Shalini Khemka is the founder and CEO of E2Exchange (E2E), which champions and connects entrepreneurs, creates communities, invests equity capital and recruits non-executive directors for SMEs. Shalini’s background is in financial services, with a specialism in banking.
Shalini is currently heading up the Employee Retention Scheme sub-committee of the Business Action Council – a collective of organisations that support businesses across the UK. We spoke to Shalini to find out how the COVID-19 crisis has affected small businesses in the UK, and about her involvement in the chancellor's response.
1.) How has your work routine changed since you’ve been working from home?
I find I’m making more time for exercise, whereas normally in the flow of business I’m moving around, walking from meeting to meeting, taking the Tube or travelling. When you’re at home you’re not doing any of that, so I make a point of getting out at least once a day to get some fresh air and do some exercise.
I also have more time to think prior to meetings because I’m not travelling as much, so I can use that time more constructively to think and to prepare.
From a health and wellbeing perspective as well, I’m able to prep healthy food and I’m being more consistent in timings when it comes to meals and exercise.
2.) What, for you, have been the biggest challenges of working from home?
I very much miss meeting people in person. While doing Zoom calls is great, it’s not quite the same as going for a coffee or lunch with someone, and I find that lack of social integration quite challenging. I think developing relationships with people will also take a little bit longer.
Luckily with my business we’re well set up to work from home, but for younger people in smaller accommodation working from their own bedrooms, that’s quite tough.
3.) How has your team had to adapt to the current situation?
They’ve had to make sure that they have a mindset around routine. Personal discipline has become more difficult, because when you’re getting up at a particular time to take public transport into the office, the routine is there for you, but when you’re working from home there’s not the same structure, so having those practices of getting up, getting dressed and starting your day, I think some of them have found that quite hard.
Some of my team are also sharing living space, so being able to focus and concentrate has not always been easy. Having said that, they have stayed motivated, and we’ve done a lot of team socials which has helped – on a Friday evening we’ll have a drink together. We’ve done more social activity on a regular basis than we would have done historically, albeit digitally, because it has had to be built into the diary rather than done in an impromptu way.
4.) What changes has your organisation undergone?
E2E has historically run up to 50 events per year in 11 cities, and that’s partly how we’ve acquired our 23,000 members. When lockdown happened, all the events we had in the diary obviously got cancelled or postponed, so we’ve had to really pivot the business into a virtual events company. We now run E2E live, which offers webinars with inspirational speakers, and Business Unusual, which is a video series profiling our members talking about how they’ve coped with the challenges. We are also running small group forums where our members will talk very openly about how they’re feeling and what’s happening in their business, and we’ll take a challenge and brainstorm the challenge.
We’ve also spent a lot more time on our digital offering. We raised investment before lockdown to build a community portal called E2E Connect. We were planning to launch it next year but have fast-tracked it for a soft launch in September. It’s like Match.com for business, connecting founders to founders to mentors, corporates and to investors.
A lot more of our time has also gone into supporting our community with their issues, too, particularly with access to funding and providing them with connectivity. We get a few hundred emails a day from people asking for help. The volume of work has shot up as more SMEs are needing support.
We get a few hundred emails a day from people asking for help. The volume of work has shot up as more SMEs are needing support
We’ve had to significantly cut our costs by changing the team structure. Some people we let go; some people left; some people we furloughed. It’s been a challenging time in that respect because you learn how different people on your team cope with a challenge like this – who is there for the long run and who’s there for the short run. The upside of all that has been that the people you retain will be with you for the long term.
I’ve also been heavily involved in the Business Action Council, which has been set up to bring together organisations supporting business from across the UK. Its members include E2E, the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI, the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation and 26 others. So rather than competing we’ve become a collective. I’m heading up the Employee Retention Scheme sub-committee, which reports into BEIS. We put forward our policy recommendations, two of which have led to government change – the flexi-furlough, to make it easier for small businesses to bring people back – and the other one asking for 100% guarantee on loans, so we had a big part to play in the bounce-back loan and the introduction of the flexi-furlough.
5.) What advice can you share for managing and leading a team during a crisis?
Firstly I think you have to stay mentally positive. It’s important to train yourself to think glass-half-full. You have to understand how your team is feeling, what are their drivers, and spend time with them.
You have to stay mentally positive. It's important to train yourself to think glass-half-full
From a financial perspective, it’s important to consider cash flow and to make sure your business can survive without knowing how long Covid-19 will impact the economy. Once you’ve sorted those things out, you can pivot the business strategy to service your clients in a different environment.
6.) How do you think small business will change as a result of this situation?
Not every company is going through a difficult time, especially if they were already very tech-enabled – some of our members have actually done better in this scenario. For those that are going through difficulties, I envisage that it’s a 6-to-12 month time lag in terms of their financial performance, so they’ve got to think about how they can keep the business going over the long term. Over 9 million people are currently on furlough, so once that scheme stops, there may be quite a lot of redundancies.
Companies can look at things like short-time working – so perhaps retaining an employee on shorter hours rather than making them redundant. As part of the job retention scheme we’re going to try and recommend that the chancellor extend financial support to SMEs to avoid redundancies beyond October. For small businesses it’s not the case that everything will just go back to normal so it’s important to think now not only about cost saving but also keeping your staff employed and skilled.
For small businesses it’s not the case that everything will just go back to normal so it’s important to think now not only about cost saving but also keeping your staff employed and skilled.
Another solution may be swapping people between companies – so you find a partner which might have space for an employee one or two days a week, like a job share. I think there’s also a need for companies to look at digital skills training. I would advise small businesses to be prudent and assess how you can retain your employees by looking at different ways of working, keeping employees motivated, and ensuring there’s a degree of social interaction, which is really important from a mental health perspective.
As owners of businesses this is a time to be innovative, creative and collaborative, and you can only do that if you stay positive. When you start being negative in your thought processes, none of these ideas come to the fore.
7.) What is coming up for you over the next few months?
I’m excited about launching our own version of Match.com for business, which will enable entrepreneurs to search for the support they need and receive matches – they then click right or swipe left to meet the right person. I’m also very excited about our flexi-mentoring scheme, because a lot of people have written to us to let us know they have spare time and to ask if there are companies that need help.
I’m hoping that some of the recommendations we’ve made on the job retention scheme are implemented by the chancellor – he did listen the first time!
I’m also looking forward to being able to go out a bit! It’ll be nice to be able to see some of my friends and go to a restaurant and just do normal stuff again. I like active environments, so while the lockdown period has given me thinking time, I do miss that activity and the social interaction.