Advising CEOs, collaboration and peanut butter: WFH with Actis’ Shami Nissan

Shami Nissan, head of responsible investment at Actis, explains why she is pleased holdings in her portfolios are collaborating together

In this regular series, female members of the ESG investment industry detail how they are dealing with the transition to remote working during the coronavirus fallout

Following on from our sister title Portfolio Adviser which has been running the Working from Home series with investment experts from the wider industry, we are running these articles twice a week with women in ESG. This week we speak to Shami Nissan, head of responsible investment at Actis.

How has the coronavirus affected your day-to-day work – from both a portfolio and workplace perspective?

At a portfolio level, there has been a significant amount of extra work focused on helping companies respond to covid-19. I sit on the Covid-19 Crisis Committee so I am busy thinking about what guidance we should convey to companies. I might be speaking with CEOs to advise on business continuity plans or discussing how companies can support their local communities – my work is different every day!

As a team manager working remotely, I’ve been thinking about effectiveness, productivity and wellbeing. At Actis, we’ve been issuing guidance on wellbeing, mindfulness and stress and tips on how to work virtually. We’ve also set up an informal forum for parents who are juggling home schooling and we’ve also stayed connected through frequent online team ‘check-ins’.

What has surprised you most about markets during the coronavirus sell-off?

Generally, I’ve been surprised at how quickly we have plummeted economically and that we’ve already broken certain records, with dire forecasts about the depth of the recession that lies ahead.

On a more positive note, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how the private sector has been working more collaboratively. It’s been interesting to see how some companies have responded in terms of their social responsibility, sense of purpose and their narrative around supporting communities and key workers. I think this will create a clear positioning of corporates and businesses post-pandemic – which companies were there in our greatest hour of need and those who were solely focused on self-preservation. There is a real narrative of saints and sinners starting to play out and this will fuel the discussion about stakeholder primacy.

What feedback have you had from clients since the coronavirus sell-off?

We are invested in over 40 countries and employ more than 120,000 people within our portfolio. We have a strong on-the-ground presence. We’re in the trenches with the management teams, and this gives us an intimate insight into the challenges our portfolio companies are facing.

Our unique perspective is incorporated in the information that we’re sharing with our Limited Partners and we’ve had some great feedback. We’ve been developing recovery and response plans and looking at issues like how covid-19 contributes to cybersecurity risks and heightened business risks. Our portfolio companies rely on us for tailored and relevant information that is expressed in a practical way so we’re offering pragmatic advice.

How do you think attitudes to ESG initiatives will be affected as we move through the crisis?

I think this will provide more impetus for ESG initiatives. There are some actors who don’t understand ESG and see it as secondary, like corporate social responsibility or philanthropy, but many will realise how closely the pandemic is linked to the ‘S’ of ESG – employer duty of care, as well as employee health and wellbeing, reliance on supply chains and importance of license to operate with local stakeholders and communities. I think there are parallels to the climate emergency also, which we will become refocused when planning for a green recovery.

The crisis also has strong analogies to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and has highlighted the importance of addressing our SDG ‘to-do’ list.

When thinking about the recovery of businesses, communities and economies, we’ve learnt that we’re all in this together. We are only as strong as our weakest link. We need inclusive, equitable and stable societies, using resources sustainably, to create conditions for prosperity and economic growth. This is what the SDGs are all about.

Share some good news you have heard recently about the holdings/sectors/themes you invest in?

We’re seeing more collaboration within industries. For example, the renewables industry in Mexico is working together to develop covid-19 responses. Amdee and Asolmex, the Mexican wind and solar industry associations, are working with all member firms in-country on coordinating responses to covid-19 and three of our portfolio companies are also participating. Collaboration helps avoid initiatives that operate in a vacuum. We need to work collectively and efficiently during our hour of need.

Within the Actis family of 90 companies there has been a huge openness to share information and responses. The other week, I chaired a call with all the heads of sustainability and we held a series of virtual forums spread across Latin America, Africa and India to discuss the impact of covid-19 on workers and communities. We focused on three themes – Preparation, Response and Recovery. It was a great way of exchanging ideas and sharing best practice.

How do you find working remotely during volatile markets?

Many of us at Actis are used to working remotely and travelling, so I’ve not found it too difficult, although pastoral care and team wellbeing is even more important.

What makes working remotely different is that we don’t have an exit date. We’re in a state of mid- to long-term existence and the market volatility adds a level of uncertainty. Another consideration is that our markets are spread from China to Brazil, with the latter perhaps not at its peak transmission whilst Asia is ahead in its recovery. This makes planning for recovery and “the next normal” challenging.

What do you do for fun when you take a break from working at home?

Hang out with the kids, play games or go for a walk. We also enjoy plenty of family bike rides.

What is your favourite snack when working from home?

Peanut butter on rice cake.

If applicable, how is home schooling being managed in your household?

It’s pretty tough, as we’re a dual-earner household with two kids so we’re managing four different schedules. Each day we have a family morning meeting and this helps us figure out who’s doing what and when we all have free time to spend as a family.

Do you have a ‘top tip’ to share on working remotely?

Over-communicate and make sure that you do as many calls as you can on video (rather than audio). It’s important to see people’s faces! I also combine calls with walking where possible – I find it helps me to think better and gives me some much needed fresh air.

To view the previous articles from the Working from Home with … series see below:

IT stars, sneakers and webinars: WFH with Janus Hendersons’s Ama Seery

Social conscience, fishing and Christmas risotto: WFH with Hawksmoor’s Rebecca Fournier D’Albe

Safe harbours, team yoga, and Animals of Farthing Wood: WFH with Tribe’s Amy Clarke

Active ownership, hip-hop pilates and natural light: WFH with Federated Hermes’ Kimberley Lewis

Cautious positioning and interactive lessons: WFH with Square Mile’s Diane Earnshaw

Climate debate, board games and weekly podcasts: WFH with Quilter Cheviot’s Claudia Quiroz

Female fund managers, Tiger King and a different approach to home schooling: WFH with City Hive’s Bev Shah

Investment trusts, Jamie Oliver and renewable electricity suppliers: Working from home with EQ Investors’ Sophie Kennedy

Cushioning the falls and home-schooling in French: Working from Home with Morningstar’s Hortense Bioy

Reducing emissions and Morrisons’ corporate responsibility: Working from Home with Kames’ Miranda Beacham

Deadlines, schoolwork and team drinks: Working from home with ESG Clarity’s Natalie Kenway

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...