It’s often during the times of greatest uncertainty – when fear and anxiety run rampant – that bonds between employees and their employers are either fractured or solidified. As the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus strains healthcare systems, induces chaos in financial markets, plummets consumer confidence, and raises fears of travel, sharing public spaces and performing many routine activities, this seems to qualify as one of those rare “moments of truth”. How companies lead their employees through this crisis will yield impacts that stretch far beyond this pandemic.
The spread of the coronavirus is going to test every large company in unprecedented ways. There are few historical analogues to draw from directly, and many unique properties specific to this crisis. With so little known about the COVID-19 as a pathogen – its signs and symptoms, how it spreads, how it is treated – the depths and timetables of the challenges that await are yet to present themselves.
While there is no perfect playbook to responding to this exceptional situation, there are five lessons from our previous experiences leading through crisis that are highly relevant today.
- Anchor your leadership and continued response in your values and declare your priorities in bold terms.
It’s easy to espouse lofty ideals when sailing in calm waters. However, values-led companies are at their best when the circumstances are most challenging. Throughout the next several weeks (or perhaps months), employees will see their employers’ true values revealed as they come under pressure. Companies that are seen as insensitive to the health and safety of their employees (or customers) will forever be viewed as valuing profits over people. However, those that make tough decisions that place humans first will earn long-lasting credibility and inspire loyalty. To that end, it’s important that your response not only prioritizes people, but that your priorities are declared boldly and unmistakably. There is so much unknown today, every shred of definitiveness will be a welcome relief. For instance, if you are committed to giving employees the option to work from home, state that unequivocally. Where decisions have been reached, leave as little as possible to interpretation. In uncertain times, clarity is a gift.
- Frequency > completeness: Don’t let speculation rule the day.
One of the most common mistakes leaders make when communicating through a crisis is waiting to have all the answers before choosing to speak. Though this impulse is understandable, it almost always has disastrous effects. Silence breeds speculation, speculation fuels the rumor mill, and the rumor mill creates distraction, disengagement and even panic. Don’t let speculation rule the day. Employees would rather hear the words “I don’t know” than be left to the water cooler and internet to try to fill in the blanks.
Today, when it comes to the coronavirus, there are more questions than answers. That’s likely to be the case for a while to come. However, in the era of Twitter and cable news, employees are accustomed to constant updates. The answer is not having “the answer”: it’s maintaining the conversation.
In a crisis situation, it’s important to use your communication systems to keep employees in close contact. When anxiety is heightened, updates can be reassuring, even when they provide little in the way of new information. The more fraught the environment, the more important it is that top leaders are consistently visible and available.
- Create community, even remotely.
The coronavirus is creating a perfect storm that is both heightening our fears while forcing our isolation. However, working remotely doesn’t need to mean working alone. It’s imperative that as more companies elect to shut down offices and instruct employees to work from home, leaders need to shift their routines to prioritize personal outreach. We must focus on sustaining and growing our work community.
Leaders must rethink their role in times of crisis and reallocate their time accordingly. They should be coached to assess what’s urgent and important operationally, address those critical priorities, and devote as much remaining time as possible to helping lead employees through this change. This means meeting people where they are, practicing empathy, and making them feel strengthened by their sense of support and belonging. Whether it’s scheduling time in daily calendars to make phone calls, send text messages, or open a Skype chat box, reinforcing community is of the essence.
- Seek constant feedback and work cross-functionally to remove obstacles to remote work.
While tools such as Skype, Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams (among many others) have improved exponentially in recent years, over the coming weeks and months, remote work will be conducted on a scale and at a volume that’s never before been truly tested. There are going to be issues. Glitches will be discovered, systems will prove thorny, and processes will be stressed to breaking points. That’s ok. It’s to be expected. We’ll be measured based on how we respond.
The two keys to effectively addressing the issues of remote work on a massive scale are listening and collaboration. A core responsibility for all leaders over the course of this crisis will be gathering constant feedback from their teams regarding what’s working well, where they’re encountering obstacles, and how processes, systems, and technologies can be enhanced to create a more seamless operating environment. That information needs to flow upwards and outward….quickly. Companies that have thoughtful systems in place to collect and share issues will be positioned to thrive.
Next, it is going to take a massive cross-functional effort to make quick changes. The issues that arise are not going to have single owners or devoted teams. Rather, it will take a combination of HR, IT, Operations, and many others working hand-in-hand to triage problems, achieve compromises, and enact solutions to improve the virtual employee experience. Companies should prepare cross-functional management structures now to address coronavirus-related needs.
- Be specific about the behaviors you seek.
In a time of crisis, it’s important to remind employees that we’re all in this together. People want their companies to emerge from this crisis stronger than before: don’t be shy about asking for their help. Be thoughtful in detailing the specific behaviors you need people to exhibit. Then, lay those expectations and requests out clearly and model them yourself.
As people struggle with uncertainty, there is nothing greater we can give our employees right now than calm confidence and a belief in our abilities to shape a successful future. We face plenty of challenges with the spread of the novel coronavirus: Fear and doubt will only exacerbate those challenges into dysfunction.
As we learn from this crisis each day, we are eager to hear your perspectives and share insights. What’s working? What surprises are you encountering? If you’re interested in talking about how to approach this urgent situation, we’re all ears.