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Leadership in a Pandemic: Countering COVID-19 with Vlogs, Goofy Pants & Engagement

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to develop and change at rapid pace, Paul Johns, Chief Marketing Officer for SAI Global, calls for a human approach to leadership.

Once for a team videoconference call, I wore a crisp white shirt, business jacket and paired both with pajama pants covered in tiny Santa faces. I told that story recently on a webinar hosted by my company and attended by hundreds, not so much for the laughs – although I got a few – but to drive home a point about remote working as the world battles the Coronavirus outbreak. Leadership in times as challenging as this is going to require discipline, flexibility, creativity and, most important, humanity. 

As the global community continues to grapple with COVID-19 and its far-reaching implications and destabilizing uncertainty, the need is greater now than it ever was from strong leadership. While there are numerous HBR guides on the subject, they can’t teach the skill that’s most crucial now: empathy, so we can truly lead at a time when anxiety is high, and morale may be low.

Right now, employees across industries and geographies are stressed, uncertain and many are anxious. For those with children at home, there is also some guilt and trepidation about striking the right balance between work and family. This is a chance to be a little kinder and respectful of the burden placed on employees as their environments shift.

Leadership now means being honest and transparent with our people, our customers and other important stakeholders.

While we’re faced with a daunting situation with an uncertain outcome, the wisest choices we can make now are ones that keep our people engaged, motivated and connected to our businesses so we can ride out this storm.

It is up to each of us to make sure that the humanity of working together as a team remains front and center in all our organizations.

5 ways leaders can adapt today

It’s crucial for business leaders to take the steps needed to keep employee momentum high. You still have a business to run, targets to meet and payroll to make. Try to build as much of that human connection to keep things moving in the right direction.

Engage in new ways – I started creating video blogs for my team several months ago. It’s even more important today when we’re all remote and employees are anxious about what’s going on and feeling a bit disenfranchised from the business. Try to deal with that emotional detachment by just engaging. Our CEO, Peter Granat, sent me a text message one recent morning simply asking how I was. Let’s make sure to check in with our team members and find even more ways to connect during the workday.

Focus on morale – In the webinar I referenced earlier, the primary concern for attendees was “worker productivity” over the next several months. I don’t think the concern should be about whether you should trust your employees to perform at the same level they did prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but more so about how to keep people engaged. There is no shortage of ways to supervise staff with a myriad of videoconferencing and team collaboration tools available. However, let’s not allow the technology to take over. Technology should simply be an enabler to the human connection that drives morale.

Realize that trust works both ways – Our business operates in every part of the world and every employee is dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best they can, including those at risk in high-impact areas. Trust has to go both ways. I believe we must do what we can as leaders so our employees trust that we’re doing all we can to take care of them and the business in honest, transparent and forthright ways. This an opportunity to reset or reinforce the culture in your business and how your leadership team is viewed. Taking the right steps now will have a direct impact on how quickly your business recovers when the crisis subsides.

Overcommunicate – I don’t think it’s possible to communicate too much right now. Talk. Talk as much as you can to your employees, your customers and other important stakeholders. Keep people well-informed as to the steps you’re taking now and your plans for the future as they evolve. Information is key but don’t be an alarmist.

Make “remote” work – This may be our new normal for a while so it’s on us leaders to make sure that our teams have all the tools in place to remain productive. That starts with making sure we have the right IT support infrastructure ready to go with updated VPNs, extra software licenses and access to HR platforms and internal training and compliance tools.  We’re asking employees to operate in different environments as safely as possible and we have to take that seriously. Consider keeping meetings shorter, building in breaks to allow people to get work done and being more understanding when it comes to dogs barking or children playing in the background as not everyone has a secluded space in which to work.

Bottom line:  Being a good leader right now simply means being a good human.  We’re all in this together. We’ll look back in a few months and the muscle memory of this time will be the morale in our organizations and the role we played every day in interactions with our people.


Additional resources

SAI Global hosted a set of in-the-moment webinars on business continuity management during the coronavirus pandemic, Resilience 2020. We covered best practices for BCP teams as well as insights from experts on remote work, crisis communications, and vendor risks in a dynamic supply chain. Recorded March 16-17, they're all available to replay on-demand.

Visit our pandemic information resource hub, which includes reading materials, podcasts, and other best-practice guidance around managing business continuity, compliance, and risk management amid the coronavirus pandemic.

See our additional health & safety resources to help EHS professionals monitor and ensure the health and safety of workers during COVID-19.