Leading Through a Pandemic

Tips to help leaders manage, train, and motivate today’s suddenly remote workforce.

A microscopic but mighty foe brought the world to its knees over the last few months. With government mandates forcing many businesses to shutter or implement work-from-home options to stop the spread and flatten the curve of the Coronavirus pandemic, millions of people around the world are either out of work or trying to work remotely. Employees are turning to company leaders for reassurance and the support and guidance they need to weather this storm.

But despite leadership development training, higher-education degrees, and years of business experience, leaders themselves may be struggling to handle a crisis of these proportions. According to a March study of 1,097 adults by VitalSmarts (www.vitalsmarts.com), a third of respondents said their organizations have a plan in place they are confident about and 43 percent have a basic plan—even if it is “hastily assembled.” But respondents also said 1 in 5 leaders are unprepared to manage remote teams.

“If leaders aren’t prepared to manage remote teams or if these teams don’t have good communication and collaboration habits in place, the effects of this virus could disrupt team connectivity, morale, and accountability—not to mention results,” notes Justin Hale, a training designer and researcher at VitalSmarts. “You can’t overestimate the influence a manager has on his or her team’s ability to engage in dialogue and create a collaborative and healthy culture—especially when distance and technology are suddenly part of the equation.”

Trust is another big piece of the equation, stresses Joey Owens-Barham, director of Talent and Culture at FormAssembly (www.formassembly.com). “Trusting in your team, knowing they’re capable of being productive, and having enough faith to let them do their work gives them a sense of empowerment,” he explains. “Allowing remote employees to determine their own work hours is important to consider, too, since everyone functions differently during different parts of the day. Identifying the peaks and valleys of productivity is key to thriving in a remote model.”

Learning and Development (L&D) professionals can serve as a guiding force to leaders, providing them with on-demand content that will help them pilot their suddenly remotely staffed organizations through these turbulent times. In the following pages, 16 experts offer some of their leadership strategies and tips that can be incorporated into Webinars, microlearnings, videos, job aids, and more.

By Mark W. Johnson, Cofounder and Senior Partner, Innosight (www.innosight.com); Co-Author, “Lead from the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth”

  • Be visionary, even if your platform is burning. You constantly must toggle between dealing with imminent challenges and preparing for the longer term. Crises demand an intensive focus on the present, but at the same time, you need to develop a “future-back” view of how your environment is likely to change and the changes you must make to fit in. Why? Because crises accelerate disruption; the inflections they create occur almost instantaneously. What that means is that in 18 months, when the immediate crisis has passed and the economy begins to come to back to life, you are likely to find yourself in a new normal where your customers’—and employees’—expectations have shifted and many of the things that used to work for you no longer do.
  • Find a sense of purpose, a North Star, and communicate it relentlessly. In the best of times, companies that are mission-centered enjoy distinct advantages in employee motivation and the attraction and retention of talent. In a time of crisis, your people will be much more motivated to make the sacrifices they have to if they believe they are serving a higher and better purpose than merely maximizing shareholder value. The social capital you create by doing so will be priceless.
  • Be transparent. The companies that learn the fastest are by far the most resilient, and learning requires transparency. Surface your mistakes and correct them in real time; be candid with your people, your stakeholders, and the public at all times.

By Terry Traut, CEO, Entelechy (https://www.unlockit.com)

Managing during this crisis requires that leaders first step back and survey the landscape and see this as the unique moment it is. From there, leaders can follow these four steps:

  • Provide a vision of opportunity. This is a time when we can build new and better things. What projects can the team work on remotely to advance the organization? How can you take care of customers during these challenging times? What will the company’s priorities be as we come on the other side of this?
  • Reassure the team and each employee by understanding and helping them cope with their unique challenges. Reassuring your team is important, but during trying times, it’s the individual who most needs reassurance. Specifics matter. Asking how each team member is coping and knowing what each team member is dealing with is important.
  • Be flexible. Team members will remember how you reacted. Once this crisis has moved on, people soon will forget the details and the hardships, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Working different hours or a reduced work schedule may be the flexibility people need.
  • Keep communicating. The same story is better than no story. If you don’t provide information, guidance, and direction—even if it’s the same as what you provided last week—people tend to make up stories (look at the panic over toilet paper). When people aren’t clear on what to do, they do what others are doing, even if it doesn’t make sense.

