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The Opportunity Within The Crisis

This article will help HR leaders understand that employee well-being is critical, and how to find the opportunity within the crisis to create a stronger bond with their employees during such unprecedented times.

Managing the response to the recent outbreak of novel coronavirus, safe-guarding continued operations and ensuring adequate staffing have become top priorities for HR leaders. Through uncertainty, confusion and panic, HR leaders are trying to determine how to maintain employee engagement and productivity amidst a global pandemic which has created travel restrictions, quarantine measures, cancellations of major events (NBA, MLB and NHL games), and limited supplies of essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Being the proud daughter of a nurse practitioner, I have grown up around medicine and spent many hours watching numerous clinicians provide selfless care in extreme situations—including risking their own lives to save others. Yet, I have never witnessed a global pandemic. During a recent webinar sponsored by Accumen, a well-known healthcare consulting company, they stated: “We are seeing what is the beginning of an epidemic here in the United States. While Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS – not seen since and controlled) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are only transmitted when one has symptoms, COVID-19 is transmitted without symptoms and thus unable to control with public health measures. Once it is in the community, the spread can take root causing some communities to be hit very hard with outbreaks. Right now in the USA, we have community transmission and must focus on mitigation of the outbreak. Our biggest challenges will be to decrease the consumption of resources and protect the workforce. We need to practice social distancing and preventative care.”

As Dr. Gottlieb stated, “It is very dangerous since it spreads very efficiently and is virulent. We hope to have point of care diagnostics by late summer, but this isn’t something that will come and go quickly” (Accumen, 2020).

I wrote the above few paragraphs about two weeks ago when my friend/colleague asked me to write an article on employee well-being as the magnitude was setting in. Sitting here on a Sunday morning amidst the quiet, almost eerie calm of the California statewide lockdown, I can faintly hear the chorus of a song by the ‘70s band Bread with my husband singing to his Sunday playlist. Yeah, I get it—I’m a Pitbull girl myself. But, come on, flash back if you are old enough and remember the words….

“No, you don’t know me well…In every little thing only time will tell. But you believe the things that I do and we’ll see it through. Life can be short or long. Love can be right or wrong. And if I chose the one I’d like to help me through, I’d like to make it with you” (Bread, 1970). Not only is that song a favorite of my col- league, but the lyrics have a powerful message about how little we might know about people, the duration of life, who we go through it with, and the ultimate choice of how we make it. What does this have to with SAP SuccessFactors helping our customers create a tighter bond with their employees as we navigate the unchartered waters of COVID-19? It’s recognizing employees have a choice and knowing how we go about business in critical times determines future retention.

A lot has been written about personal safety and containment of the global pandemic that has tightly gripped the world. I’m scared and I don’t know anyone that isn’t. All respective teams I know are working long hours to figure out how to serve their customers during desperate times and keep their most important resource—their people—committed and engaged during the most trying times we have ever seen. For inspiration beyond his singing, I asked my husband (who has numerous years as a C-Suite leader) what are the things he feels are most important during such unimaginable times. He said authenticity, communication and compassion. By living these tenants, he is doing what every other great leader is doing—striving to make a difference in uncertain times. Now more than ever we need to identify and strengthen those moments that matter to ourselves, our teams, leaders, and fellow coworkers.

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And now we are back to a choice. The choice of happiness or sadness. Gratitude or indifference. Confidence or fearfulness. Committed or faithlessness. Where are you? Where are your employees—the team you count on for every strategy, great dish, policy, manufactured product, patient, service, or creative project—they are making a choice right now. Some are carefully having to weigh taking care of their family or taking care of professional commitments (i.e. their faithfulness to the organization). What can you do? You have to be the one to find the opportunity in the crisis. The way to help them make a balanced choice to help their families, themselves, and their work families at the same time.

