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Lessons from COVID-19: leadership and adapting to crises

COVID-19 has changed and is still changing the world as we know it, its effects leaving a drastic impact on organisations and workforces around the globe. This situation has put incredible pressure on business leaders around the world to be effective communicators, make quick—and often difficult—decisions with limited data, and keep their organisations financially viable.

Deloitte’s series on resilient leadership lists three stages that a crisis goes through over time: respond,  where companies manage continuity in the present situation; recover, where they adapt to the current situation and learn lessons that make them more resilient; and thrive, where they prepare for the “new normal.” Leadership is tested as organisations go through these stages, in how they navigate through the situation, reduce the impact on their people, and move forward as a transformed business.

Let us look at where leaders have been placed through these different stages.

Respond

Woman in Mask - from rawpixel.com

Events such as fire and flood, political unrest, and natural disasters pose a risk to business operations, and leaders need to be aware of these so they could respond and ensure continuity of services to their customers. At this stage, leaders need to work with their teams (particularly for those spread out across different locations) to make quick and decisive actions with the data they have—which may or may not be complete at the moment.

As the coronavirus outbreak spread across the region, we have seen a swift response from leadership teams to mitigate risks: from installing additional health and safety measures such as providing face masks to staff and temperature checks, to social distancing guidelines, and training staff to know more about the virus, its symptoms and how to keep healthy.  As government-mandated lockdowns started to take effect, employees were quickly transitioned to remote working and business continuity plans were activated.

For some, remote working was not an option (such as in manufacturing or retail), and social distancing had a direct impact on their business (such as events and hospitality). With the looming recession, many leaders faced more challenging decisions such as wage cuts, layoffs and business closures.

Recover

Once the initial shock of the change had worn off, and employees had gotten used to the new—albeit temporary—normal, leaders need to be ready to provide the next level of support for their people.

But more than just recovery, this is the stage where leaders and their people can adapt to the situation, taking control of what they can and making the best out of the situation.

The core message to help shift the teams from merely responding to the situation to a recovery/adaptive mindset is the assurance that you are all in this together, and it can be achieved through the following strategies:

Communicate, communicate, communicate

In a time where information—which may or may not be correct—is easily accessible anywhere, communication is the number one tool that leaders must utilise to guide their people through any crisis.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been cited and praised for her effective response in the time of a crisis. Her communication techniques are something that business leaders can also apply: the use of tools that are already available to your employees to make your messages more accessible; humanising your method with empathy and clarity to meet them at an emotional level to promote trust and reassurance; being transparent, so your people are more informed about the situation at hand.

Clear and frequent communication does not just apply to your teams but to customers, too. COVID-19 news brings in so much noise that leaders need to cut through false information and uncertainty. Mary Mesaglio, Research VP and Analyst from Gartner, put it well, “Remember that in any communication plan, it matters less that you communicated something and more that your audience understood it…The emphasis should be on what your listeners take in, especially in a situation that is volatile and unpredictable.”

Video conferences

Realistic vulnerability

As the situation continues to change daily with various factors affecting different countries, leaders need to keep a firm, realistic view of their organisation. A recent survey of employees in Australia showed that 70% of respondents said that their productivity levels are same or even better working from home than in the office, but leaders should bear in mind that your people may be using this to cope with the collective trauma of the pandemic.

And let’s face it: everything at this stage is still very hard, and leaders are not immune to these challenges, nor are they expected to be so. Organisations that have successfully overcome crisis are those that are built on trust, and trust is nurtured when leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable to their people.

Build the community 

What makes the COVID-19 pandemic an even more challenging time is how people are asked to observe social distancing and isolation, which is the exact opposite of our human instinct to gather when we are afraid or faced with a crisis.

Social isolation - image from rawpixel.com

Organisations are now in a unique position to provide a community for their people and give them a sense of community despite the physical distance. This can come in the form of interactions in your company’s internal social media, or a weekly virtual check-in with your colleagues (drinks optional), or even something as big as a company-wide quiz night. With all employee events now done online, employee events can now be more inclusive for teams in smaller offices, or for employees who may want to join but are limited by other factors such as transportation or prior commitments outside of work.

Because of this pandemic, work is becoming one form of regular community that people have, and with remote working blending the personal and professional life, even more, this puts a new definition to the term “work-life integration.”

Thrive

While the COVID-19 crisis is not yet over, there has been news in the past weeks of some countries lifting restrictions and companies are slowly opening up and allowing people back to the offices to go back to working in a limited capacity.

There is still no clear picture of how organisations will emerge after this, and we do not know how long it will take. However, as with the preparedness that was required in the earlier stage of the crisis, leaders must start asking themselves and their leadership teams how this has changed their organisation, what are the things they would bring forward and leave behind, and how they plan to emerge as a new organisation into the new world that awaits.

This is the first article in Ascender’s Business Transformation series. In the next article, we will be diving into business continuity essentials and the creative ways companies have pivoted during this crisis. Follow us on Linkedin, Facebook or Twitter a or subscribe to our workforce insights now to get notified!