What an online retail CEO has learned about working from home during COVID-19

18 jun 2020

What an online retail CEO has learned about working from home during COVID-19

In our eighth interview with a CEO at home, we talk to Joep Hutschemakers, CEO of online personal cards & gifting platform Greetz, about his leadership challenges during the pandemic.

What does your work situation look like during this pandemic?

I have been working from home since the lockdown. Even before Mark Rutte gave his first speech on March 16, we had already taken action on March 12 and formed a crisis team. That day we asked our office staff to start working from home and initiated all kinds of measures to ensure our production staff (printing & fulfillment) could work in a safe environment.

Our crisis team, who meets every evening, has two topics central on the agenda.

"The absolute number one priority is to arrange and maintain the safest working environment possible for all our employees. The second one is to safeguard business continuity"

These are long days, not only for me, but for everyone at Greetz. We suddenly have to keep up with the fact that everyone now wants to pay attention to each other by sending a personal card, gift or flowers, making Greetz super relevant these days. And it will stay like this for a while.

We are now in the 3rd month of lockdown, all the office workers are still working from home and I announced that this will certainly continue to be the case until September. That also includes me.

What type of insights has this COVID-19 situation given you?

What it really comes down to is that we are able to do more with less. In order to meet demand and increase capacity, we made some drastic business decisions that were previously unthinkable. And it turns out that our customers appreciate that with the highest NPS score ever.

The second insight is, and you probably have heard that before, that working from home is possible. It turns out that we are all very productive and there are a lot of technical tools that can help us.

We recently held a virtual company kick-off. It was received as super-engaging and very inspiring.

"I won't be surprised if some of the behaviours and changes adopted during this crisis become permanent"

The experience of working remotely with technology will only make a company like Greetz more resilient during future disruptions. Including a possible later wave of the Coronavirus outbreak.

What do you like and what do you find difficult about the disruption caused by this pandemic?

The Coronavirus pandemic is, of course, a major humanitarian disaster. But it also offers opportunities for companies like Greetz. That feels at times a bit weird.

As I mentioned, now more than ever consumers and companies are looking to remotely pay attention to each other by means of a personal card or a gift. It feels good to contribute during difficult times, by fulfilling a need everyone has: to connect with each other from a distance.

One of the things we did for example is sending 150,000 free cards to healthcare providers and the elderly.

During this crisis we went through a number of phases in rapid succession. First, there was the awareness of ‘what is happening to us now’? Then, risk mitigation: ensuring agility in managing cash flow. Following that, we had to scale up our capacity in no time to meet demand and finally we looked beyond short-term sales and the focus shifted to long-term value creation.

"In times like these you notice how much talent there is in the company as you see that talented people like to be challenged and love complexity. And complexity is something we now have in abundance"

The challenge in all of this is to continuously keep everyone engaged and to maintain our culture. We have a very close-knit culture in which the social aspect is strongly anchored in our DNA. Everyone is now missing that bit of social interaction. Having a chat at the coffee machine, walking by someone, having lunch together.

There was also a challenge in finalizing our budget plan. While we could not draw on the figures due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we still had to make a plan and we do this not only for the board, but also for ourselves because it gives direction to our growth plans.

What advice would you give other CEOs facing the COVID-19 leadership challenge?

Firstly, deal with the human aspect. Recognize the personal and professional challenges your employees experience as well as their relatives during the crisis. Encourage colleagues to voice their concerns and listen to the input you get. By investing time in their wellbeing, you can act more effectively while the crisis is still going on.

Secondly, you cannot over-communicate in a crisis and make sure everyone understands that we are in this together.

"Be transparent and clear in what you know, but also in what you don't know"

You are actually forced to communicate even more, but that is only good. I do that through all kinds of channels. For example, I have daily check-ins with the senior management team, weekly all-hands meetings, regular check-ins with the different departments, video messages etc.

It is also key in all your communication that you create an environment of trust where people feel safe to ask questions. People have a lot of questions.

And the third and final point is not to lose sight of the long term. You can use the crisis to set the right things in motion for the long term. You can use this period to change the course.

One thing is certain, our world will certainly look different after the Coronavirus pandemic. And the experience of working from home is only one aspect of this.

Thank you, Joep Hutschemakers, for your insights today.