Circa 2020! Out of the blue came coronavirus. Shelving all the business continuity plans and the risk management files, that so proudly shone our intellect. COVID-19 reminded us that VUCA is a result, never a cause. We saw it live and are still seeing it. Being the most adaptable of all living beings, we not only have learnt to live with it but have also christened it - The New Normal. And, there’s lot in a name here.The sudden eruption of COVID-19 plunged business orgnizations across the world into a dark tunnel of volatility, uncertainty, confusion and ambiguity.‘Waiting and watching’ became a new convention to express ‘we do not know’. With green-shoots of normalcy showing up in the dreams of a probable v-shaped recovery; as our frontline soldiers wrestle to “flatten the curve”, business leaders are looking at the “how” of making employees returning to work. Clearly, the comeback has to be held with hands that care.
The COVID-19 pandemic taught a few fundamentals. Emotions are back into leadership. Most leaders have had to deal with unprecedented crises of volatile human emotions of loss and grief. Of anxiety in the employees to employee communication, virtual productivity, real talent management. These are vitals of total organizational health. Nonetheless, today as organizations are preparing for a back-to-normal life, the practice of leadership stands at the doors of a historic re-evolution. An opportunity to re-establish itself as a science and art that is the strongest differentiator impacting individuals and organizations. For a successful re-entry, while communication that is clear, inspiring and positively influencing will help transition from loss to restoration - here are four leadership action imperatives that business leaders need to deliver upon.
Being empathetic to employee’s needs
Empathy is the currency of change. It would stand in good stead for the leaders to understand the psychological readiness and prepare accordingly. People would have unknowingly fallen into various categories. While some will be enthusiastic about returning to the office floor, others would not want to come out of their homes yet. Some others may want to re-enter in principle, but in practice, worry about risks to their health and the safety of their loved ones. It is at this time that the historic opportunity of showing genuine empathy can be leveraged by leaders by applying different strokes for different folks, with great sensitivity. These are also the real contingent layers of diversity. They need, for instance, some leadership ‘inclusion interventions’. An inclusive action for a particular category would mean showing them how returning to “business as usual” will increase the chances of a quick return to viability. For some others, showcasing how the new ways of work¬ing will continue to keep them employed and help the organization would give results. For those who are star performers, showing how the return is a consolidation of and a reward for their relentless efforts will bear fruits. A clear and transparent communication with various digital aids and tools for seamless comprehension and quick responsiveness to the queries, issues and feedback of all concerned stakeholders would be important. Some may genuinely need more time, with a completely diverse sets of realities back home. Leadership sensitivity at enterprise level is to be with the employee. Of course, we know to separate the grain from the chaff.
Addressing emotions personally
All through the pandemic, regardless of their work life or personal life, employees have experienced varying degrees of uncertainty, anxiety, trauma and loss. In the interest of building resilience in the employees, leaders need to address the above issues personally. Leaders would need to invest their time in cultivating open, authentic and compassionate conversations at an individual level. This cushions the emotional impact and helps in deepening the bonds with the employees. To build resilience at an organizational level, leaders need to shower appreciations publicly. Honor the contributions that each individual employee has made. Reinforce the values of the organization. Act as the ultimate harbinger of hope and create a holding ecosystem. This encourages social bonding within orgnization, allay fears of a relapse of emotional upheaval and more so provides emotional support. Builds a culture of care.
Symbolizing the transition
As employees prepare themselves to return to office from a prolonged period of “work from home”, organizational rituals, customs and symbolism will help employees start the new phase in their wok life. This is because, while rituals and customs makes us navigate a loss and re-live a positive experience in a reassuring manner, it also helps in reducing stress. Likewise, organizational symbols integrate the entire organization in one system of emotional signification. Leaders would have to employ both old and new rituals, customs and symbols to effect the transition into the “new normal”. For example, communication of a specific date and time for all employees to enter/re-start, distribution of communication material pertaining to well being of employees, a symbolic religious function or a simple “welcome back” kit explaining protocols for meetings, room bookings, elevator use or just plain printed collaterals with messages that motivate the transition would be useful.
Resetting and re-purposing
The purpose of an organization is the fundamental reason for the organization’s existence.An organization’s purpose unifies employees and helps them understand the organization's direction. The pandemic created such choppy ripples that it questioned the existence of many organizations and distorted the purpose. Therefore, this is the time that leaders need to use to define and demonstrate a common sense of purpose with employees to their build self-belief. It is imperative that the new purpose be inspirational as well as motivational. In a way that employees can define their contribution to the society through their work and be a part of meaningful legacy creation. Leaders would need to engage with employees via congregative conversations on new organizational purpose. Retain the existing purpose in the new normal and the communicate the actions to be taken to strengthen the linkage between purpose and business strategy. At an individual employee level, leaders would need to understand what motivates the employees, what gives their work meaning and make them envision their future in the organization’s new/changed story.
For all the four actions imperatives recommended above to give tangible results, a clear and empathetic leadership communication is needed. That will not only cultivate the spirit of hopefulness and optimism but also make employees resilient and keep them prepared for further disruption.
As John Maxwell says – “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”.