In so many ways, working life has come to a sudden and unexpected standstill. The world has gone home. Office whiteboards remain decorated with month-old abandoned brainstorms, and once-crowded conference rooms gather dust. For executives and their teams, the abiding feeling – aptly explored in this HBR article – is grief for the way things were.
Already we feel nostalgia for what life was like just weeks ago. And while we try to run faster, continue to gain efficiencies, and keep our businesses moving, we also fear our organizations aren’t suited for the ‘new normal’ thrust upon us. Possibly even worse, we are experiencing ‘anticipatory grief’ over what is yet to come, or a fear of the unknown.
As we move through this stage, and begin to shift the collective mindset of our organizations from fear to hope, we must rely on a core skillset of the world’s strongest leaders – the ability to focus across the short- and long-terms. And nowhere is this more important than with the people who are at the heart of your business, so we’ll start there.
Present Focus: Maintaining Connection
We find ourselves living through the world’s largest telecommuting experiment, and in it there are plenty of positives to be found. As The Atlantic notes, “[Telecommunicating] is a boon to social life, family life, egalitarianism, neurodiversity, and the planet itself.” But this is an experiment in its infancy, and if we are to pull it off, we must do everything within our grasp to provide people with comfort and stability.
People are the fabric of our respective organisations, and in the absence of the water cooler chats, friendly lunch conversations and run-ins with senior leaders and colleagues that keep spirits high, it’s important to recognize that tensions may be rising behind closed doors. Isolation is a challenging time, and the imagination runs amok when communication is absent. Showing empathy and compassion and enabling connection during these changing times in the lives of employees is imperative. Each organization should have an intentional approach to this, and some ideas for leaders to consider could include:
· Quickly establish which tools and technology you will rely on and provide clear guidance on these. Ask team members if it is clear which tools are used for which purposes and clarify immediately if not. Establish generous and flexible working-hours / expectations regarding availability via these tools. This is low-hanging fruit for improving connections and reducing stress.
· Meet regularly (perhaps more regularly than before) and leverage video wherever possible. However, it’s imperative that we are aware that our colleagues may now be juggling work and home responsibilities at the same time. With that in mind, it’s critical that we are hyper-vigilant about using meeting time wisely, leveraging clear meeting owners, desired outcomes and agendas for every calendared meeting.
· In the absence of the watercooler, create space for ad hoc interactions. Leaders can be present and available via chat or online forums and should intentionally reach out to people they might normally only get a chance to see in the hallways or canteen.
It may be hard to see it now, but we can be hugely grateful that modern technology allows for so much business to continue to thrive remotely. In a survey by 8×8 at the end of February, 90% of respondents said they are either confident or very confident that they will remain productive if asked to work remotely as a result of a crisis. This is confidence that should be reciprocated by businesses. Have faith in your people to work to the best of their abilities, rather than resorting to spying on your employees.
Present Focus: Support They’ll Remember
Your employees of the future are likely to have following question at the top of their list: How did this company support employees during the Covid-19 crisis? The answer to this question will speak volumes about the company culture, the leadership style behind it and whether or not they will want to be part of it. This crisis presents a huge opportunity to make your teams feel supported in a time of crisis, but also to make them proud of the company they work for when this is all over.
With this in mind, leaders should think carefully about:
· Working hours and paid leave policies. Are they clear and bold, erring on the side of trust for your loyal employees?
· Provision of online tools and hardware. Do your teams have everything they need to do their jobs from home?
· Performance Evaluations. How will they be different during this very unusual period?
· The Human Factor. Remember that it’s not all about policies and procedures. It’s the anecdotes of how leadership showed up for team members when they were struggling, how colleagues pulled together to support community efforts and everything in between.
Present Focus: Cost cutting as an exercise in leadership and inspiration
It probably goes without saying that every business needs to be paying hyper-close attention to the balance sheet at a time when revenues are severely depleted. And while cutting costs may not seem like an obvious way to inspire hope in an organization, if communicated well, these measures will be seen as decisive and proactive leadership through the storm.
Take Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson’s six minute video to employees, shareholders, and customers last week, in which he candidly laid out the hard truths to his team with vulnerability, humanity, and a sense of humour. A large part of crisis management is in crisis messaging, and this was a stellar example of how it should be done.
Future Focus: Survive or thrive?
Surviving in the short term will naturally be the first focus of any business. But the ability to keep planning for the long term, rather than simply firefighting in the short term, will separate those who survive from those who thrive. If we look at the stages of grief, we know that liberation lies within the fifth and final stage: acceptance. Acceptance is where we find control and are able to envision a path forward. But what comes next? For a business, this is where we shift the focus from now to tomorrow. The key questions here are:
· What can we be doing to make sure we are spotting potential opportunities as a result of this crisis?
· What has changed for our consumers and partners during this crisis? How might their needs and desires evolve as a result?
· What technologies might be able to help us to address these gaps over the next six, twelve, even eighteen months?
Remember, this is a time for your best and brightest to step up to the plate and find new ways to bring in revenue – not just doggedly retain existing business.
To be clear, this isn’t about being opportunistic in a morally corrupt way. It’s about assessing the new normal, and understanding the evolving needs of your current consumers and potential new markets. In many cases, it will be about going against what our brains are telling us to do – to focus entirely on the negative so we attempt to know EXACTLY what to fear – and spend more time flexing the creative muscles that made us great leaders in the first place.
“Innovation requires knowledge, skill and courage.” – Ben Horowitz
In order to innovate to adapt and thrive in this new normal, we will need to bring all of these attributes to the table. The first two are table stakes for any business leader. But the sooner we can work through the stages of grief and/or crisis management to a point of acceptance, the sooner we’ll be able to tap into our courage, and shift our organizations from fear to hope.