Here’s how…listen, understand and act.  Simple but powerful to re-engage the sad, indifferent, scared, and faithless.  Remember, I am scared. Would I put myself in the “other” category of those employees that are regulated to perfunctory levels while trying to stockpile toilet paper, canned goods and muffle a cough while in line at the grocery store? Am I the employee happily quarantined at home making the adorable videos of the kiddos doing artwork and the dog nestled at my feet during a conference call? Yes, I am that “other” employee and I need to know that you care in my moment that matters. You see, as a leader, trying to categorize moments that matter is impossible right now, not only because employees’ personal situations are changing daily, but so are their choices. Crisis has obviously raised the stakes, so here are a few things to consider to measure moments that matter and help employees continue to choose your organization as the place with which to share their talents:

  1. Enable your employees to follow effective guidelines set by the government and medical authorities to help contain the virus and reduce or prevent other outbreaks.
  2. Provide equipment and flexibility needed to keep employees safe, yet still serve customers through the trusted partnerships previously created.
  3. Frequently assess employee well- being and take action based on feedback; don’t rely on standard questions as we are now functioning with a new level of normal.
  4. Streamline processes and work to make things flexible for employees to focus on their ever-changing moments that matter, yet still remaining a valued member of the team.
  5. Deliver psychological support to identify and provide effective ways to cope with emotions associated with the pandemic, and develop creative ways to engage employees on a daily basis, including virtual happy hours, mind stimulation challenges, video or audio desk exercises, etc.
  6. Refresh employee benefit plans and make changes such as offering paid sick leave or amended sick leave policies, implementing catastrophe pay or bonuses for those handling large volume of customers or work, waiving attendance policies, or establishing employee relief funds to help with unforeseen costs with illnesses due to the pandemic.
  7. Continue to celebrate diversity, inclusion and belonging in unique ways based on the working environment and safety parameters.
  8. Practice gratitude by saying “thank you” to the truck drivers, supply chain teams, healthcare providers, and countless others for the personal risk they face to ensure food is delivered, essentials are stocked, and medical care is available.
  9. Be human and lead with compassion, authenticity, over communicate, anticipate employee needs and proactively provide solutions, and consider the impact of your actions in a different mode since we are completely living in “crisis mode” now.
  10. Make available opportunities for employees to create work going forward, post the pandemic; have them help consider how to maximize being forever changed by this, and use it to leverage transformation within your organization.

If the above suggestions don’t stimulate some change, consider the research from a recent Harvard Business Review article that listed organizational characteristics needed to survive a pandemic.They were:

  • Networked organization
  • Distributed leadership
  • Loosely coupled (less interdependence)
  • Dispersed workforce
  • Cross-trained generalists
  • Guided by simple yet flexible rules

The article also pointed out that companies shouldn’t rely solely on a specialized risk management team to see them through a sustained crisis. Instead they need to develop the ability to rapidly evaluate ongoing changes in the environment and develop responses based on simple principles, such as a global network of people drawn from throughout the organization that can coordinate and adapt as events unfold, reacting immediately and appropriately to disruptions inside and outside the organization. This network needs to engage in creative and collaborative, yet disciplined problem solving on the fly, even as members of the crisis network move around or drop out. People are clearly at the center of this model and are making decisions that directly impact the organization and ultimately themselves. It is critical they are engaged and have a strong culture in which to function (Nohria, 2020).

Remember Bread’s lyrics, “In every little thing only time will tell. But you believe the things that I do and we’ll see it through” (Bread, 1970). Employees have long had a choice in the war on talent, and we know they vote with their feet. Utilize this time to help them make the choice to stay with your organization. You can “find the opportunity” in the crisis by supporting employees through their moments that matter by living compassion and authentic leadership in its truest sense. Reinforce the impact their talents and knowledge have on the organization and create a workplace culture and environment that enables and supports them to deliver their best work. Trust me—if you show your employees that they matter to you in their moment of need, they will be forever there for you because they know that despite it also being your moment of need, you thought of them first. It would be trite to call actions like this simply retention. It is making your choice as a leader and finding the opportunity to provide intentional, selfless care in extreme situations—including risking your life to save others.

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