As businesses around Westchester and around the country work to remain operational during the COVID-19 outbreak, many are struggling with the best way to manage through the crisis. Here are some lessons they can heed. Don’t have time to read all five tips? Here’s the short version: Employees come first.
Remember, this is a scary time. As business leaders, we are concerned about the business impact and we have to make tough decisions with little information about the duration of this pandemic and the timeline for recovery. Concurrently, we are contending with the same personal concerns that our employees are facing: Are my parents safe? Will my kids fall behind in school? If you are able to retain your full staff, what does that look like in terms of them needing to keep up with social distancing, self-isolation, and keeping their families on track? Your communications to your staff should acknowledge the uncertainty and be tempered to demonstrate you understand the challenges and are open to flexible solutions to make things work.
The simple truth is, none of us knows how long this will last. Maybe you’ve been fortunate up to this point to not have to make changes to your workforce’s hours, pay, or benefits; I hope that’s the case and it continues. But data shows March saw more than 700,000 jobs lost and Westchester businesses are not immune. Be honest and careful in your messaging. No business should guarantee things will not change, but you can promise to do your best to mitigate the impact and communicate openly and honestly at all times.
Unless you are an epidemiologist, doctor, or infectious-disease expert, you should not share suggestions that “guarantee” your employees won’t get sick. Information about safeguarding, including whether to use masks and gloves, how to wash hands and sanitize common areas, should be communicated via direct links from authoritative sources like the CDC and WHO. It’s not our place as business leaders to know with certainty what the best approach is, or to interpret advice from experts. Nor should we demand our employees follow processes that are not supported by experts on this topic. (Also, there is a legal risk in telling your employees to do things that might put them at risk, so keep it to what experts recommend.)
We don’t know when, but at some point we will emerge from our homes and greet each other once again, we will visit our favorite restaurants to meet up with friends, and we will start buying “non-essential” items in shops. But our approach to all of that may change forever. Do we want to sit as close to others as we once did just to get a table in a trendy restaurant? Do we want to handle produce and milk cartons that were touched by 50 other shoppers before us? Will employees who were previously not permitted to work from home once again be required to be in the office 40+ hours a week despite how well they performed remotely? Now is the time to rethink the future and engage your teams in creative solutions to evolve the business model. Also, remember not everyone may be ready to come back at the same time: When do children return to school? Who has a loved one in the hospital? Know what everyone is contending with and consider a cascaded approach to returning to work.
Daily 10-minute meetings for remote-working staff are so important, letting people see each other, communicate quick updates, and ask for input. Communicate important changes by email. Leverage collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack to keep interaction going. Ensure essential employees get face time with leaders. Use your social media channels to thank your employees and let your customers know the status of your business. Make sure you are visible as a leader; your actions and humanity will be remembered. Hopefully you already have a culture that celebrates your employees — if you do, amp it up. If you don’t, it’s never too late: Put your best effort into it now. And remember, your actions must match your words. Don’t tell employees “Your family comes first” if you’re constantly scheduling urgent last-minute meetings at lunch or suppertime when your employees’ kids are all home from school.
If you have furloughed your teams or had to lay-off staff due to business impact, at some point you will reopen and need to return to operational staffing levels, so keep people informed about changes that might bring them back into the fold (obviously those laid-off will have to opt-in to hearing from you at regular intervals about any open positions that may be on the horizon). Also, stay on top of requirements like WARN notices etc., which may change during this time; be sure you have the right legal advice about when and how critical changes need to be communicated with your staff.
The key to managing through and emerging from a crisis is planning, communicating, and above all understanding the personal impact on those around you. Be flexible, and open to change. The bottom line is that while your business needs customers, it can’t service them without employees. Your staff is dealing with so many competing priorities and concerns during this time, make it easier for them now, so that they can return to “normal” later.
Jen Dwyer Vargas is President of Irvington-based communications and marketing/PR firm JVComms.