COVID-19 has led to unprecedented workplace disruption—and that calls for unwavering leadership. As employees struggle to adjust to a new and unpredictable normal, it’s more important than ever that business leaders step up and be present.
But how can you do that amid so much uncertainty?
1. Trust your instincts.
There is no guidebook for the current unprecedented circumstances, so follow your gut as you manage your employees.
“The simultaneous challenge of economic uncertainty paired with a sudden need to completely reorient business procedures to mitigate the health threat isn't something many companies game planned for,” says Jeremy Diamond, managing lawyer of Diamond and Diamond Lawyers. “Seasoned leaders can draw somewhat on past experiences, but the unprecedented nature of the threat means most will have to rely on instinct and sound judgment to carry them through.”
Your employees will look to the way you react to the situation as a model for their own thoughts and actions. To trust your leadership instincts as a mode of decision-making is to double-down on your faith in your own leadership capabilities, which can inspire confidence in your employees or direct reports.
2. Exude calm.
“As a leader, projecting an aura of calm is the most important thing you can do in a crisis,” says Diamond. “Remaining calm will help avoid a general sense of panic amongst employees and bring order to what would otherwise be an out-of-control situation.”
“Strong leadership when you manage employees involves keeping your head when everyone else is losing theirs,” Bevis says. When he finds himself getting anxious, Bevis takes a few moments to “regather his wits.”
“If your employees see you worried, they will begin to think it’s all over. Though this is a difficult situation, you can control how you react,” adds Adam Witty, CEO of authority marketing agency Advantage.
3. Reassure your employees and give them hope.
Instilling hope is the key to effectively leading employees during times of crisis, says Kerry Goyette, founder and president of Aperio Consulting Group. (Her company uses behavioral analysis to help companies build high-performance teams.)
“The best leaders lead from a place of hope, while accepting reality,” says Goyette. “Hope is a key ingredient to problem solving. If we don’t believe there’s a way forward and a tomorrow, how will we create a way forward?”
Practice this by choosing your language and communication style carefully—avoid alarmism and defeatism. Be realistic, but seek out the silver lining that can keep employees or teammates motivated, focused and reassured.
4. Focus on the future...
Some leaders find the best way to keep employees going is to work on future projects.
“We’re having employees continue to create itineraries and even promotions for release when travel resumes,” says Yolanda Ceron, CEO of Amazon Voyagers Travel. “We’ve told employees we’ll come out of this even stronger and more organized.”
“Describe what recovery looks like to employees,” says Crumpton. “Doing this will encourage them to stay plugged in.”
If the opportunity arises, take the next step by acting on that vision. For example, if you've been planning to overhaul your website, ask your employees if any of them would like to be involved. Compensate them for their time, or consider paying for online classes that would teach them web development skills.
Additionally, if you're a leader at a large organization, take the time to speak to your direct reports about their career trajectory—treat this as an opportunity to learn more about your team's ambitions and how you can help your direct reports grow.
5. ... But also face reality and be transparent.
While remaining positive is important when you manage employees, it’s equally vital that you acknowledge reality.
“False bravado and rose-colored glasses will only sow doubt as to the caliber of your leadership,” says Bevis. “Not knowing all the answers isn’t a weakness, but covering up that fact is.”
Your employees need to know that you’re informed of circumstances and ready to deal with them.
“Face the facts head on and don't sugarcoat things,” suggests Witty. “Most businesses will be negatively impacted by COVID-19. Some will need to reduce workforce hours; others lay off employees. Share what impacts you expect the virus to have on your business and what the business is doing to mitigate those negative impacts.”
The best leaders lead from a place of hope, while accepting reality. Hope is a key ingredient to problem solving. If we don’t believe there’s a way forward and a tomorrow, how will we create a way forward?
—Kerry Goyette, founder and president, Aperio Consulting Group
Help your employees accept the changed work environment as quickly as possible, adds Eyal Feldman, CEO of accounts payable automation software company Stampli.
“Employees may be paralyzed when the future is unclear, so it helps to keep them focused on current challenges, which are far easier to cope with than hypothetical versions of an unknown future,” says Feldman.
The best thing to do is to volunteer the truth. Give regular status updates about the health of your business or business group and be candid about the decisions you may have to make. Most of all, be human—be a leader, but empathize with your team's position and offer candid answers to questions they have.
6. Communicate with your employees regularly.
Given the tense situation and fact that many businesses are currently operating remotely, keeping lines of communication open is critical.
“Now is the time for more meetings when you manage employees,” says Anthony Algmin, founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company that helps business and technology leaders take advantage of data. “Hold at least one daily standup with your team.”
In addition to taking care of business during virtual meetings, Algmin suggests encouraging general interaction.
“Remember that people accustomed to spending much of their physical time together are now separated,” says Algmin. “There may be a sense of loss or loneliness amongst your team. Allow time for people to share any challenges.”
Business leaders should also do regular individual check-ins with their employees, advises Erica Schultz, chief marketing officer at RAIN Group, a sales training and consulting company.
“A quick message to employees working from home can help them feel more connected," Schultz says. "Doing this also allows you to discover any unique challenges impacting their work.”
To communicate effectively, think about setting a schedule—try standardizing how and when you communicate. Routine communications could calibrate your employees' or team's expectations and may defuse any uncertainty about when they're going to hear from you next. For example, try starting the day with a team-wide status update by email. It's a good idea to send it every day at the same time and to follow a template—perhaps where your company or business unit is at, what you're personally focused on that day, and what you hope to know for tomorrow.
7. Stay busy and be productive.
“I haven’t slowed down in my volume of work, and employees can see that,” says Weitz. “Of course, make accommodations for people who have kids or other restrictions, but it’s critical that people see their leaders aren’t radically changing their work output or quality.”
Brian Joslyn, founder of Joslyn Law Firm, has found idle workers tend to worry more.
“I've noticed that my employees are obsessed with the constant minute-by-minute updates of the virus,” says Joslyn. “I’m actively finding ways to manage employees so they stay focused on their work.”
One way to train your employees on productive tasks is to have them focus on back-burner projects or ideas you've been meaning to execute but haven't had time amid the day-to-day tasks before the crisis. Assign a task force of employees to resurface the idea in a concrete deliverable, such as a document that has a recommendation of how the idea can be executed when business gets back to normal.
8. Heed your own advice.
“Company leaders aren’t immune to the same crises that our employees are going through,” says Algmin. “We need to give ourselves some time to breathe and recalibrate to changing situations. Participate in a hobby. Without a pressure release, you can’t sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as your teams and businesses require.”
Read more articles on motivating employees.
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