By Shawn Burcham (www.shawnburcham.com), Founder and CEO, PFSbrands; Author, “Keeping Score with GRITT: Straight Talk Strategies for Success”

  • Promote transparency. Mistakes happen when people don’t have the information they need to do their jobs. When something affects others in the organization, make sure you put it on the “team table,” so everyone can understand what is happening and provide input.
  • Don’t undercut others to make yourself look good. Disagreements can happen any time people gather to discuss problems and solutions, but it’s important to keep things civil. Attack the issues, not the person. Work through appropriate channels and be conscious of what your fellow leaders are trying to accomplish.
  • Make sure meetings are well organized. Meetings should have an agenda, a start and end time, no sidebar conversation, and next steps and accountabilities should be created at the meeting’s close.
  • Accept that a decision is a decision. It’s all right for people to debate and offer differing opinions during the decision-making process, but once a decision is made, everyone needs to support it.

By Colleen Liguori, Global Senior Vice President, People & HR Relations, Digital Media Solutions (DMS) (digitalmediasolutions.com)

  • Keep in regular contact. Business leaders must do as much as they can to stay connected with their teams. That means more virtual meetings and more check-ins throughout the day. Establish consistent standing touchpoints. Utilize video calls to sustain a visual presence with employees as much as possible. I personally set up a quick team huddle each morning. In the afternoon, we’ll do another check-in to see how our days are going. At the end of each day, we discuss what’s on the horizon for tomorrow.
  • Set structure and expectations. Ensure that you know how to measure productivity. Defining success will vary across positions —this could be determined through a metric, attitude, etc. Leaders must evaluate performance job by job, person by person. Set your expectations early on, establish structure throughout your team, and consistently monitor the work being done.
  • Treat each other with grace. Always remember: Everyone is wearing an invisible backpack. Some days it’s heavy, and other days light. Either way, it’s on leaders to help their teams carry the load. Because when massive change occurs, you don’t just respond as an employee, you respond as a person. When we act with unity, we can weather any storm that comes our way.

By Zain Jaffer, CEO, Zain Ventures (https://zain-ventures.com/)

  • Home rules: With clear boundaries between work and home life suddenly blurred, managers should establish home-based work guidelines to help foster an effective work-life balance. They should accept that trust is important for morale and focus on goals achieved rather than fixating on the time spent on projects.
  • Daily listing: Employees will appreciate being kept on track and accountable through daily updates. For consistency, these updates should be provided at a set time every morning; they should include yesterday’s accomplishments and today’s tasks.
  • Security: Implementing a cyber security protocol for employees to follow from home is essential to protect sensitive company data. Employees must be made aware of the potential cyber threats on their private computers, which tend to be less secure. Workers also should be provided with a trusted VPN that encrypts data between devices and Wi-Fi. Additionally, employees should use cloud-based storage and set up automatic security program updates.
  • The right tools: Basic staff management is easy enough to handle with e-mail, telephone, file-sharing software, and internal network access. However, next-level communication tools are advantageous. Consider project management systems such as Asana, LiquidPlanner, Trello, and Wrike. They have features that streamline task distribution, time tracking, budgeting, resource planning, and team collaborations.

By Stacey Engle, President, Fierce Conversations (fierceinc.com)

  • Interrogate reality. What is the current state of the office (both physical, if applicable, and virtual)? How comfortable are people? Don’t assume people aren’t concerned about their health if they aren’t pounding down your physical—or virtual—door. Proactively seek out how everyone is feeling and do what you can to fully understand their fears.
  • Provoke learning. Knowledge is power in these situations. What can you do to help educate them? What resources can you provide in regard to logistics or health that will be most helpful? CDC has some useful tips for workplaces, which is a good place to start.
  • Tackle your toughest challenge. If a larger outbreak occurs in your state, what will the biggest challenge be for your organization? How can you proactively address this, and prepare as much as possible now? What can you do to ease concerns about these challenges?
  • Enrich the relationship. Use this time to really understand the team and recognize the opportunity to come together and problem solve. Ask key questions: What is the ideal way we move forward as a team? What are the big fears, and how do we best address them?

