Leadership during COVID-19 “In-between”
Before we go from the initial response to thriving in the “new normal,” there's opportunity to make the most of the “in-between.”
I see so many articles popping up about shaping the “new normal,” going back to work, and moving on from a pandemic that may not even see its impact fade in 2020. Would everyone like to see it disappear? Of course. But what about the things we are doing now to be present in the now while we also prepare for that “new normal.” Businesses have learned many things as the way many people work has radically transformed. Here are just a few of those things along with some pointers of what you can keep doing now while everyone waits in flux for the “new normal,” whatever that may be.
1. Continue caring for staff even when there is elevated anxiety, stress, and virtual obstacles. Many leaders have seen the benefits of checking in more frequently, having conversations about more than just “the work,” and the shroud of extreme professionalism being lowered - leading to new vulnerability. One of the difficulties of work is always the pressure to bring your best self. However, vulnerability and humility – often seen as signs of weakness – have been left out of this equation. This pandemic has resulted in more visible vulnerability and humility. And, so many discovered that these characteristics are not signs of weakness but characteristics of being human. Collectively, the consensus among leaders and employees alike is that when we all share a state of anxiety and fear, we all seem more human, and this can be refreshing. Peter Drucker stated, “One cannot hire a hand; the whole man/woman always comes with it.” This is what is happening now as everyone is forced to be more vulnerable, which enhances the personal connection and the feeling of being cared for and about. Back to Drucker’s point, it’s about prioritizing the “objective needs of society for performance by the organization AND the needs of the person for achievement and fulfillment” equally. The pandemic forced many managers to not only speak with employees about things other than “the work” but also be pulled into their home lives through virtual work or understanding their home situations to adapt to changes required to stay safe and healthy during this time. Keep up the increased frequency of check-ins. Keep having conversations focused on the whole self and not just the working hands. Maintain the belief that vulnerability and humility are not weaknesses; they are invitations that build stronger connections between you and your employees, coworkers, etc. How you respond during the most difficult times is an important measure of your leadership effectiveness. The humanity shows that you care, and caring is a powerful leadership tool.
2. Workplace flexibility is at the forefront of many conversations focusing on the “new normal.” Last week alone, companies made commitments to keep working remotely through the remainder of 2020, and Twitter even made a commitment allowing their employees to work remotely “forever” if they’d like. Not all people are in roles that have remote flexibility, but many do. Global Workplace Analytics, a leader in studying workplace flexibility, reports that “56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work,” yet prior to COVID-19, only 3.6% of the workforce was fully or partially remote. Many of us still have so much to learn about how this impacts people, process, and technology. Not to mention, employees want this flexibility. “Before the crisis, surveys repeatedly showed 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time.” While organizations grapple with what this means for them, their people have been adjusting and being productive because, at the moment, we have very little choice in the matter. The people have changed quickly, but organizations change a little slower. This presents a prime opportunity to use this time to experiment with new technologies, virtual interactions, work schedules, etc. Experiment with different technologies available to you and learn what their capabilities are. Find ways to innovate and build connection without being face to face (e.g., virtual brainstorming sessions, virtual sandbox of ideas, etc.). Build connection through virtual team-building, virtual happy hours, or virtual coffee breaks. As states begin to relax measures, and you transition back to work, do it slowly and try hybrid scheduling options to see how they work. For example, make a schedule that alternates employees’ days in the office (e.g., “red” team works virtually for one week and the “blue” team is in the office). Experiment with different variations of what works. This will give you good information on different ways to work that will help build that “new normal” when the time comes. This is exactly what companies that are leaders in the space have done for years and why they continually have high scores related to employee perceptions of their work environments. They experimented and built a “new normal” before they were forced to react and adapt. This is not just something for Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. It is good business sense. A Harvard Business Review study “found that employees who have more choices over their workplace (including when, where, and how they work) scored higher on innovation, job performance, job satisfaction, and workplace satisfaction.” Take this time to learn what works through experimentation and seize this opportunity to shape the “new normal” before it shapes you, or worse, unintentionally shapes itself.
3. Communicate frequently, transparently, and with humility. The pandemic has required more communication to keep staff informed on what they need to do, what the company is doing, and how they can remain productive. Why does this have to stop now or in the “new normal?” Communication has been more transparent - the WHY has been at the center of communications more than I’ve seen before. This has been a positive and we should continue. Finally, the humility in communications has been excellent in building connection and emotional responses. CEOs and leaders that are typically guarded have been sharing their fears and anxieties, while communicating in humanizing ways. This has resonated with staff in engaging ways and should become part of that “new normal.” This has not just been reserved for employees either. Companies have been using the same approach with customers. For example, I have received several emails from the CEO of Korn Ferry, Gary Burnison. In these emails, he is communicating with transparency, humility, and vulnerability. He is not only sharing how his company is responding to provide a quality customer and employee experience but is revealing his own personal stories, anxieties, fears, and realities. These communications are important to employees and have increased connection. “Navigating the crisis curve is not a journey measured in months and miles, but rather in milestones. Indeed, turning discouragement into encouragement will elevate the mundane into the miraculous.” Kudos to Gary for using vulnerability and humility as invitations to build those connections; it has not gone unnoticed by customers and employees. If you haven’t found ways to do this already, give it a try. If you have already started doing this, make it a priority to continue this, not just during a pandemic, but all the time.
In closing, today’s volatile environment is not just about pre- and post-pandemic actions. It’s about the journey of experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis together. Responding together and growing stronger through difficult times. Recovering together, building connection through shared experiences, and experimenting with new ways of working effectively. Finally, thriving together by using the strength gained while responding and connection of recovering to thrive in that “new normal” when it arrives.
Burnison, G. (2020, May 17). EMAIL: Special Edition: It’s OK to Celebrate. Korn Ferry.
Deloitte. (2020). Reboot: Approaches for leaders to enable a resilient recovery Webinar.
Drucker, P. (1967 (2017 Remastered)). The Effective Executive. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Global Workplace Analytics. (2020, May 18). Work-At-Home After Covid-19—Our Forecast. Retrieved from Global Workplace Analytics: https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/work-at-home-after-covid-19-our-forecast
Hoskins, D. (2014). Employees Perform Better When They Can Control Their Space. Harvard Business Review.
Morgan, J. (2017). The Employee Experience Advantage: How to Win the War for Talent by Giving Employees the Workspaces they Want, the Tools they Need, and a Culture They Can Celebrate. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.