When COVID-19 hit the news in Austin, Texas, Clint Smith's first priority was the safety of his people. The president of CareerPlug, a recruiting software company, got together with his leadership team and made the joint decision to cancel all travel and have all 60 employees work remotely beginning that afternoon. Smith encouraged them to take whatever they needed, including laptops, monitors and office chairs, to create a comfortable work environment at home. “I have a young family and I wouldn’t want to go on a plane, or work in an office,” he says. “So I knew it wasn’t fair to ask my people to do it.”
Mancini Duffy, an architecture and design firm in New York City, made a similar early move, sending employees home days before New York enacted a state-wide shut down. “At the time, a lot of people were still unsure of whether this was going to be a big deal,” says Layla Safiani, senior associate and one of the 90 Mancini Duffy employees now working from home. “We were lucky to have good leaders who were proactive enough to do that.”
This kind of empathetic and proactive leadership is what is required during this pandemic, as employees look to leaders for guidance, comfort and a way forward. This crisis will last for weeks, and it will test the true leadership skills of executives in ways they’ve never been tested before. “My life right now is about looking for ways to keep people safe, employed and not worried,” says Bolanle Williams-Olley, Mancini Duffy’s CFO. And big early gestures are only the beginning.
Effective leaders need to stay engaged with employees and keep them apprised of what’s going to happen throughout the pandemic, says Smith. As soon as his people were fully remote, he launched a COVID-19 communication campaign that is equal parts motivation, inspiration and corporate transparency. “In a crisis it’s important to get closer to people, so I’m asking everyone to communicate more,” he says.
He starts each day with a motivational message, shared via a communications platform, about keeping a positive mindset and focusing on what you can control. “It’s a way for me to touch base and to share what I’m thinking about," he says. However, he knows his people need more than motivational passages. They need to know what’s going on, without any sugarcoating, he says.
As a recruiting firm, the company was hard hit by the shutdown. To stem the loss of clients, Smith’s team implemented a 60-day freeze on customer accounts to ease pressure on clients facing cash-flow crises—and to help ensure they come back when the shutdown is over.
That’s been a huge relief to clients, says Jenny Leman, CareerPlug's senior director of client operations. “We have clients call every day in a panic, prepared to make the case for why they can’t pay us,” she says. When she tells them about the freeze, they're relieved. “It’s one thing we can take off their list.”
But it also means the company isn’t generating much revenue, and Smith shares that with his employees. “We give everyone updates on the number of accounts frozen, the amount of money that equates to and what it means for our budget,” he says. He is also sharing how he plans to avoid layoffs—by not backfilling open positions, freezing raises, cutting spending and dipping into the company’s reserves. “We can’t say layoffs won’t happen, but we are doing everything we can to avoid it,” he says. And employees are grateful. “I’m proud of us,” Leman says. “We will take major hits to our system from this, but we are helping our clients and avoiding layoffs. That takes incredibly strong leadership.”
My life right now is about looking for ways to keep people safe, employed and not worried.
—Bolanle Williams-Olley, CFO, Mancini Duffy
Mancini Duffy’s leaders have been similarly transparent with employees, as well as empowering them to look for innovative ways to support their own clients when they can’t go to job sites. “They are giving us cues on how to move forward,” Safiani says. For example, before New York City shut down completely, she had one of her clients walk her through his job site using Microsoft Teams, then she froze images from the site and drew design solutions on the screen. “It worked better than if we had been together because he could see the drawings,” she says. “He was also happy that we didn’t just kick the project down the road.”
Mancini Duffy’s leaders also connect constantly with employees, giving them updates and advice on how to keep clients engaged. The constant communication is calming, Safiani says. “Even if it is things you don’t want to talk about, at least they aren’t beating around the bush,” she says.
That kind of honesty also prevents the rumors, speculations and unfounded fears that can get in the way of productivity, says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, a small-business tax filing service in Calabasas, California. [Disclosure: Sweeney has previously contributed to American Express.] “It saves you the exasperation of employees inventing scenarios because they don’t know what’s going on,” she says.
And once the crisis is over, the transparency and communication should continue, says Willams-Olley, who has seen the benefits that transparency and leadership have brought during this crisis. “People are scared, and they are coming to us for solutions,” she says. “Being compassionate, listening and having a clear plan is the most important thing we can do.”
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