I am CEO and co-founder of Mr & Mrs Smith. The company is very much a labour of love from my husband James and me – a boutique-hotel guide that, over the course of 17 years, evolved to become an international travel club with around 1.5 million members and four international offices, booking over £100 million in holidays. Then came Covid…
In January, we were working with the team at Future Laboratory on a project exploring how travel might change in the next decade. Several themes had emerged particularly strongly from our research: disconnection, deceleration, a sense of isolation from the daily grind…
Well, that escalated quickly.
We had no idea that the business we had grown and loved for 17 years was about to go into free fall. With flight routes shut down, national lockdowns imposed and hotels shuttered, our earnings dropped off a cliff. Suddenly, we were firefighting: hemorrhaging cash, making some very tough redundancies, reconciling ourselves to running without any of our four offices, trying to manage thousands of cancelled bookings with a skeleton team.
I felt totally unequipped, winging it every day like a rookie. To help, I turned to my team, and to the communication systems that held us together – largely because it was the only option. We ran daily war rooms – virtual stand-ups with the key people in the business managing the crisis. It’s a lot harder to ‘read the room’ via video conference; I remember anxiously scanning the grid of faces for feedback of any kind.
I soon realised that, although we could keep the core functions of our business operating by working remotely, maintaining the more subtle and nuanced aspects of the company – the human relationships that flourish in physical proximity – was much harder. I scrapped the usual business updates and started writing weekly letters to my team members. They included stories from home, tales of what my kids were up to and how we were handling lockdown as a family, as well as how we were doing with the business.
Our all-hands meetings became more important. We introduced anonymous AMA (ask me anything) sessions where hard questions could be asked. We created other forums where people could come together to talk about anything they wanted. My favourite was what we call our ‘cup of tea’ sessions: 10-minute slots, open for everyone, where we use Zoom’s breakout-room function to randomly drop someone into a one-on-one with another person in the business. They can chat about anything, work-related or not, as though they’ve just run into each other while making tea in the office kitchen. These sessions always leave me with a smile.
When you’re working alone, feedback is critical. I recently sent out a form to every one of our employees asking them to let me know how I’m doing as a CEO. The number-one thing that came up was how much people valued those personal updates. Transparency was brought up time after time; it’s striking how important it is to people not to be protected from the truth. They want to be brought along the journey with you, no matter how hard it gets.
Together we’ve learned how to communicate effectively in a pandemic world, to the extent that we won’t be going back to a full-time office, although we all miss the physicality of shared space: dropping by someone’s desk, a pat on the shoulder, a hug when I know someone is going through a hard time. When we can safely meet up again, we will, just not in an office. Instead, we’re planning new opportunities to enable the personal, social side of communication that has been largely missing from our lives for so long.
Today, I feel closer to the team across the business than ever before. Engaging with them often and effectively has not only kept the business above water; it’s helped bring me through it too. For me, dealing with the pandemic has hammered home the importance of communication to our feeling connected – to others, and to something bigger than ourselves. It opens our worlds – which is especially valuable when we’re on our own.
Travel does the same thing – it too is a form of communication, between people and cultures, helping us all understand our connectedness and the need we have for each other as humans. When the world opens up again, we can celebrate that once more, but until then, the most useful thing I can say to anyone trying to steer a team through a crisis is this: don’t be afraid to reach out and bare your soul.
Be yourself, make the connection – it is enough.