By Elizabeth (Beta) Mannix, SC Johnson College of Business Professor of Management, and Tony Byers, ILR Executive Education Senior Extension Faculty

Recently, a panel of faculty from Cornell University shared some best practices for managing remote workforces effectively in a live Webcast (https://www.ecornell.com/keynotes/view/K032520/):

  • Communicate goals. Take time to understand the unique situations of your team members, and use this information to establish goals and guidelines. What challenges does your team face? What opportunities are available? Have an honest conversation about expectations and boundaries to establish the best way of working. It’s important for each team member to understand individual and team goals and feel a sense of accountability.
  • Define how the team does work. It’s best to have a process that everyone understands, agrees to, and fits into your context and your team. High-functioning teams understand and agree on operating rules and responsibilities for all team members. Some examples might be ensuring that every action item includes who, what, and when, or that any roadblocks be flagged to the team manager within 24 hours.
  • Provide structure. Put goals and agendas in place. What will you accomplish? Three questions that can be useful for team leaders to ask are: What did you do yesterday? What will you do today? What is blocking your progress?
  • Be flexible. In a virtual environment, it’s easy to forget people have different styles and modes of communication. Leaders need to take time to understand the situations of each team member, and recognize that not everyone’s needs will be the same. Allow wiggle room as your team settles, but maintain team objectives. This might include sending the agenda or questions before a meeting to give everyone an opportunity to prepare, or inviting follow-up comments after a call to give others a chance to reflect. Set clear expectations for where you’re willing and able to compromise.
  • Establish rapport. Mandate a morning check-in to keep everyone updated on the status of projects. Replace the daily water cooler conversations with a Slack channel or chat. Arrange for a virtual coffee break or team trivia. Make small talk. Celebrate accomplishments and offer kudos to boost morale.

By Chris Dyer, Founder and CEO, PeopleG2 (www.peopleg2.com); Author, “The Power of Company Culture”

Business leaders looking to cope with new remote working relationships during COVID-19 restrictions should consider the most successful moves by their elected leaders. Proactive governors and Congressional representatives set up targeted Coronavirus Websites and are issuing public statements daily, in an attempt to connect with constituents and serve their needs. They make it both professional—based on the latest health expert advice—and personal. This is what your employees who are working from home right now also crave.

Addressing challenges and fears helps people process them and move past them, to remain productive in their work. Having opened regular communication channels, you then can lead their collaborative efforts by modeling best practices:

  • Set regular teleconference meetings with stated agendas.
  • Follow up with text, chat, e-mail, or phone conversations.
  • Discuss effective listening techniques.

With everyone prepared for a focused discussion, asking clarifying questions as you go along will help dispersed listeners get on the same page. Restating key points of the talk will do the same, and a Q&A session will help fill any other gaps.

Managers should take the opportunity to establish regular contact with direct reports for status updates, and to relay new information and words of encouragement.

By Nicole Alvino, Cofounder and Chief Strategy Officer, SocialChorus (www.socialchorus.com)

  • Establish a single source of truth. During times of crisis, misinformation and fear-mongering often run rampant, particularly with the rise of social, chat, and messaging platforms. Leaders should actively avoid contributing to this noise, and instead establish a single, companydriven source of truth that includes direct messages from leaders.
  • Reach every employee—wherever they are. Communications are useless if not all employees can receive them. It has never been more important to reach your entire workforce—whether working from home or the 80 percent of the global workforce who are deskless, often still working shifts. It is critical to have a multi-channel approach, incorporating mobile, along with more traditional channels, to reach all employees on the device or digital channel of their choice.
  • Target and personalize communications. Leaders need the ability to send specific messages to different parts of the workforce and target them by location, function, business unit, and even salary band. Employees deserve critical updates that are relevant to them, which includes personalization by their type, location of work, and native language.
  • Measure—and learn from—the impact of your communications. In a time of crisis, it is especially important to know who you are reaching with your communications, where they are, and which communications are working best. Leaders need access to realtime metrics with the ability to drill into factors such as function, line manager, etc. This allows organizations to first understand what is working, and then make data-driven decisions to ensure they are appropriately supporting their workforce.

