Even with a stellar crisis plan, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a set of challenges unprecedented in our lifetimes. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re dealing with something growing exponentially, creating uncertainty on a global scale. I managed a team of 40 in Singapore during SARS. That crisis was different, hitting Singapore and a handful of other cities. But plenty of parallels exist: it was a health crisis, and the lessons learned might serve you and your organization well now. Here are some things to do immediately, including addressing issues around remote work, to ensure that business continues as usual.
This is your full-time job right now. Whatever was on your priority list last month, isn’t anymore. This is your full-time job right now. That means you may need to tell the C-suite that their pet project has been delayed, and you may need to tell employees that performance reviews and team meetings are on hold. You and your team may be working very long days in the coming weeks.
Push communications twice a day. In the arc of a crisis, we don’t know quite where we are—and that uncertainty can cause panic for some employees. News is coming out fast and good information is hard to come by. Create a morning and late afternoon update so your people know you are paying attention to their well-being. Share new information and repeat facts you already know. As we move from crisis to recovery—and we will recover—your updates can move from twice a day back to once a day and, then, less often.
Let go of perfection. It’s better to send out a revised set of rules everyday rather than being silent for days while executives try to land on the perfect policy and ideal language. Modify standard policies and make exceptions to long-held rules. Be transparent—it’s OK not to have all the answers because there are few definitive answers. Be transparent and say what you know and admit what you don’t know.
Monitor the CDC and your state health authorities. There will be rumors, fake news, and speculation. The only thing we know is that we have never been through this before. In 1918 during the Spanish Flu, it took days to cross the Atlantic and antibiotics hadn’t been invented. Because this is unprecedented in our modern world, the CDC and your state health authorities are doing admirable work providing the most reliable and trustworthy information.
People will respond very differently—prepare for that to cause problems. Some people may begin refusing to come to work—others might seem cavalier about COVID19. That divide may create serious friction in your organization. People who come to work begin to resent those who don’t. Those who stay home begin to believe that some of their co-workers don’t care about the health of families. After SARS, it took a long time to heal this split in the office. Acknowledge the split and that both points of view are valid.
Create new remote work guidelines—today. It doesn’t matter if you change these guidelines (see #3), just put out some basics. Is there a daily meeting? Will teams need to check in every day? What tools should they use? Should all meeting participants turn on their video? Whatever you decide—put out some guidelines so people have a place to start. You can modify these tomorrow and completely rewrite them when the crisis passes.
We may not return to “business as usual.” You are going to want to reassure people, and that may be an important part of your job. Tell people it will be OK—because it will. But be careful: don’t make any promises, because “OK” may not mean what it used to mean. Companies will likely make changes during the crisis or as things begin to recover. And, this may be an opportunity to change how your organization works. You are going to learn things about how your people learn, adapt, and improvise that will inform the new future.
Take care of yourself. This is a marathon not a sprint. And, to carry that metaphor forward, we don’t know the course of the marathon. We know some of you have been working around the clock—that’s not going to end tomorrow. If you aren’t healthy and grounded, you can’t see your team through this. Ground yourself; whatever gives you peace and contentment—you need that now, for you, for your family, and for the demands of your work.
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