When the first lockdown started, one moment we were in the office planning the week’s work, the next we were told to stay at home – 96 per cent of colleagues, including my team, were furloughed within 48 hours. Our first priority was our people and their wellbeing – was the message clear and did it reach everyone?
We had to leave audits unfinished and set up ways to keep in touch via virtual social events and wellbeing calls. We were in the middle of cross brand training and establishing our Group function when everyone was enthusiastic and learning new skills was tough.
On the operational side, we had to work out what it meant for customers and suppliers – one supplier in China had cargo in transit when it shut down. No one knew exactly what this meant. Others had problems getting materials or were in jurisdictions with different Covid rates and rules. In addition, we were preparing for delays caused by Brexit, so it was a perfect storm.
The company contacted customers, made sure online sales information was clear about extended lead times and increased the sales team to deal with customer queries. We checked that the board had information to tell stakeholders about what we were doing and the audit and risk perspective. Our IT team had to ensure that everyone required could work from home and had equipment, training, risk-assessments and health and safety checks.
I remained at work and when we opened in July my team started Covid-verification audits immediately. We had to know all the rules for customers and colleagues in our sector. We extended our methodology to create a Covid framework and visited our distribution centres and stores to complete Covid-verification audits. We checked that PPE and Covid-related signage was in place and observed colleagues to see that they were following the rules.
We had to provide assurance to the board that everything the company said it was doing around Covid was being done across the business. Whenever we found a high-risk issue, we notified the stakeholder without waiting to issue a report and followed up two weeks later to verify remedial actions. All our retail and distribution centre audits now include a Covid element.
From the start, people were our priority. We had to ensure they felt safe and knew what was happening. We were fortunate that our finances were in good order, so we knew we could open again safely and confidently.
We tried to use the unexpected downtime productively to look at our business resilience and understand what we could change and improve. It was an opportunity to do things we never had time for in the past.
When the second lockdown began, we continued to deliver to customers because by then we were confident about the rules. We were delighted at the number of customers who wanted to buy online. We invested in things that made the customer journey better and as much like a showroom visit as possible – from more photos on the website to a function that allows customers to see what a sofa would look like in their own sitting room. We also moved colleagues from stores to answering customer phone calls and set up new FAQ sections. It’s not yet clear whether there will be a long-term switch to online shopping, but we will monitor this and evolve what we can offer.
Internal audit had to monitor operations and provide assurance that we could deliver what we promised and treated customers well.
I’m incredibly proud of my team. The experience taught us that we can be far more agile and can flex plans more than ever before. We’ve identified where we can standardise audit elements across our brands to increase efficiency, so the experience improved the way we work.
We’ve been asked to do more consultancy and advisory work, which is good for our reputation and our risk database has never been busier with engagement from risk and control owners – people are thinking about risk and listen to us when we highlight risks that might materialise.
We’re always looking to increase our resilience and we’re looking at the challenges and opportunities from the pandemic. We need to celebrate what we’ve done well without forgetting what we need to put in place in case things change again suddenly.
We’re currently working on our environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting and disclosure and assurance mapping so that we can show stakeholders that we have verified our public statements on our ESG requirements.
A pandemic was on our risk register. It wasn’t a flashing red light, but we had provisions for supplier or stock failures. This is all useful experience for our ESG work. The key is to look at the bigger picture and constantly ask what could happen, work with investors to learn what keeps them awake and talk to risk owners to ensure that they understand that they are accountable for risk – we support them, but we are not the babysitter.