By TransparentBusiness (https://transparentbusiness.com)

  • Identify company goals and how they will be achieved. What does the business want its employees to accomplish while working from home?
  • Set the timeframes and deadlines you want to have these items achieved in. Be realistic, especially since you may be new to transitioning your employees to working from home. The timelines can always be adjusted later.
  • Make the announcement to your employees that they will be transitioning to working from home. Share with them what the goals are, as well as the timeframe you have settled upon.
  • Ensure you have the right software to help you make it a smooth transition, keep your employees working efficiently, and be able to track accountability.
  • Know the difference in remote working tools, such as Zoom and GoToMeeting, DropBox and Google Docs, Skype and WhatsApp, and more.
  • Share with employees how they can be more productive working from home, by doing things such as setting regular hours, having a plan for the day, having a good location in the home where they can work from, and taking breaks when they need them.

By ADP (https://adp.com/)

  • Make time for face-to-face interactions. Set up regular, one-on-one meetings via videoconference to ensure everyone on a given team is communicating as necessary. These interactions will serve as opportunities to relay company expectations, discuss a particular employee’s progress, and get feedback on important business topics.
  • Recognize individual accomplishments. Team leaders should try to implement a remote employee recognition program to broadcast each individual’s accomplishments. Team leaders can choose to share this communication with their team through an online forum or a company newsletter.
  • Protect your confidential data. Develop thorough security guidelines and make sure all staff members are in compliance with these rules and regulations. Create policies that outline specific best practices for handling sensitive information, and then communicate these policies clearly to the entire team.

Overcoming Irrational Fears about the Coronavirus

By Dr. Roger Hall, Business Psychologist and Executive Coach; Author, “Staying Happy, Being Productive: The Big 10 Things Successful People Do”

I’m not a big fan of Napoleon Bonaparte, but I do like his quote: “A leader is a dealer in hope.” There is no doubt that the Coronavirus pandemic is serious, but the fear of the pandemic is creating its own set of problems. When people are uncertain what to do, they tend to look at the behavior of those around them for the correct response. When everyone else is freaking out, then they assume that freaking out is the correct response. In times of uncertainty, leaders can help their people have hope for a better future. Most anyone can handle a brief adversity, if they believe there is a better future ahead.

Fear is the most life-preserving of our emotions. Our brains are designed to keep us alive, so the ability to imagine the worst-case scenario helps us fend it off. This life-preserving part of our brain comes at a cost. When we are afraid, the slower-acting, reasonable parts of our brains (the prefrontal cortex) can get hijacked by the faster-acting fear centers of the brain (the amygdala). We can’t think rationally or long term when we are afraid.

The job of leaders is to help their people see a better future and practical steps to getting there. In fear, people need a spare prefrontal cortex. The job of the leader, in times of uncertainty, is to provide that spare prefrontal cortex. People who have practiced emotional self-regulation (strengthening the prefrontal cortex) through quiet reflection, meditation, and contemplation are the ones who are likely to be sought out as leaders. Those who are concerned, but not scared, can provide an alternative model for how to behave. If a person is uncertain about what to do and the leader is self-possessed, then that uncertain, frightened person will imitate the behavior of the leader.

People don’t like bad surprises. Have you ever gone to a movie without seeing the preview, only to be badly surprised? Great leaders give their people a preview of coming attractions. When people know what to expect, they can handle it better. If you have a new policy coming your way, let the people know it is coming well in advance of the new policy. Then they can become accustomed to the change before it actually affects them.

When You Are Nervous, Be of Service

By John Sweeney and Elena Imaretska, Brave New Workshop (www.bravenewworkshop.com)

In our 62-plus years of helping people shift their mindset from one of fear and anxiety to one of discovery and optimism, we have discovered that a powerful way to make that switch is to find ways to be of service to others. Our collaborator, Theresa Glomb, professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, studies workers’ well-being, and her research finds that a reliable way to see a spike in mood is after an act of kindness or helping a co-worker. She found that if we are unable to help someone at the moment, even reflecting upon how your work helps others and improves people’s lives can have a beneficial effect.

Here are four simple ways we as training professionals can help others:

Share your skills. Undoubtedly you have many great skills, whether they are in technology, storytelling, visual representation, etc. Who could use a boost in their skills right now?

Demystify the brain. As a training professional, you know a lot about humans and their brains. Help others understand and manage their reactions through all you know. Encourage others to practice behaviors that will retrain their brain.

