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Jul 29, 2020

Great leaders are often made during the worst possible times. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill would be relegated to relative obscurity were it not for their pivotal leadership leading up to, and during, World War II. They led the charge that ultimately liberated millions and are now considered two of the greatest leaders in world history. More recently, George W. Bush, in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack provided what the country needed at that time. He was viewed as a leader, even by those who did not see him as such on Sept. 10. 

In Bush’s address to the nation on 9/11, one thing happened that stood out, and always will. It was genuine. He started to tear up. That alone gave him credibility in that moment, even if unintentional. He delivered a message the country needed to hear in a way that resonated.

Great leaders attend to how they accomplish things, not just what they accomplish. For your organization, 2020 will be a year that requires unprecedented leadership. Failure to lead means that your employees will feel uncared for, and while they may stay put due to current economic conditions, they will be gone as soon as the smoke clears. In the meantime, their level of dedication will tank. If they feel you don’t care about them, why should they care about what the company wants? 

Make no mistake, being a leader at any level right now is not easy. But this, leaders, is your time to be great. Elevate your game. Break out of the constraints of yesterday and create a better tomorrow. 

Account for Everyone’s Unique Experiences

While the sentiment has been circulating that we are all in this pandemic together, the reality is that everyone is experiencing it much differently. From our health to our relationships, our 2020 plans and the way we handle the stress and anxiety of a situation like this is unique. Every employee will be somewhere different on a spectrum of readiness for returning to work life as it exists today. 

As much as possible, take into account varying degrees of fear and apprehension, as well as employees’ home life and childcare/eldercare situations, to tailor your return-to-work plan. Do an internal pulse check to see where everyone on your team stands, which could range from low levels of apprehension to significant amounts of fear and anxiety. 

Also consider how you can make allowances for different circumstances, perhaps bringing some groups back to the office first, and allowing others to continue working from a setting that better suits their circumstances and current emotional state.

By tailoring your approach, you can minimize distractions for all and empower your team to be productive. If you’re not able to allow complete flexibility regarding where employees work, consider additional steps to make work more comfortable or convenient. Even small changes may make a big impact. 

Manage Fear and Anxiety

Regardless of where employees fall on the spectrum, fear and anxiety will be prevalent on some level. Even after you’ve done everything to prepare safely, integrating back into an office or work setting will trigger different emotional experiences. Despite best efforts to ensure social distancing and the availability of PPE, the highly transmissible nature of the virus is going to leave everyone on edge to some extent.

Acknowledging this openly will help your employees feel understood and respected. Consider language such as, “We will be returning to the office environment and this may be a somewhat uncomfortable scenario for many of us for a while, even though we have done XYZ to ensure your safety.” 

As a leadership team, don’t be caught off guard if there is an initial decrease in productivity, especially as your team re-socializes and adjusts to changes. Allowing for some transition time is prudent. 

Establish a Plan 

It’s critical to make a plan so that your team is set up for success. It should involve clear steps to address safety regulations established by governing bodies, as well as concerns that employees or other stakeholders might raise. As much as possible, seek to reduce ambiguities, which can create more anxiety. 

Even if you need to adjust the plan over time, especially as more information is available, having clear guidelines in place will go a long way to support your team’s — and their loves ones’ — wellbeing.

Communicate and Show Appreciation Often

Communication will be your most important tool to support employees. Your team will have questions, so it’s important to provide answers. There’s a saying that “fear loves a vacuum.” In the absence of information, our brains tend to fill in the blanks, often with negative content. Employees may assume the worst-case scenario in the absence of communication from their employer.  

Communicate often. Daily may be appropriate for your team, but no less than weekly. Address changes in your plan or protocol, express ongoing appreciation for your team, and show empathy and compassion as you speak to employees on a personal level. While appreciation can sometimes fall off our radar in the midst of stress, it’s critical to be build employees up as they face challenges and fears related to health, finances, increased or changed workload, and adapting to change. 

Communicate openly, beyond emails and memos. Verbal communication, even to emphasize or expand on things said in writing, invites conversation. It also allows for better control of tone and viewing of nonverbal cues in response to the information being communicated, such as body language. Provide opportunities for employees to ask questions and share feedback in smaller groups. And when appropriate, look for opportunities to share your personal experiences to establish trust with your team. 

Talk to Other Leaders

There is no template for a pandemic. None of us are experts. On top of it, every company, team, and employee experience has countless variables. One of the best things we can do as leaders is surround ourselves with others in similar capacities to learn from one another, solicit feedback and generate new ideas. 

If you aren’t already seeking it, now may be a good time to consider executive leadership coaching or other senior level management guidance to balance running your business and caring for your teams. 

Lastly, do not hesitate to get your own behavioral support. None of us are immune to the stress and anxiety brought on by COVID-19. Leading from a place of personal health is critical to being an effective leader. When leaders are healthy, the organization benefits greatly. 

Every company (and every employee) right now needs great leadership. The question is, are you ready to answer the call? 

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