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COVID-19 crisis: Eight crucial things your employees need from their leaders right now 

By Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays

A few words on a screen just don’t do justice to the global health emergency we all currently find ourselves grappling with. COVID-19, as it spreads throughout the world, is taking over everything we know and everything we are. It’s dominating headlines. It’s dominating our conversations. It’s dominating our thoughts. It’s dominating virtually every part of our lives. Facing a crisis of this scale is new to all of us, it’s uncharted territory, and it’s unsettling and unnerving from many respects. 

Of course, of paramount importance, above everything else, are the profound health implications of this virus. However, today I want to speak to you as a leader of a business which, like virtually every other one in the world, has been catapulted into a situation that we have never had to face before. There are so many ‘what ifs’ and questions being asked of us, and every day brings new news and, potentially new issues to deal with. What seems like a difficult decision today, soon passes as tomorrow brings new information and the requirement for new actions.

But, you are not alone in this – we are all dealing with it. Much of what is changing feels outside our control, and it is. But, what matters most now, is what we, as leaders do, and how we react. That is something that remains absolutely in our control.

Our homes have become the epicentre of our organisations

Suddenly for so many of us, our homes – the sacred places where we feed and grow our families, where we laugh and argue, where we relax and unwind – have quickly transformed to be the epicentre of our work organisations for the foreseeable future. For most leaders, this is a situation that we’ve never had to navigate at this scale before. Sure, some employees might have worked remotely now and again, some on a more regular, ongoing basis – but nothing on this scale. It feels completely new to most of us. Of course, it comes with benefits, but a whole host of challenges too and businesses need to think hard about how they overcome those.

The question to ask is how can we ensure that our people remain productive, engaged and as happy as they can be, given we’re all facing the biggest global crisis of our generation? As the leader of a global business, we first saw the impact in our China business in January, and now as that country gradually recovers, we are closely monitoring the day-to-day return to normality there. We learned many lessons through these last few months, and one of the most encouraging outcomes has been the spirit and cohesion of our teams across China. Their collective bond is stronger now than ever before, having supported each other through difficult times. But above all, we also learned that these extraordinary and difficult circumstances will also pass. It may well take some time, we may all have to take hard decisions, there will be stress and anxiety to deal with, but it will pass, and we will emerge into a new world post this crisis.

So in this blog, after reflecting on our experiences in China and more recently in so many other countries around the world, I’d like to share my thoughts in terms of what we as leaders can all do practically, realistically and quickly to ensure our organisations continue to function well in this new ‘business as usual’ and are in the best possible position once this is all finally over.

In that spirit, here are a few things I think our employees need from their leaders right now:

1. They need strong, decisive and compassionate leadership

Great leaders are born in times of crisis and struggle. Some even say that great crises find great leaders. I think that’s true – I’m sure most of us can name those leaders who have led businesses and countries through the most challenging times in generations gone by.

Emotions are high right now, that’s human nature. It’s human nature to be fearful and anxious, but we cannot let any fear we’re feeling lead us to take poorly thought-through decisions, or further promote a climate of panic and worry within our businesses. We need to be measured, assured and decisive.

As I said earlier, none of us could have predicted the sheer scale and impact of this crisis – so much of what is going on is outside our immediate control. But, what we can control is how we, as leaders, respond and react. Part of this is obviously allowing our people to follow local government guidelines and advice for their own safety, but the rest is all down to the steps we take.

Right now, be aware all eyes are on you. Those eyes are looking at you for clarity, guidance and answers at a time when it feels as if everyone’s world has been turned upside down. Your people will be craving a sense of reassurance, certainty and positivity – to know that this is just temporary, that the organisation they work for will have a positive future and actions are being taken to maximise the chances of that outcome.

We also need to do everything we can to build trust. As the figure-head of the organisation, the communication with your people needs to be human and frequent – regularly updating everyone on any new developments or stances you are taking as a business. Silence is the worst thing we can do, so ensure your communication is clear, honest, transparent, supportive and regular.

It is also crucial that we lead with compassion. Understand that every person in your business will be responding and reacting to this crisis in a very different way and some may be really struggling. Each of their experiences is unique to them. Your role as a leader is to recognise that, and to be understanding, empathetic and sympathetic in everything you do. That doesn’t mean we cannot be demanding – after all a lot needs to get done in double-quick time. But it does mean we need to be consciously aware that our people may be in very different places mentally, as they cope not just with work, but also home pressures.

