For a while, I felt like I was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
It was April 2020, and news of the coronavirus lockdowns meant my events-booking business, InList—which allows users to book events at nightclubs, bars, live concerts, and more—had to come to a screeching halt. The travel restrictions meant the bookings in our app dwindled to nothing, leaving us facing an uneasy future that spelled at best a moderate return to business and at worst the end of our company altogether.
Our leadership team faced a multitude of difficult decisions. We had to remain calm and confident to move forward, even though none of us felt like we had enough information to take a good first step. It was a challenging time to say the least.
But amid all the e-mails, calls and emergency meetings, what alarmed me most was the sense of uncertainty that echoed in my team members’ voices. They were on the front lines and knew first-hand that the venues we worked with were shutting down left and right. They saw the headlines and even knew some of the millions of people personally in the hospitality industry who were now looking for work.
Early on, it became clear to me that the path to survival had to be forged on more than just decisive action—we needed our employees, the heart and soul of our company, to feel secure, valued, and to have a concrete vision to work towards as we all grappled with the effects of the pandemic. So I devised a plan to keep morale high and ensure our employees know we’d be there for them, and quickly learned that, if you want your employees to show up for you when you need them most, you need to show up for them.
Extinguishing the Panic
InList already had a flexible remote-work policy in place long before 2020—so the work continuity component was easy for us. Maintaining morale, routine, self-confidence and a clear list of priorities was a much tougher row to hoe. I knew that we had what it took to make it through whatever lockdowns would come our way, but did my team know that?
Many studies report the decline of employees’ mental health in businesses of all industries during the 2020 pandemic. It’s important to note that while a founder or manager can do their very best, we can’t prevent all the anxiety, depression and other issues our teams may experience when facing such an unprecedented pandemic—nor should we be expected to. However, if you’re able to help even one person by adopting better leadership practices, then it is worth it.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been terminated without cause from a business right after they asked me to expand my responsibilities.
Nobody ever directly asked me, but I could sense my teammates’ fear about losing their jobs. They had every right to have this concern: The industries we work with are the most exposed of all. We are a scrappy startup, however, and had survived tough setbacks before. I had to address these concerns, and nothing I could say would mean as much as the actions I took.
I could tell them their jobs were secure, but if I was taking actions that showed I was potentially winding down the business, panic would ensue. I determined the best way to handle this was to broaden each team member’s responsibilities outside the scope of their normal duties. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been terminated without cause from a business right after they asked me to expand my responsibilities.
Best Supporting Actors
Ultimately, the pandemic is just a magnification of the skills (or lack thereof) required of a founder. We are required by default to forge a path into the unknown and maintain a calm cool, even while others are screaming doom and gloom. We’re not out of the woods yet, so to support your team in these difficult times and upcoming ones, focus on these action items:
1. Practice self-care.
It’s difficult to lead anyone if you’re in a complete state of panic. Your team will notice and emulate your behavior, so make time for yourself—but make sure to avoid the vices. Enjoy things that put you at ease—maybe spend time in nature and with family members you love (in compliance with social-distancing measures). Try to avoid conflict in personal settings. Consider picking up a hobby you’ve long wanted to start—it may seem like the worst time to do so, but it’s actually the best time.
2. Give real hope.
Nice words may not instill hope for long. Instead, if some aspects of their work have become obsolete, try expanding the responsibilities of your team members. This can help give them the confidence that they are an essential part of the team and not going anywhere soon. Humans have a desire for belonging. Where we are needed, we belong.
3. Be transparent whenever possible.
Businesses can’t survive with total disclosure, but trust is lost when facts are sugar-coated. Be realistic with your team about the challenges you face while assuring them you will rise above—with their help, of course.
4. Never tread water.
Try to have a game plan and a clear set of priorities. If you don’t have any, make some up and then revise. It doesn’t take much for people to feel a sense of accomplishment, as long as they feel they’ve met expectations. It’s not enough to say, “Let’s just try to keep the same numbers we had last month.” You need a game plan for growing, no matter the challenges you face.
Most founders are all too familiar with this kind of pressure and uncertainty, but the pandemic is a unique beast. It’s extremely important for founders and managers to practice self-care and effectively manage their own mental health. We already know what to do during a crisis—we just need to make sure this particular one isn’t the one that sinks us.
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