The world is navigating uncharted territory, and a new normal is emerging. All of us are having to adjust to the way we live at levels we would never have anticipated as recently as a month ago. While no one knows how long the spread of the virus will last, we do know that science will ultimately find ways to treat and potentially prevent the occurrence of COVID-19. Although our lives may return to some sense of normal, our priorities and behaviors will inevitably shift.
One thing remains constant: people need to look out for one another. Our colleagues, families, and friends are those we need to support the most. Employers – leadership teams and C-suite executives, specifically – play a pivotal role during this time. Not only are they grappling with finding ways to extend a helping hand to those they employ, but also learning to adapt to conducting business without the day to day interaction to which we are all accustomed. Even at a distance, employers need to ensure personal needs are being met and that spirits remain as high as can be expected during this unusual time.
How to do this in the absence of a playbook is the challenge. Normal acts of kindness, such as weekly check-ins or company-wide gatherings, aren’t enough. Our thinking must now be as innovative on behalf of our employees as it is routinely on behalf of our customers. Companies must treat their people as their most important assets. This starts with establishing methods that allow employees to feel heard and informed.
While there are many ways to address the current climate, there are four key principles that should be embedded in any course of action when supporting employees at times of uncertainty. Although everyone globally is experiencing this moment together, we are all experiencing it differently, which requires individual attention.
Transparency. The unknown can produce anxiety for almost anyone, especially in this climate. Right now, as a population, we know so little about what the future holds. As leaders of companies, it is our responsibility to provide our employees with as much transparency about the state of our business and decision making as possible, without causing fear.
You may be thinking, how do we accomplish that? Or, we are not accustomed to giving our employees information about how the business runs, so why start now? Without our employees understanding what is going through the minds of those who hold their fates in their hands, we are only adding another layer of stress. The solution is to be transparent.
Communicate how the business is faring, the key challenges it faces, and how you are adapting. Your employees read the news and listen to the media. They are fully aware of the 22 million people who have filed for unemployment to date. Make sure they all know in advance if they are facing a risk of being furloughed or laid off, what that will mean for them, and all the resources available to them if they lose their jobs.
Transparency won’t eliminate employee anxiety, but it will ease stress levels and help initiate an open dialogue about the current situation that will lead them to feel heard.
Empathy. It sounds simple and perhaps obvious, but practicing empathy is key in this moment.
Absent knowing the plan forward, we all need one another right now. The most important thing to do is make sure the people within your company know they are supported. Be a sounding board. Listen to those who need someone to confide in. Emphasize that we will support them as best we can. Communicating collectively and individually is the only way to understand how those feeling the most vulnerable are faring; it’s when they will be the most forthcoming.
Showing empathy doesn’t just mean simply asking someone how they are doing. It means trying to understand what that person is going through and working with them to find solutions. Companies may approach this differently.
In our company, the approach has been to create an internal buddy system where people check in with one another week by week. We also have a weekly polly.ai survey where employees can express their views anonymously, and leadership can act in response. Additionally, the Zoom’ check-in’ we conduct every Thursday to pulse-check the community has become an opportunity for leadership to let down their guard and explain the current state of the business.
The key to all of this is to ensure your actions are communicated with empathy, compassion, and respect. This will help to ensure the well-intended action of the leadership group is not interpreted by employees as preaching.
Flexibility. Each of us is experiencing this moment differently. Some of us are thriving, and others are experiencing the emotional roller coaster brought on by living in isolation. As much as we might wish, we cannot accommodate all problems or meet all needs. However, we can be flexible. Now is not a time to be rigid in how we do things. It is a time to show our willingness to accommodate all reasonable requests through an increased level of flexibility in how we implement our policies.
Flexibility can come in many forms, but the message you want to convey is “we understand.”
We understand if you need to miss an internal meeting today because you have to take care of your child or you are feeling really anxious and need to go for a walk. We understand that you may be feeling overwhelmed by work and not being with your family. We understand that you won’t have a draft done by the end of the day because you have been pulled in multiple directions. And we understand that you may not be in a position to generate new business leads at a time when we are asked to confine ourselves.
Though different, flexibility and empathy are related. Show people you care and give them the flexibility they need to perform to the best of their ability in this unprecedented time, while also helping them to process the emotional impact this moment is having on them.
Action. Listen to your employees, digest what they are saying, and act accordingly. None of the above means anything if you do nothing with what you have heard. Employees care about their companies doing two things. First, give them a platform to speak. Second, demonstrate that their input has been heard by taking action.
What leadership teams do in this moment will define employee attitudes well into the future. How you support your employees’ emotional and professional needs at the most challenging times will go a long way to building support among your workforce and your reputation as a preferred employer. The longer you take to act, the harder it’s going to be to achieve the desired outcome. Start now.