2. They need to feel accountable and busy

Unpredictable times often result in unpredictable, and constantly changing priorities. Perhaps your clients aren’t as forthcoming with new work as you’d like, or sales are falling quickly as decisions are delayed. The work your teams would usually do every day when they come into the office may now look and feel very different to what it was once just a few weeks, or even days ago. Perhaps some tasks that would normally have been done religiously have been put to one side, or in some cases, aren’t now needed at all. In so many cases, the current situation will already be forcing you as a business to do things quite differently.

Just because the day-to-day rhythm of your business has changed, that doesn’t mean that the innate need of your people to feel accountable has too. It’s times like these when people want and need to feel as though they are contributing in a meaningful way. I’ve seen so many examples where the work people do gives them meaning in a world turned upside down and by doing so, they help both themselves and their organisation.

So, use the unique skills and talent that you have in your business. Pull together task forces, assigning specific roles to the right people. Set daily or weekly priorities and targets so everyone stays focused and understands what they are working towards. Remind your people of your organisation’s purpose and empower them to truly live by it. Don’t slow down, or press pause. Instead, look at reallocating time and resources. Encourage your people to focus on what they can control within your organisation, rather than what’s going on outside of it. Control what you can control and be adaptable to adjust fast when events change.

And, importantly, just because you can’t physically see your people when they are at their desks you must trust that they are getting on with the tasks at hand. Without trust right now, it’ll be incredibly hard to operate properly as a business. So, trust one another, unless you are given a reason not to.

3. They need agreed upon new norms and expectations

As I alluded to, the day-to-day rhythm of your business and flow of work will be different, and that will take some getting used to. When an entire team, particularly one that is close knit, supportive and high performing, is suddenly dispersed, it can be extremely disruptive and unsettling.

So, at the outset of your new working arrangements, I strongly encourage you to agree and establish, as a team, what your new norms and expectations are going forward. It’s important you start out in the best way possible to get everyone on the same page as soon as you can. Don’t wait a few days, do this now if you haven’t already.

Discuss as a group how you are going to communicate as a team going forwards. Is your primary form of communication going to be video calls? In what instances would you use chat vs email vs a video call? How often will you have 1-2-1’s and wider team meetings? If a member of the team needs to be out of the ‘office’, how is this communicated? What are your expectations around response times? Deciding on all these things will start to help you flow more quickly as a team, establishing new routines and protocols with ease. After all, when we’re in the office, face-to-face, these norms and expectations are always there (even if we don’t realise they are), so it shouldn’t be any different when working from our homes.

4. They need to feel connected to you

This one might sound obvious, but as you’re not in the same physical location as your team right now, the amount of contact you would ordinarily have with your direct reports needs to go up. A good rule to follow is to ‘double up’ on the amount of communication you typically have with your team. It might feel like overkill when you’re doing it, but believe me, it won’t feel like it from their perspective.

Think about it. Your people are sat at home, maybe alone, working in a space that they don’t associate with work, and completely cut off from everything and everyone in their normal place of work. It’s understandable that feelings of isolation or loneliness creep in. This could lead to feelings of disconnect and disgruntlement, making matters worse.

So, make a conscious effort to personally check in with each of your team members, more often than you would in normal circumstances. Call them, message them, if even for a chat. Make it clear that you are there to help and support them through this time, in whatever way they need. Encourage them, each morning, to send you a short email update of all the tasks they are planning on working on that day, and what their priorities are. This will keep the lines of communication open, and they won’t feel they’ve just been left to get on with it.

However, be mindful of which communication methods you use for what. Whatever you do, don’t bombard your team with emails. They still have a job to do and need space to concentrate to do that. Constant distraction is the enemy of productivity, so find the balance between ‘checking-in’ and giving them space.

When running video or voice calls, set an agenda, and ensure each team member is given license to contribute and participate on the call. Keep the video switched on to avoid multi-tasking or distractions. Encourage your people to do the same with customers – you can still build a lasting, trusting relationship virtually, it just takes a little longer and requires more effort, but I’ve been really positively surprised at how my own business has built those ‘virtual’ connections with our clients. Remember, your clients will be dealing with their own stresses and anxieties so don’t underestimate how useful a call from you can be to them, just as it might be to you.

5. They need to know that it’s encouraged to find a routine that works for them

Routine is crucial to productivity and engagement no matter what you do or where you work. So, establishing a new ‘work routine’ whilst at home is the order of the day for those who have suddenly been forced to use their lounge, bedroom or kitchen as their new office space. Therefore, you must give them the freedom to do just that.