Care for your network. You meet and know many people through your work. Reach out with a kind note, a joke, or words of encouragement to one person each day. Let them know they are in your thoughts.

Bring hope. We are all feeling uncomfortable right now as we continue to adjust our daily lives to a new reality. Help others reframe the discomfort as learning—you know that to be true!

The Emotional Aspect

Jan Bruce, CEO and cofounder of meQuilibrium (https://www.mequilibrium.com/), offers five ways organizations can optimize their workforce’s cognitive capabilities, stress, and emotion management:

1. Understand current capacities and risks related to cognitive performance and stress management using assessments with high predictive ability.

2. Triage those at risk using intelligent routing to direct employees to resources for support when risk is identified.

3. Provide training for cognitive upskilling, which can strengthen employees’ self-management, preventing stress-related problems down the line.

4. Equip teams for success by teaching them to be calm and focused so they can remain positive and make reasonable decisions.

5. Upskill managers to thrive during change. When managers know how to see the opportunity in change and respond with agility and resilience, they can support employees to do the same.

Lola Gershfeld, Psy. D., board and team dynamics specialist at EmC Leaders (www.emcleaders.com), details three steps to create emotional safety in your organization:

1. Recognize that emotional response is normal. Fear is the primary emotion during moments of stress and uncertainty. The unknown tends to overwhelm us. Allow time to validate, normalize, and reflect people’s fears and provide words of reassurance, “We will get through this together.”

2. Allow for peer support time. The effect of seeing each other calms the nervous system down. As more and more people are not physically in the same location, it is important to create a ritual of gathering virtually every day to maintain a sense of connection. Provide words of affirmation, “You’re important, you matter, and we care about each other.”

3. Organize a “virtual lunch” discussion group to facilitate sharing and processing of employees’ experiences. Invite employees from other departments. Initially, people who had not worked together may have nothing to say, but comfort will build quickly.

Tips for Moving Classroom Learning Online

Employees—and leaders—working remotely still need training. In making the transition from classroom to online learning, Jim Guilkey, Ph.D. (www.jimguilkey.com), president, S4 NetQuest, and author of “M-Pact Learning: The New Competitive Advantage—What All Executives Need to Know,” notes that the main concept involves “transformation,” not “conversion.” In other words, he says, you can’t simply take PowerPoint slides from your classroom course and put them in a WebEx and lecture to those slides. He offers a few other tips including:

  • Create pre-work. A certain percentage of the classroom materials can be converted to pre-work (prior to the virtual classroom segment). This is normally “foundational” content (i.e., overviews of a process, product information, etc.). The pre-work can be transformed into interactive “micro-modules” that include assessments and can be tracked. If time is of the essence, then have learners read with a purpose in mind; for example, “Read this article and answer the following questions.”
  • Put the impetus for learning on the learners. Give them a problem, give them access to the knowledge and information needed (i.e., digital self-paced micro-modules) to solve the problem, and then do a debrief and provide additional insights.
  • Utilize built-in collaboration tools. For example, break the learners into groups, give them a problem to solve, and then have them interact in virtual breakout rooms. Afterwards, have them report out to the entire group on how they solved the problem. Barry Kelly, CEO of Thought Industries (www.thoughtindustries.com), provides some additional suggestions, such as:
  • Create virtual “events,” not just training. Incorporate Webinar tools, pre-and post-learning, and ancillary features such as cohort performance measurement, user management, learner insights, training pathways, and certification management.
  • Make online training more fun and engaging through gamification. Gamification incentivizes people to earn a badge or be at the top of the leaderboard. They shift their focus in order to “level up.” You can use this to offer an actual award, as well, such as a gift card or credits toward an additional course to motivate people.
  • Incorporate communities into your training. Provide a forum for peers to work together and support one another. More than ever, people need to feel they’re not isolated or alone in a bubble.

Training magazine offers a variety of resources to help L&D professionals deal with the “new normal,” including Live + Online certificate programs, online articles written by industry experts for www.trainingmag.com, and Training Magazine Network (TMN) Webinars and Learning Centers. For more information, visit: https://trainingmag.com/training-magazine-provides-covid-19-resources/

In addition, we’ve compiled a continuously updated listing of tools and resources offered by training industry vendors and associations at https://trainingmag.com/resources-and-tools-training-and-hr-professionals-cope-covid-19/

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.