Do more than bounce back from COVID-19, bounce forward

Aug. 20, 2020
The important lessons learned through the crisis show how organizations adapted quickly and communicated effectively, and employees responded positively.

Within a couple of months, COVID-19 took us from the best of times to the worst of times. When you thought it couldn’t get any worse, we were told we may need to outrun murder hornets too. All of this is wreaking havoc on everything we know, and has driven a lot of uncertainty into the workplace. This uncertainty then takes the form of fear. Will I lose my job? Will I get sick? How do I balance my 9 to 5 with the kids? It is everywhere, and it is in your face 24/7. This is fear, folks, and there’s a surplus of it!

With organizations now on high alert, Denison, a research firm in Ann Arbor, MI, specializing in corporate culture, immediately began collecting resilience data pro bono for its clients as COVID-19 began to unfold. The project was intended to help organizations hear from their employees about what the organization is doing well and where they could improve. In just 30 days, Denison collected data from more than 3,000 employees from 20 different organizations, asking people, “What did your organization do well?”

Each of the 20 organizations rose to the challenge of the crisis in their own unique way. But, the commonalities heard in the research was about how they adapted, the level of communicating that happened, and how people came together. One quote sums up a lot of the comments about what their companies were doing well: “The level of communication from upper management has been outstanding; it has really put us somewhat at ease. The company has adjusted well to the circumstances. It has been very impressive to see the way we work so well together, and I’ve never been more proud of an employer.”

What people were experiencing is an organization coming together in a way they may not have seen before. When forced with the realization this crisis could put them out of business, the adaption instinct kicked in. Therefore, as we wonder what life will be like when we bounce back from COVID-19, I suggest you take note of some of the cool things that are happening because of this crisis and use it to bounce forward. So, without a known vaccine and apparently murder bees everywhere, the following are three major themes that organizations should continue as they move away from COVID-19.

How we adapted

As companies began to shift their work processes, it required an enormous amount of change in a very short period of time. Things such as changing safety processes, communicating new policies and procedures, and getting all nonessential workers shifted from office to home needed to be done. This was a lot of change, more change than most organizations would experience in a decade!

In normal circumstances as most leaders know, people tend to resist change. My guess is most leaders didn’t see a lot of resistance to the change taking place from March through April. There is a reason for this, and it is something all leaders should take note of as they conduct after-action reviews following the crisis.

John Kotter, author of “Leading Change” and Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School, created an eight-step model for creating change in organizations. The first step in any organization to get people to change is providing a “sense of urgency.” Without it, people do not see a need to change. In this instance, there was ample urgency, thus making it easier for leaders to get employees to adopt new ways of working. As we bounce forward, it is important to remember how well your organization adapted to COVID-19 and how a strong sense of urgency helped you get there. The key point to remember when getting people onboard for future change initiatives is creating a strong sense of urgency and laying out a vision of what life will look like when you are there.

How we communicated

Sixty percent of people in the dataset pointed to communication as being the number one thing employees felt was done well during the crisis. From top to bottom, people were getting weekly if not bi-weekly updates on policies, new processes, virus updates, and the state of the company.  Remember, as mentioned above, there is a lot of uncertainty. Will I have a job? Will I get sick? Will the damn bees get me?

All of these questions (except for the bees) are practical questions. The two most important pieces of information employees are looking for during this crisis are safety and company viability. Basically, what do I need to know to be safe, and will the company weather this storm. Here we need to be open and honest. Give it to them straight. They will appreciate it and understand.

Basically, employees were looking for transparency. They were looking for their leaders to give them information and the reasons behind decisions. They needed reinforcement that things would be OK, but they also needed the cold hard truth if it wasn’t. They wanted reality! By doing so they were reducing fear or simply creating certainty out of uncertain times. What you are seeing out of the past months is organizations being forced to communicate at a higher level, and employees are taking note. They like it, and many of the comments in the dataset show that they are actually impressed. The reason is leaders know that they can’t just communicate part of the picture; they need to paint the whole picture, which is why employees see communication as the number one thing their organizations have done well.

I developed a simple formula years ago when coaching my clients around communication. The purpose is to get them to think about the formula whenever they communicate, so they are giving employees the whole picture, not just portions. By giving the whole picture they leave less questions for employees to answer themselves. The formula is WHAT minus WHY equals RUMOR MILL (What-Why=Rumor Mill). Here, we assume WHAT you plan to communicate is set at 100%. If you only communicate 10% of the WHY, you leave 90% of the decision to be churned through the RUMOR MILL.

When you leave that much up to your employees to figure out, they often start filling in the blanks themselves, which rarely gives leaders the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, the optimal outcome of this formula is WHAT (100%) minus WHY (100%) = RUMOR MILL (0%). So, as you bounce forward from COVID-19, the level at which you are communicating through the crisis now is what people are probably looking for every day. It becomes your model for communication. Keep it up and use the formula.

How we came together

Another key take-away from what the 3,000 employees felt their organizations did best was eloquently stated with just two words: communication and care. Care came in the form of providing hand sanitizer, moving office employees from on-site to telework, and staggering hours so there wasn’t a mad dash toward the door between shifts. Gift baskets were sent home to employees who were cooped up after six weeks of a stay-at-home order. There was empathy from employees to other employees as they watched their colleagues’ kids yell and scream in the background during a Zoom meeting. One of the execs I spoke with mentioned that she didn’t realize what some of her teammates with kids went through until she experienced a couple of teleconferences. Now she says, “We understand what parents go through and the stress they must be feeling having to get their job done and act as school teacher for their sons and daughters.” 

You saw IT departments rise and gravitate from support functions to teachers. Zoom quickly became the way we all stayed connected for those who were in functional positions in the office. The IT people moved quickly to bring in hardware and software to allow those who could work from home to do so effectively. People out in the offices were working together to communicate about the resources available out in the community for families in need of help. They were helping people who were applying for the stimulus checks. Anywhere people needed help, the organizations were going out of their way to provide it. 

Care is the soft side of the business. It is typically the hardest part of operating a business to get your head around. Great companies get it. To see how effective it is, Google either Fortune or Glassdoor 100 Best Places to Work and do they beat the market. The answer to the question is yes. Over and over, the organizations on both lists have beaten the S&P 500 and the Russell 3000 by a large margin, year after year. 

As you bounce forward, think about how you have felt about your employees when you knew they were putting their lives on the line for the company. Think of all the sacrifices made to keep the company viable. Furthermore, think about the social capital and loyalty you have built with your people, all of which is built upon employees knowing you have their back; therefore, they will have yours. There is an old saying, “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers.” That usually comes in the form of service, quality, and satisfaction. Right now leaders are going above and beyond to protect their people. Learn from this. Take the emotion you have now and bounce it forward; don’t let it bounce back.

Don’t let a good crisis go to waste

This is it, people. When the old farts used to say make lemonade out of the lemons you were given, this is what they meant. This article recapped some key lessons of how each organization stood up and rose to the challenge when forced to do so. I am sure there will be many more. The important thing is to recognize them when they are present. If you are like the 20 companies who conducted our Resilience Survey, you stepped up how you communicated with your employees to a whole new level; people came together to quickly adapt to every changing circumstance; and you saw that your employees really are your most valuable asset. Now take everything you learned and use it to bounce forward.

About the Author: Jay Richards

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