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Engaging Your People During Coronavirus Uncertainty

on March 4, 2020

This morning I had a call with a multi-national life sciences company that has the coronavirus on its mind. Not to eradicate the virus, but more immediately – how to plan for its impact. This company is not alone. Regardless of your industry, location, or business size, all organizations should be having this same discussion. Leaders need to think about how the coronavirus will impact all facets of their businesses.

It’s an interesting strategic macrocosm we’re facing as this story unfolds – how quickly do I adjust strategies, or can I remain true to previous plans? And how do I help my people understand our revised path forward and still serve our customers?

Engaging Your People During Rapid Change

Today’s coronavirus reminds me of a scenario I experienced early in my career – the Fukushima nuclear disaster in spring 2011. People watched the story unfold 24/7 on television and wondered how this disaster, in an unfamiliar corner of Japan, would impact the rest of the world.

At the time, several jobs ago, I was a young engineer with expertise in two suddenly converging disciplines – nuclear chemistry and aerosol physics. I got connected with a global shipping conglomerate that desperately needed up-to-the minute radiation assessments to continuously consider its shipping routes (or re-routes). We had little information, but instead of getting bogged down with the scary stuff, we had to focus on the facts. Regardless of the fear circulating, we needed to remain productive. The same mindset applies to the coronavirus – leaders must develop plans that address the risks while striving to stick to normal operations as much as possible

Five Leadership Characteristics You Always Want to Embody 

Fukushima and the coronavirus are different for a number of reasons, especially the fact that human activity will cause a virus to spread, whereas a nuclear cloud needs no human help. But parallels exist too – both are unforeseen threats to health and well-being that can have dramatic impacts to the business world. The most significant lesson I learned from Fukushima is one that certainly can be applied today: good management must come into play, just like any other day. Yes, a crisis requires shifts and changes and a dash of crisis communications, but good management is the constant.

Leaders need to remember to demonstrate the following five characteristics during times of adversity, as well as during the average workday. Leaders, regardless of the circumstances (but especially during a crisis), you want your actions and words to be:

  1. Authentic – When times are a little scary, there is no reason to blatantly ignore that emotion, but don’t give it the spotlight either. Acknowledge and move on.
  2. Communicative – Even if some communications are informational, don’t let a vacuum form in the company conversation. Trust me, it will be filled with buckets of wild ideas that take on a life of their own. Be sure to share the truth before the rumor mill takes over.
  3. Optimistic – Ensure your people see that this is a risk that can be objectively dealt with, no matter how bad it gets.
  4. Proactive – The thing that sticks with me the most in the Fukushima aftermath is how we made plans, and when new information came out, we adjusted plans – and then we did it again.
  5. Decisive – Once aspects of the situation become clear enough to make a decision, do it. Decisiveness will continually pare the playing field to remain manageable.

Remember: Everyone Is Impacted By a Crisis

A crisis impacts more than just the leadership team. Everyone across the business will feel the stress and the strain. To help the leadership team continue to lead with success, they need to think about each person in the organization and help them manage the unknowns too.

So, as you develop your crisis plan, consider the different roles and scenarios of your people to help foster ongoing engagement and productivity, regardless of what the future holds.

  • Leaders – Sometimes in a state of heightened market pressure, priorities become confusing. Leaders, you must ensure that you’re aligned as a team on the strategic imperatives and priorities that will continue to propel the organization forward.
  • Managers – Managers are the primary conduit and leaders of change efforts. Empowering your managers with up-to-the-date information and providing them with team huddle framework can ensure the information is being cascaded in a consistent and meaningful way.
  • The People in the Trenches – The people most disconnected from leaders, but most connected to your customers, need to be provided with clear direction on what change is happening, why it’s happening, and how it impacts their day-to-day work. Information is critical.
  • Disparate Work Environments – If there are scenarios where people have travel restrictions or are not able to have face-to-face meetings, it’s important to leverage your virtual communication tools. It’s possible today to use technology to replicate many of the same experiences you would typically leverage for in-person events. Use those to your advantage by creating virtual workshops that could enable people to have group discussions or role-play new scenarios.

Knowledge is Power

Objectively speaking, the coronavirus represents a risk to your business, very much like any other risk. You watch it, you quantify the likelihood of various scenarios playing out, and you estimate the impact if they become reality. This specific health threat is so small it can’t be seen, yet so big and ominous it can’t just be braved away. If you’re a leader, you should be having these difficult discussions right now to determine how you will be helping your people manage any changes that you’re going to be asking of them.

The important thing to remember is that just like any situation where the marketplace or other environmental factors feel tenuous or are rapidly changing, leaders can’t leave people to make decisions or arrive at their own conclusions without having all the information. So, despite your instinct to keep the scary stuff from your people, the best way to lead right now is to give your people the truth and share your plan and its many scenarios. As cliché and 1990s as it is, the fact is that old public service announcement slogan, “The more you know,” is especially apt in times of change.

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