Working from home can easily blur the lines between our personal and professional lives, but the circumstances we find ourselves in today are unique. Many are confined to their homes, unable to establish any sense of normality, or even go out. It feels as though life’s simple pleasures have been taken away from us. So, there is a danger that our work will dominate our every waking moment, especially if we feel we have precious little to do and boredom sets in. So, start by setting boundaries for yourself and role modelling healthy behaviour – schedule set start and finish times, as well as breaks, and communicate these to your team. A good way to do this is to block the time in your calendar and share it with your team.

As I said, these circumstances are unique. Whole households are working from home at the same time. Many are juggling their work commitment, with looking after their family who are also confined to the home. So, be empathetic to that. One person’s new work routine might look different to another’s. Right now, each person has different challenges to deal within their ‘new office’, so try to be lenient, understanding and flexible. So long as what needs to get done, gets done, you can be flexible on how people have set up their own routine in a way that works for them.

6. They need to still be learning and developing

This crisis is temporary, we will get through to the other side and the world could look quite different when we do. It might not feel like a priority right now, but it’s those companies that spend time and resource in investing in the training and development of their people now, will likely emerge at the other end in the best possible situation. And as a leader, it’s your responsibility to be doing everything you can do to ensure your organisation is in the best shape possible to thrive when this all passes.

See this period of adversity and struggle as an opportunity to proactively strengthen the skills within your teams. Explore ways you can run virtual ‘lunch and learn’ sessions and online training. Your employees will thank you for it, because engaging in something purposeful and positive can help them deal with their own anxieties right now. It’s important to recognise we all need to look after our mental well-being. Furthermore, by investing in them now, you are proactively showing them that you are investing in their future.

7. They need to still feel a sense of human connection

Human connection is the fabric of any business, but for the time being, that fabric will be severely lacking in all our businesses. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to orchestrate it in any way you can. For the foreseeable future, colleagues won’t be having chats in the staff kitchen, going out to lunch as a team, or celebrating their successes together. After a while, this lack of daily human connection can start to fracture the unity of a team. And feeling united has never been more important than it is now.

We must therefore go out of our way to create those ‘water cooler’ moments. Encourage your teams to take virtual lunch or coffee breaks together – schedule them in the diary and stick to that commitment of instilling some human connection into their new BAU working life. At the beginning of your team video calls, take a moment to ask how everyone is doing and what is going on in their lives. Think about starting a specific chat or messenger conversation which is always open and is devoted to non-work-related conversations. I’ve already seen some great and creative ideas – virtual pub quizzes after work on a Friday being the latest in the UK. They all help reinforce the team connectivity and bring a bit of fun into the day.

8. They need appropriate tools and guidance to work from home

Again, this might sound obvious, but to work from home effectively, your people need all the equipment, tools and resources to enable them to do so. That means corporate laptops and mobile phones. It means access to internal files. It also means use of tools like Teams, Zoom and Slack.

This will probably mean a swift, coordinated, and in some cases, large-scale response from your IT teams, those who I call the ‘unsung heroes’ in this situation – the people who are literally enabling businesses around the world to keep the lights on and allow everyone to keep working.

One word of caution here, don’t just give your employees these new tools and expect them to magically know how to operate them, or even to immediately appreciate how to work well from home straight away. For many, these new tools are just that – new. Provide guidance, training and advice on all these things. You cannot simply leave your teams to it, expect they will be ok and will get to grips with things, eventually. It’s not going to work like that.

And don’t forget, you need to still keep your systems secure. Unfortunately, these current circumstances also bring security risks and your people will need help and guidance in how to best avoid falling foul of all those out there trying to compromise your systems, just at a time when you need the systems most.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that your people are working from their own homes, using their own WiFi – WiFi that is probably being used by multiple people in the household at the same time, so expect issues with connections and download speeds. Last week, Italy saw a 70% increase in internet traffic, and VPN usage increased by 112% – this is a sign of things to come. So, be patient and appreciate that we are all dealing with different technical challenges than what we would typically experience.

Normal life as we know it has been suddenly, but temporarily, put on hold. But that doesn’t mean your business needs to hit pause. Yes, the way and speed at which we will work over the next few weeks and even months will change. But it’s important to remember, that as a leader, your people are looking to you to help guide them through this period of uncertainty and help them adapt.

Now is your time to step up to the plate and do that. If you do that well you’ll find your business will quickly establish new, productive ways of working and innovative approaches to deliver value to your customers. That’s why, right now, what we do as leaders, matters more now than it ever has done before.

That’s all for now. I hope each of you found some snippet in here that helps you personally. Stay safe. Look after yourselves, your families, friends and colleagues, particularly those who are caring for the more vulnerable members of our society. We are in this together and we’ll get through it together.

This blog was originally published as a LinkedIn Influencer article.

About this author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.

In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector ith over 6,000 people based in India.

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