COVID-19.....5 things leaders can do to prepare their teams and minimise the disruption.

As we watch this new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) spread across the world, with its rising infection rate and death toll, it’s easy to lose sight of what we can be doing as leaders in our organisation, to help minimise the disruption to our teams.

Being prepared for different scenarios and having your communication and support plans ready in advance, is a way to minimise the disruption and frantic rush in an already emotional situation. As change specialists we are often in situations which are unknown and surrounded by fear and misconceptions. We work closely with leaders and teams to reduce the negative impacts to people and business from change and disruption. Typically, this is during organisational restructures, digital transformations, AI adoption, mergers and acquisitions, and at times it includes natural (and man-made) disasters.

Here’s the top 5 things you can do as a leader to support your team and minimise the fear, uncertainty and panic of COVID-19.

1. Own the message and promote transparency and encourage two way conversations

There’s a great saying in change: “If you’re not driving the message, you’re driving it underground”.

As leaders you should have a consistent, coherent communication plan for your people, that is agreed by all the leaders in the organisation and followed by all the leaders in the organisation (everyone needs to stay on message if you want to reduce the disruption that comes from these events. No one wants to hear “that’s not what the sales/finance/marketing team was told”). This should also extend to your customers and both your employees and customers, should be across both communication messages. For example, if you are a bank and you want your customers to self-quarantine if they have returned from travel, then share with your customers how you are asking your staff to do the same.

2. Find out what’s getting your peoples’ attention

If you are hearing conversations across your team that exhibit worry, fear and concern, you can find out what information your team need to have to feel a level of control by running a ‘Hopes and Concerns” workshop. This is a simple 2 hour session that enables you to surface what issues are top of mind for your people, such as:

  • concern about paid sick leave allowances

  • concern about meeting KPIs that are linked to revenue or growth

  • hope as a business we have plans and options in place for potential financial impacts, such as slow revenue

  • hope that the business will still have an end-of-financial-year party

Whatever arises in the workshop, is important information about what you need to do to support your people and minimise the disruption. You should have a prioritised action list at the end of the session. Let people know when you will follow up and share what progress you have made.

3. Get your people involved now in creating the way forward

Plan ahead to plan ahead. If ever there was a time to practice scenario planning (which was pioneered by Shell 40 years ago!), then this has to be it. For those not familiar with Shell’s Scenario Planning, it’s focused on: (a) thinking about the future, (b) mapping several possible scenario’s and then (c) looking at each scenario and deciding the actions that would be required if that scenario came to fruition. The key point is that the work is done well in advance of the scenario actually coming to life... and in the case of the coronavirus, that time would be now.

From a neuroscience and psychological perspective, planning in advance is an important brain-friendly activity, which enables people to be more effective at work. Though the brain is not great at making predictions. To help us with this, Professor Kevin Ochsner, at Columbia University, recently outlined an effective way to think about the future, improve our prediction capabilities and better navigate the possible scenario/s we find ourselves in. His suggestions are:

  • Plan ahead to plan ahead

  • Use the right mix of data

  • Make it social

  • Vividly imagine the future

  • Narratives and stories are a fundamental currency

Empower and support your leaders to create space and time to conduct scenario planning sessions with their teams. Scenarios should include:

  • Customer experience – how will this change over the next 3 months/6 months/12 months if your workforce is on leave? What can you do to provide a consistently positive experience for customers?

  • Your team experiences - what do they need to deliver over the next 3 months/6 months/12 months? How will they deliver it if there is a reduced workforce?

  • Risks (and potential mitigations) - What are the top 3 risks in any scenario? What potential mitigations can be put in place?

  • Financial implications – what levers can be pulled (divert spending, reduce spending, increase investment)

To support the scenario options, be sure to use the right mix of ‘data’ and really check the inevitable biases.

Having your teams working on these is designed to achieve three important things;

  1. Keeps your most important asset focused on proactively developing predictions (hopefully you are doing this in advance of scenario playing out). This will help with transparency and ownership

  2. Creates transparency and empowers your most important asset to be part of co-creating solutions that you would not necessarily think of without the collective experience and insights in the room.

  3. Helps give people a sense of control

4. Create ways to maintain social connection for your people

Make it social. It’s inevitable that some of your people (or many) will be required to work from home during this period. To help your people remain resilient during this time, plan how you will maintain the social connection of your people. Communication and collaboration tools such as Slack, Teams, Zoom are just some of the ways you can promote connection and information sharing for those who are working from home.

Also focus on maintaining your ‘normal’ activities, rituals and habits, in order to the support your teams’ connection to the work and to each other. This will serve your culture and engagement. For example, you can maintain existing practices such as Friday after-work drinks – they will just be a little different. They will be more like ‘remote drinks’, as people will be in their own homes instead of in the office (you could even post a beverage and snack kit to each person). Remote drinks can occur while taking turns to share on video conference their highlights for the week.

5. Acknowledge and celebrate progress and wins

Narratives and Stories are a fundamental currency. When things get difficult it’s easy for us to stop noticing the things that are going in the right direction. Progress becomes harder to see let alone feel the benefits of.

This is where the power of your people comes to the fore again. Look for ways of sharing stories of progress and wins. Get creative, make it social, have fun with it. Again, your people will have ideas for how to do this. It could be that the person with the best ‘win’ for the week wins a box of toilet rolls (they appear to be a collectors item these days). Or something like that!

In summary, if you take a humanised approach to the planning and support of your people and the organisation in the face of the current challenges, fear and uncertainty around COVID-19, then as a leader you'll be doing everything you can. You and your people, your business and your community will benefit.

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