Updated: May 5, 2020
We are now entering the third phase of the COVID crisis. In roughly one month increments, we’ve moved from panic to survival and now to initial planning for re-entry. Have no doubt, we will exit this crisis and business life will find a new level of normal. It may be sooner than you think (or not). Are you ready?
We are in uncharted territory on so many levels and as the workplace doors start to reopen, we will tackle even more unknowns. Right now we are in a period where companies can begin planning for the re-opening period and begin to create a sustainable advantage for the long term. The window is now to start getting in front of the very complex issues related to operating your business in the near term.
CEOs will now be on the front lines as we are not going to get much direction from the federal government, unlike past crises. While state and local leaders have been providing prudent guidance and direction, on-the-ground leadership is going to stem from CEOs. If you intend to survive and thrive in the new normal, your leadership is about to be tested.
By now, you know where your company stands from a financial perspective and how long/deep your pain will be felt. Hopefully you’ve already taken the financial steps to survive and now your opportunity is to determine how to re-establish your presence in the new world. I am convinced that those companies that operate smartly and effectively in our new environment will gain a competitive advantage for the long-term. This will require a new operating style and a change of focus for most CEOs. This may not be an area of comfort or strength for many CEOs and it may require you to delegate some responsibilities to others, but these critical strategic imperatives can only be addressed at the highest levels.
Any assessment of what needs to be done to re-open starts with your most valued assets, your employees. Your team has placed trust in you as a leader and they are looking for a rational gameplan, operating rules, and new behavioral norms. Your ability to be the voice of the company and to express the vision and direction will be absolutely critical now. If you are open, honest, and empathetic, most teams will provide the sacrifice, the effort and the trust in the company. This is the most important and most effective way in which the CEO can make an impact. Leaders who trust people with the truth are trusted in return.
Throughout this crisis, it has been gratifying to see CEOs like Stewart Butterfield and Henry Ward take an active and transparent approach with their plans. They have been decisive and directive even if their decisions bring pain. This is a lesson for every CEO. Your employees are vulnerable and want to hear from a leader with vision who they trust. You cannot communicate too much and too openly. I’ve written extensively on this topic already and hopefully this is not new news.
These new imperatives imply that the CEO will have to assume different roles and responsibilities during the re-entry phase. And if you are taking on different tasks that means your leadership team will as well. Start by clarifying this right now. As CEO, you must personally own internal communications and employee matters. This may require you to offload some previous responsibilities, whether it be to your board, to your leadership team, or to external consultants. Take the time to clarify who is in charge of what and what decisions get made by whom. Consider a RACI matrix if you haven’t already done that (let me know if you need help on this). Remember that you are likely deprioritizing some areas in which you used to be personally involved. That’s ok. New times, new priorities.
Your employees will have new expectations and concerns, and will be worried about the new realities of the workplace just like you are. The questions they’ll be asking will generally fall into three primary categories: the physical workplace; policy matters; and regulatory/legal/finance issues. Exploring them now will accelerate your re-entry path. Let’s look at some of the key questions you’ll need to think through:
What are the social distancing rules?
How many people can jam into meeting rooms? In bathrooms? In elevators?
What about the kitchen and shared snacks?
Who cleans common areas (bathrooms, elevators, kitchens, conf rooms, etc.) and how often?
Who cleans the surfaces (touchscreens, switches, phones, doors, etc.) and how often?
If someone is infected, how is the overall workplace cleaned and decontaminated?
Who alerts the building management? And how do we get alerts from other companies?
What are the means of communication to alert our employees if need be?
How many people are allowed in the office at any time? Are guests allowed in?
How are deliveries handled?
When do we reopen? Who shows up on what days?
What are our hours?
Do we have to wear a mask all day?
What are the WFH rules?
What if I don’t have childcare anymore because schools are closed?
What is the definition of a “sick day” and how do we encourage people to take time to rest and recover rather than be pressured to return to work?
What constitutes a vacation day, how many do you allow, and what are legitimate reasons? (for instance, is lack of childcare a reasonable excuse to take a sick or vacation day?)
How can we meet clients and internal teams?
What is our travel policy?
Do we encourage commuting by private car rather than mass transit?
How do we handle vacation and sick day accruals?
Are we insured for health liabilities if someone spreads the disease?
What if an employee declares the workplace to be unsafe or unclean?
Is there a designated safety coordinator for the workplace?
What is the impact on employees privacy and confidentiality rights?
Should you take employee temperature every day?
These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed, sooner than later. It’s not an exhaustive list. In fact, just working through these questions will absolutely expose many more questions that need to be answered. But getting ahead of them now, while we are in a relatively quiet period, will pay off in spades.
If you can begin to answer these questions with a reasonable and thoughtful set of guidelines for how the company will operate in the next phase, you’ll be doing a huge service to your employees and your customers. They will in turn trust the company for its openness, its willingness to address the tough issues, and to implement fair practices. Some of your new policies may not be popular and may in fact cause issues with the team. But if they are implemented with transparency and an honest approach toward the benefit of the employees, you’ll be able to counter that.
Some of the things that you’ll want to explore (and will likely become established best practices for companies) may include:
hiring a nurse or healthcare tech for your offices to monitor and address employee health issues;
adding additional real estate so employees have more private areas to work from and thus maintain more social distancing;
(or alternatively) reducing the real estate footprint in order to continue the WFH trend and its useful toolset;
paying for home childcare or education needs;
allowing for more expansive vacation and sick day utilization.
These benefits may not be cheap nor will they be easy to implement. But they will certainly be well received by the teams and will be good business practices for your company. And if you aren’t doing it, you can be sure your competitors will.
I remain convinced of two things: we will get past this terrible condition from which we are all suffering and that some companies will flourish in that new world. Whether your company will be one of the flourishers will require disciplined and careful attention to the issues now facing your employee base.
Importantly, this will be a personal growth opportunity for the CEO. Leadership is almost always defined and crafted during crisis periods, and this will be the moment for strong CEOs. Finding ways to create strong bonds with your team will deepen your productivity and long-term results. Using this time to create a safe and caring environment for your employees and to build trust in your leadership skills will definitely create a sustainable advantage for you and your company.
Be safe and lead with confidence. Please let me know how I can be of help.