Organizational leadership in the time of pandemic

It begins innocently. You hear about the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan, and shortly after in the whole of China. But it’s far away, it has nothing to do with your organization.

Then other countries, closer to home, begin reporting cases. Numbers grow faster and faster. Your employee comes back from winter holidays abroad and the school asks her kids to self-quarantine.

Somehow, you still do not think this will affect your organization. Not even when the first case is reported in your country. Then five cases. Then eleven. You know that the situation is unusual, yet ‘uninterrupted operations’ and ‘business continuity’ are still your daily mantra.

But things start developing faster. Events you and your employees planned to go to are being cancelled. Meetings are being moved to virtual spaces. Your partners organizations begin introducing travel restrictions. Entire regions face government-imposed lockdowns. Then entire countries.

As you read more about the spread of COVID-19, two things become obvious to you.

The first one is that this is really serious. It takes very little for people to get infected and for a country’s healthcare system to become overwhelmed.

Secondly, that the only way to flatten the coronavirus curve is social distancing. This means minimum or no travel. No conferences or meetings. No commuting on public transport. Fewer people confined together in one space for long hours.

You already know that maintaining uninterrupted operations is not possible. You start introducing certain measures in your workplace: more considerate planning of travels and events; thinking which activities are essential and which could be postponed or cancelled; allowing some people who ask for it to work from home.

Then comes a day when the government in your country prohibits all events and closes down all educational institutions. This affects one-half of your workforce. It becomes obvious that even with adjustments already in place, business as usual is no longer an option. You make a decision that all your employees whose physical presence in the office is not essential should work remotely.

Four months have passed since the first COVID-19 case was detected in Wuhan. The virus is now declared a pandemic, with ever-growing numbers of cases reported in 116 countries.

What would make your leadership at this time of crisis easier and more effective?
Crisis preparedness and business continuity plans 

You are likely to be among 80% of organizations that do not have crisis preparedness and business continuity plans. Nick Bettis, marketing director for RLE Technologies that studied this, explains: “Far too many organizational leaders think it [crisis] will never happen to them. They are wrong.”

Whatever the nature of a disaster, any organization must have plans in place to manage operations during and after the crisis.

First of all, you need to plan how your organization will provide needs-based support and assistance to all its employees and their family members to ensure their physical and psychological well-being. The “people first” approach will pay off: your staff will stand by you and your organization, and will increase the organizational resilience in the long run. But only if they feel that you support them in difficult times.

Communication paths and methods, and measures necessary for business continuity have to be well prepared and clear for all. 

Processes that will get the organization back on track after the crisis is over also need to be planned in advance. Otherwise, when things are back to normal, the backlog of postponed activities and a rush to implement will create an overload for your people whose resilience has already been stretched, and overwhelm your organizational structures.

Developing and regularly updating preparedness and business continuity plans should not be limited to safety and human resources professionals. It needs to engage all staff members, including through regular training and tests, so when the crisis strikes, everybody knows what they are supposed to do and can take full responsibility for playing their part.

Without such plans, when faced with a crisis situation, you risk making ad hoc, trial-and-error and delayed decisions, leaving your employees with a lot of uncertainty and fear. Unless you and your staff are clear about future priority directions, you won’t be able to bring your organization back on track after the crisis.

Clearly defined “essential business” 

If you have a strategy that clearly defines key directions for your organization, you probably know which actions are the priority and which are not. Even though the strategy has been designed for normal times, it is a good starting point to help your employees separate core, essential activitiesfrom those that can wait for later or be eliminated altogether.

Defining what’s essential for long-term operational continuity must include your staff. The point is not to come up with right or wrong answers but to explore together what your options are. To find out who is best placed to effectively put these options into practice in times of disruption. To help employees distinguish between activities of high value but non-essential in times of crisis, such as networking with external stakeholders, and those that are “must-do.” And to make decisions on postponing or eliminating some actions more broadly accepted

Knowing what your core activities are will allow you to make a more accurate assessment of where your resources should go. As Charlie Gilkey, the owner of Productive Flourishing put it, you “won’t put resources into mopping the floor when the building is on fire.”

If you have no process and criteria to develop a clear, shared understanding about what is essential, some employees are likely to develop and apply their own, not necessarily beneficial to the organization as a whole. Others might end up feeling undervalued and excluded when their activities don’t make it to the core list, and will see no role for themselves during the crisis. Restoring their motivation and engagement when a normal work routine is back will be a difficult task. 

Well established mechanisms for working remotely

You might be lucky to be among a growing number of modern organizations that allow their employees a possibility to work from home (WFH). If you are, you know that a well implemented remote work policy greatly improves productivity, work-life balance and employee engagement. You have well-tested systems and tools for an effective management of remote work.

This WFH management needs to be, first and foremost, based on trust. Leaders need to trust their employees as much as they value them. Employees will reward them with loyalty and a commitment to meet or exceed expectations. But if the foundation of trust is not there, leaders will resort to command and control practices and micromanagement, driving employees away.

An effective WFH management requires clear two-way communication, a key to maintain a sense of belonging to the team so your employees do not feel isolated. Communication is a prerequisite for effective collaboration. It makes expectations clear, bringing structure to each working day. Virtual “face time” with leaders and empathetic, active listening can go a long way in keeping the spirit up in times of crisis, when employees often don’t know how long they will be working remotely, may have additional care responsibilities and may be, very simply, stressed and afraid.

Employees who work from home must have tools to do so effectively. If your organization is experienced in managing remote work, you will have proper, secure and connected IT architecture that your employees can use when needed, and plenty of good examples on how to use it creatively.

But if you have limited or no practice with WFH, an office lockdown because of COVID-19 will catch you unprepared. You will wish you have done more to change a perception of remote work being inferior to the traditional on-site model. And you will wish you have invested in preparing specific work-from-home guidelines, making better practical arrangements for your employees, and offering a solid training for all on working and leading remotely.

An opportunity to redefine leadership 

In early stages, the crisis might seem like an endless stream of things you need to decide on and do, all at once. But when you take a moment to reflect on the bigger picture, you will find opportunities for positive changes that can emerge from these difficult times. 

Since operations are likely much slower than they would be under normal circumstances, you now have more time to focus on your employees. They are the heart of your organization. Put their physical and emotional well-being at the center of everything you say and do. Know what their individual needs and stress points are, and address them accordingly. Take good care of them, motivate them to stay connected to the organization, and show them that they are important and valued. Make sure that your actions match your words.

You can use the time to discuss with your employees all the things that your organization did not have ready when the crisis hit, and the future directions it wants to take. You can also stimulate similar discussions in various teams. If you do that with an open mind, you will be surprised by the wealth of good, novel ideas your staff brings. You’ll emerge with crisis and post-crisis priorities, plans, mechanisms and processes that will make your organization more effective overall.

You can reflect with your employees on ways and methods of communication in your organization, and redesign them together. Your managers and staff are likely to have already started changing their communication approaches when the pandemic hit. Learn from them and find the methods that work best so when the crisis is over, you can make them a new normal in your organisation. Be a model of these new communication approaches. Show that you care about your people by continuously reaching out to them, initiating one on one interactions, listening actively to what they have to say, stimulating motivation and inspiring hope. 

Your employees will be looking up to you for reassurance and encouragement, for a sense of stability and direction in this ever-changing, stressful situation. Be visible. Be there for them. Make considerate but quick, courageous and people-centered decisions. Communicate them openly and honestly, listen to feedback and adjust your ways to what’s best for the people. 

The pandemic is your opportunity to become the leader you yourself would turn to in a time of crisis.

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