COLUMN: Leading in the Time of COVID-19
As a business owner, I can confidently say, as can nearly all business owners here in the U.S., nothing prepared me for what COVID-19 has done to our markets, operations, employee anxiety, and customer expectations.
Let's focus on employee anxiety.
Let us ask ourselves, "What are my employees thinking, feeling, and seeing?"
They know that we must operate differently because of COVID-19. They see businesses in the community shutting down. They know there is a risk now that has made job security more precarious than ever before. They know they could get sick themselves. The list goes on.
Bluntly put, if leaders don't address employee anxiety, the best that can happen is that performance will suffer. The worst that can happen is that employees will head for a haven — or an employer — that feels safer.
Despite how bleak things may seem these days, business owners can take smart steps to help employees feel more secure. It comes down to a question of trust. Do employees trust you to lead them and the business through this crisis?
To earn trust under these circumstances, leaders must, at a minimum, do four things:
Like so many food-service establishments, a local bakery was devastated by the initial "shelter in place" orders in later March and early April. The owner followed each of the critical steps listed above.
She held a virtual meeting and said (paraphrased here), "I know that you're all worried about your jobs. I have to shut the shop down immediately, which means your shifts are all canceled for now. But here's what I'm doing.
"I'm setting up phone-in and online ordering systems, and we'll be allowing people to pick up curbside. I need two days to design that system. Then I'll start bringing each of you back on the schedule based on seniority. If I do this fast enough, we can earn some new customers who are having a hard time finding products elsewhere, so I'll be marketing this heavily through social media.
"If any of you can't wait for your shifts to come back, I'll support your search for new work, and I'll write you a reference. However, I am applying for a small-business loan from the city that's specifically for payroll. I don't know if there will be enough business to bring all of you back, but that's my goal."
As promised, the bakery owner had drive-up orders being filled two days later. This "promise kept" gave her employees confidence, and nearly all chose to stay. She had opened a new retail arm of the bakery for staple items that were available from her existing distributors; this allowed her to open more shifts. She brought half the employees back within two weeks, and she brought the rest back within a month.
This anecdote shows multiple examples of the four steps, declaring intent to protect and support, facing the difficult questions, being honest and transparent, and taking action. Skipping any one of these will immediately lose trust from your people. Doing all four gives you a chance of maintaining their trust.
If you'd like another great example, visit the "news" portion of Airbnb's website (news.Airbnb.com) and read the May 5 letter that CEO Brian Chesky sent to his employees to address the painful reality of layoffs. Because Airbnb relies heavily on revenue from travelers, the company was in upheaval because of ripple effects from the pandemic. While it's true that Airbnb has some missteps in its history, Brian Chesky's letter was a strong move and one that engendered much confidence among the company's employees.
There are certainly more difficult decisions to be made in the time of COVID-19, but even under these circumstances, we can act in ways that treat our people right and maintain trust and integrity.
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