By Dr Andy Brown, CEO, ENGAGE.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted the way millions of individuals work. Many people are now working remotely for the first time, separating employees, managers, and leaders who previously worked together in more centralised locations or structures. This is an understandably stressful time for newly remote leaders, managers and frontline workers, many of whom are balancing their job commitments with child or healthcare responsibilities.

One of the challenges we are getting asked to advise on, research and analyse is how leaders can be effective in more virtual environments.

There is no single answer to this critical question. These are unprecedented times and there is no off-the-shelf-playbook for the leaders of any organisation. However, there are some common traits that we’ve found across our research that can help drive best practice for leadership during these uncertain times, but also as we come out the other side and move forward:

  1. Be visible and make yourself available
Our research finds that many employees are concerned about several aspects of remote working:
  • The lack of face-to-face interaction with leaders and managers
  • A potential lack of access to information
  • The social isolation which may come from remote working
To combat this, leaders need to be planning how to make themselves more visible and available using technology to:
  • Communicate your contingency plan: As a very first step, leaders need to speak about how the business intends to respond to different scenarios. Having a contingency plan for business continuity reinforces the “better safe than sorry” idea to your people. Our research suggests that this will involve reviewing a range of relevant policies and being prepared to communicate and implement changes flexibly and rapidly as conditions evolve.
  • Stay focused on what matters: One thing we have picked up amongst our highest performing clients is, given the nature of the crisis, a tendency to use “keeping our stakeholders safe” as their one, guiding “North star”. Looking after your people, customers, clients, communities and any broader stakeholders shows a depth of purpose and real EQ amongst leaders. This can also help to create a stronger sense of team amongst your people and galvanise them around a bigger purpose during the crisis.
  • Establish regular check-ins: some leaders we are working with are doing daily or weekly “broadcasts” using video technology (such as Microsoft Teams, Workplace by Facebook, Zoom or Skype). These check-ins are used to update employees on the situation, clarify the organisation’s responses to the crisis and explain what decisions have been made and how.
  • Provide a range of internal communication channels: In a crisis, email will not be enough. Using richer technologies can help leaders have some visual contact with employees, critical in building trust and confidence when people are remote. Equally, you need to use different parts of a communications system for various types of messaging. Video may be better for more complex messages; meanwhile for more time-sensitive or quick collaboration needs, instant messaging tools (such as on Slack or Microsoft Teams) may be more effective
  • Create some interaction: in a crisis, it’s vital that leaders can create and allow space for some interaction. Communications cannot all be one-way “broadcast”. Two approaches we have seen working well: 1) allowing time for some general discussion at the start of video meetings about non-work issues (how were people’s weekends; how are family members doing etc.); 2) keeping plenty of time throughout session for questions – this can be done informally throughout or with a Q&A segment at the end of the call.
  • Make yourself available as a leader: we have seen some CEOs and senior executives making themselves available at particular timeslots for questions from colleagues. For example, one CEO has held an open “surgery” each evening of the crisis for one hour where employees can dial-in and ask questions about anything that’s worrying them during the crisis.
  1. Be open and honest
Many of our clients have stressed how critical being totally open and honest as leaders with your employees is going to be in retaining trust and commitment during the crisis. You may be asking people to do very different things or to do things very differently and transparency during this time will be even vital than under normal circumstance for leaders. Our research shows there are three elements to leadership openness and honesty:
  • Being candid: Leaders need to be totally forthright in how they communicate at all times; it’s even more critical in a crisis. Be open about even hard truths and tough messages (such as the need for job losses or tough customer / stakeholder news). Also, be prepared to say when you don’t know or don’t have the answer to a question: people will respect that honesty hugely.
  • Speed: with the rate of change going on during the COVID-19 crisis (daily, even hourly government announcements and a rapidly changing public health situation), getting messages out fast and allowing people to talk them through at rapid pace will be essential.
  • Clarity: As things are moving so rapidly, having crisp, concise messaging will be critical. Less is more in terms of volume – leaders need to think through: what are the three points we need to get across here as an organisation. At the same time, repetition can help to sink those simple messages home. The mantra of “tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them” will help people to get hold of the most vital messages in a way that makes them strongly understood and repeatable to others.
  1. Be supportive and reduce anxiety
Research has shown that leaders, in particular, have a special role in reducing employee anxiety during major crises. For example, many of the studies done around crisis communication after 9/11 showed that many employees felt it was hugely important to hear the voice of the leader, whether live or through email, phone messages, or social media.

For example, when the coronavirus crisis hit one of our clients, the leadership team in the New York office camped out in a central location to help ease everyone’s anxiety and provide regular updates. At another, they have had a rota of senior leaders taking an online Q&A each morning from any employees with queries about the situation.

  1. Share good news when you can
When you’re a leader during a crisis, good news can feel like a complete rarity. As the person in charge, people are more likely to come to you with fires to fight, problems to solve or challenges to overcome, than share how they avoided them.

However, we have found that being able to share snippets of positive news during a crisis can have a huge impact on morale and the sense of camaraderie within work teams, particularly when they are being forced to work remotely. And asking for these to be shared during tough times can be one way to alleviate the sense of tension in an organisation. For example, one of our clients has been asking his teams across the organisation to share pieces such as:

  • Good news stories about a piece of teamwork where employees have gone above and beyond what’s expected of them in a particular situation
  • A piece of recognition for an individual or a team who have displayed particular behaviours critical during the crisis (such as supporting customers or colleagues)
  • Examples of people embracing new ways of working in a time of adversity to achieve particular objectives.
A strategy to survive and thrive

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted the way millions of individuals work. What’s uncertain is how long this will last, and how far-reaching the repercussions will be.

While we are all still learning how best to move forward, we know that effective management and leadership is vital to the successful navigation of the changes and challenges we’re facing. Following the guidance above, learning from those who are being successful, and embedding best practice across your organisation, are key steps in enabling your employees and your business to thrive.