Crisis Leadership: Finding Ways to Cope with Coronavirus

The only certainty about anything today is that coronavirus has created an unholy mess for business owners and workers.  Leaders, unprepared for a pandemic, are forced to make decisions with information that changes daily.  Business owners are worried about lost productivity and healthcare costs, while their employees are feeling more stressed than ever.  They wonder how they will take care of their families if they become ill.  

Fortunately, we are learning more about COVID-19, and Congress is taking steps to shore up businesses and the economy in the event this outbreak is long term. As a business owner, what should you be doing now to exert some control, calm the waters, and ensure that your employees feel supported during these uncertain times?   

1. The first step is to communicate.  

Like many employers, planning for a pandemic probably wasn’t top of mind.  Now you are playing catch-up.  Downplaying the situation or avoiding it will make you seem incapable of rising to the challenge.  Make a communication plan by first choosing a channel sure to reach everyone, either through the company employee portal, text, or email.  While you should be the first communicator, you may also want to appoint an alternate spokesperson to share the load and take over if you become ill.  Connect daily at first, use positive messaging to shore up your troops, and then commit to updates as appropriate every few days.  To help your employees keep well and informed, and to support a clean workplace, share these helpful links in your communications:

CDC  – What You Should Know

CDC – Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations

Occupational Health and Safety – Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19

Massachusetts Department of Health – Information on COVID-19         

2. Choose your team and organize your people. 

Companies that don’t fail in a crisis nearly always have the right people in the right place.  Massive reorganization of workspaces and schedules will require committed, dedicated, and organized leadership at all levels of the organization.  Identify your most influential people and get them started on reimagining how to get work done.  With COVID-19 disrupting workplaces across the country, companies like Google, Amazon, and Twitter are implementing recommended or mandatory work-at-home orders.  Where this is an option, technical IT ability, workflow scheduling, and HR oversight can help minimize disruptions to productivity.  You’ll need your best people to do this work.

3. Allow creativity to be your best resource for getting work done.  

It is in times of crisis that innovative ideas often materialize.  Establish a feedback mechanism to gather ideas and data that can help you make the right decisions.  Some of your best ideas will come from your staffers about how to get work done.  Be open to experimenting with new workflows.  Set up a portal to ease two-way communication and gather ideas.  

For one large public utility, workers decided they could limit exposure if only half the workers showed up at the office at a time.  One half works at home for two weeks, while the other half meets at the office.  Workers can trade in and out if their task requires them to work with others if they have not been exposed.  

Another worker, suffering from the isolation and demotivation that sometimes happens by working at a remote location, came up with the idea of having accountability teams.  Using a chat app like Slack or Zoom conferencing, members check in with each other every morning and discuss their challenges and tasks.  Regular face-to-face communication fills the need to feel part of the organization and stay motivated.

4. Support your employees through actions, not just words.  

Suspend travel, limit large meetings, and encourage staff to stay at home if they are not well.  Most importantly, keep your facility clean!  Increase health signage in the office and restrooms and place hand sanitizer around the office.  Consider increasing your cleaning schedule for high-touch areas, and if you have been notified of exposure, close your facility and follow CDC and state guidelines about disinfecting the workplace before allowing people to return to work.  Because they will be worried about their jobs and financial situations, adjust your PTO and attendance policies so that staff can take care of themselves and their families without fear of losing their jobs. 

Your most important job as a leader is to communicate regularly and positively to boost the morale of your employees.  By establishing a two-way communication plan and empowering people to share their ideas of how and where to get work done, your business will be able to adapt and survive in any crisis.