COVID-19 presents a continuing and profound impact on the world economy, organisations, and the global workforce. This is a truly unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in and one that many organisations will find challenging to navigate, especially in the short-term. However, there are tangible steps that these organisations, and their leaders, can take now in order to minimise the impact. It was Winston Churchill that once said, “never let a crisis go to waste”, and at WhartonBC we see this situation as being no different.
The 5 rapid response guidance notes below summarise how we have been supporting businesses in responding to current events – not just for immediate impact, but also for the ‘black swan’ opportunity of creating lasting change:
- Communicate expectations and engage managers to cascade and listen
- Organise in Agile formations to maintain productivity
- Virtual yet visible working to reduce isolation
- Interim Workforce to maximise productivity and flexibility
- Develop Resilience to manage organisational health and prepare for the journey ahead
1. Communicate expectations and engage managers to cascade and listen
Under times of uncertainty it can often be tempting to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ as a senior team and wait until you KNOW all the facts and have made all the decisions. Yet in times of uncertainty, there is high anxiety across employees, so it is important to communicate regularly – even when you don’t have all the answers.
How your employees ‘experience’ your response will be critical to building trust and a belief that you are seeking to make decisions in the best possible way and for the right reasons.
- Articulate your organisations immediate response, continuity plans and approach to health concerns
- Provide clear guidance and expectations (e.g. principles for working remotely, focus, updates)
- Ensure there is clarity on lines of communication and escalation 24/7
- Explore new channels to appeal to all communicating and listening styles (e.g. collaborative platforms, virtual townhalls, local briefings)
- Agree ways of working to increase engagement and connectivity (e.g. to turn videos on for calls)
- Bring key messages to life with scenarios and examples
- Brief line managers/leaders on what’s expected of them in cascading messages and engaging people
- Enable people to ask questions and raise any concerns or indeed ideas and feedback on what’s working
Consider that: people will feel isolated and anxious – needing more engagement than you expect; the situation will remain fluid and uncertain so continuous communication is key (even if you feel you are repeating yourself!); people will yearn for honest and transparent communication so share when you don’t have all the answers
2. Organise in Agile formations to maintain productivity
With most organisations already working remotely, the challenge of managing operations and productivity alongside maintaining engagement, morale and organisational health has only just begun. As teams, departments and entire businesses can no longer be co-located in one space, leaders should consider how to adapt organisational formations to maximise performance. How your employees ‘experience’ your response will be critical to building trust and a belief that you are seeking to make decisions in the best possible way and for the right reasons.
Building on the learnings from organising ‘split team rotation’ on/off site for business continuity over the last few weeks, enhanced with employing certain Agile principles, we have listed our top tips to keep teams effective.
- Identify business-critical activities and prioritise your work stack accordingly
- Consider dividing teams into smaller more agile units, assigned with specific tasks and given a greater degree of autonomy to increase rapid action, connectivity and performance through accountability
- Learn from ‘split operation’ strategies to pressure test operating in minimal viable formations
- Understand team dynamics to create multi-disciplinary teams with a balance of working styles
- Leverage technology to facilitate team interaction and coordination of work (e.g. Kanban Boards)
- Ask managers to play the role of ‘Air Traffic Controller’, coordinating work across multiple teams
- Assess employee skillsets and mobility to enable rotation of roles and maintain cover of business-critical capabilities
- Explore the skills and capabilities needed in the ‘new norm’ and where contingent workforce can be leveraged to plug interim gaps
Consider that: a number of individuals will need to step out of their day-to-day roles to instead focus on responding to and managing the virus response. The ability for teams’ to self organise during this period will facilitate greater adaptability and maximise productivity.
3. Virtual yet visible working to reduce isolation
Whilst many relish the idea of working remotely, for others it can be challenging and daunting. Setting your teams up for success is critical; don’t assume everyone will automatically know how best to work away from normal routines, technology and colleagues.
