bigger HG feeling, which is that, as a group, we want to achieve our goals and beat the competition. It is a cliché, but challenging circumstances are sometimes necessary to bring people together.
What advice would you give other CEOs facing the COVID-19 leadership challenge?
The industry I am in has been a bit on the good side of the Coronavirus pandemic, so to speak. Consumers are cleaning and maintaining their homes significantly more during and after the crisis than before, so it's a little easier for me to be optimistic.
But what is most important is to stick with your plan, never forget what the plan was, remember your purpose and how you want to achieve your objective.
Do not let panic guide you, but rather your strategy, your plan. Make sure that you get closer together, physically or not, and be very flexible, able to switch quickly and motivate the people you’re leading.
Now, it is even more important for leadership to show, assert and radiate calm, show concern and communicate the path to the end goal. In these times the need for strong leadership is even greater in my experience.