Here are our top tips on help your people manage both their work and wellbeing.
- Provide clear expectations on the outcomes that need to be delivered and when
- Set up daily rituals to facilitate collaboration (e.g. morning virtual team huddles) and team performance (regular check-in points)
- Promote wellbeing habits (e.g. regular breaks, fresh air) and access to online coaching platforms
- Agree principles around working hours to avoid the assumption of being ‘permanently present’ online
- Use video conferencing (with the camera on!) and collaborative platforms (Slack, Teams) to reduce isolation and provide visibility of workstacks
- Create social gatherings online with virtual coffee breaks and lunch hangouts to enhance personal connections
- Encourage line managers to provide regular performance feedback and touchpoints
- Understand people’s personal situations – some may not have ideal remote work set ups, be needing to balance different childcare arrangements etc
Consider that: people will feel isolated and anxious – needing more engagement than you expect; so continue to communicate with them about what is happening ‘back at base’. Out of sight is not out of mind.
4. Interim Workforce to maximise productivity and flexibility
The impact of COVID-19 on your contingent workforce may not be the top of the critical list but this community is vital to survival now and in the ‘new norm’. Some firms who are reliant on the gig economy are pro-actively engaging them – preparing to ‘switch back on’ support if employees are unable to work.
But are they considering the capabilities needed in the ‘new norm’ and where the gig economy can be leveraged to plug skills gaps and enable transformation with flexibility, once the pandemic has run its course?
- Engage existing contingent workforce early if you think you will have to release or rotate them due to business pressures (how you do this is key to maintaining relationships and advocacy)
- Communicate separately for contingent workers, to focus on their specific challenges and concerns
- Consider effective on/offboarding – knowledge transfer is key, make time for handovers and capture insight on collaboration platforms
- Spot the new or exasperated capability gaps revealing themselves in this unprecedented journey, identifying the skills required in the ‘new working norm’
- Map employee skillsets to existing/new business-critical capabilities and where gaps or risks exist if these individuals are unable to work
- Identify how to re-deploy or re-skill people quickly in response, considering the emotional and engagement impacts of any change
- Explore where your organisation can leverage contingent workforce to; support/cover critical tasks in extraordinary circumstances, enable flexibility moving forwards or provide a ‘critical eye’
- Understand existing and future contingent workforce offerings and sourcing strategies & timelines
Consider that: there may be more creative options that you could deploy to appeal to a broad talent base; term time, part time, seasonal, project based?
5. Develop Resilience to manage organisational health and prepare for the journey ahead
The emotional impact of isolation, fear of uncertainty and concerns for well-being is infectious, already prevalent and set to accelerate over the next 12 weeks. Yet many leaders and line managers appear to be solely focused on the logistical preparedness not the emotional preparedness of their teams through this unprecedented journey.
Organisations need to equip managers with the skills and techniques to support their teams and spot early warning signs of being overwhelmed.
- Acknowledge that the situation is unpredictable with government guidance, corporate policies and personal circumstances regularly changing, yet it is important to communicate and engage your team at all times
- Recognise your people will go through an ‘adjustment reaction’ at their own pace, tune into emotional intelligence of yourself and team
- Appreciate the dominance of a ‘parent/child’ dynamic at times of crisis with teams looking for situational leadership and guidance
- Understand where your people are on the Change and Engagement Curve and adapt your leadership and management style accordingly
- Realise the widening ‘conflict gap’ between personal and work responsibilities & loyalties at this time
- Read the WHO guidance which suggests; rotating workers from higher-stress to lower-stress functions as required; and buddying inexperienced workers with their more experienced colleagues
- Provide access to professional support hotlines that offer expert advice on mental health and wellbeing issues
- Define your business discontinuity – what do you plan to stop doing during the pandemic
Consider that: the way in which you support your people during this period will be remembered long after the virus itself. As a leader / manager consider sharing your own emotional journey with your team and openly discuss how you can help support each other to become more resilient.