Leadership in Crisis – 4 Actions Every Company Needs to Think About for Employee Wellbeing

”This may sound opportunistic and insensitive, but I will consider this a mini-holiday.” Huh. For days I had been running around breathless, fighting fires, turning our in-person services remote. Before I spoke to my friend who, in turn, was busy bunkering up with snacks and streaming services to take it easy, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there is a different corona experience. That for some people it frees up time and leaves them happily (or anxiously) idle at home. With COVID-19 holding the world under siege, an interesting phenomenon is happening among knowledge workers: a polarisation of the workforce.

At this very moment, millions of people globally are in critical mission mode. They’re fighting fires, responding to imminent crises of sales, cash flow, stranded exports, or sick employees. The other part of the workforce, however, is at the opposite end of the spectrum – contained at home, struggling with unstable internet connections, trying to self-lead, not necessarily succeeding. One client said he’s more productive than ever, another says he has no tasks without his supervisor present. One friend with time on his hands decided to take up Fortnite.

The challenge: leading wellbeing in a polarised workforce

These two groups – the firefighters and the idle – need to manage their work and wellbeing very differently. One group is at risk of burnout, the other of bore-out. One needs recovery, the other self-leadership. Where one’s exigency is mental strength, the other’s is mental stimulation. What’s worse, at the back of both groups’ minds is the lingering question: in this new world, will I even have a job?

This creates an unprecedented challenge for organisations. It’s the perfect storm of modern workplace trends: stress, self-leadership, remote collaboration, extreme uncertainty. All super-charged in mere days.

Until now we’ve been focused on hand washing, social distancing, and setting up our home offices. What’s next? I’d argue that over the next few weeks, we’re in for a massive leadership challenge. More specifically, a challenge to lead wellbeing. For us at Hintsa it quickly became clear what our business needs to brace for the virus. Now, the focus should be on the people who make it happen. In difficult and uncertain times, our physical and mental wellbeing is crucial – not only for our immune system, but for the economy, too.

As the crisis accelerates and work falls to the ones who stay healthy, maintaining a well-being, productive workforce is the best action an organisation can take. In short, organisations need a clear wellbeing strategy to address three groups: the fire fighters, the remotely stranded employees, and leaders.

1. Protect people in “mission mode”

First, companies need to ensure that people in firefighting mode do not burn out. Speaking with a decade of experience coaching the world’s most work-focused professionals – bankers, management consultants, executives – ”mission mode” thinking always resonates. Mission time is an extraordinary time when you need to produce a lot, fast. A big deadline, an ambitious challenge, or, as a former management consultant myself, every single client project and deliverable.

During this time, team members prioritise the mission, i.e. work, and often skip their healthy habits. Ironically, this is the time wellbeing is most needed to keep performing. In mission mode, a few things become critical. You need to keep up your own keystone habits, no matter what. For me personally it’s hitting my 8000 steps, calm time with the kids, and staying Netflix-free to secure my sleep.

Encourage your team to find their own keystone habits, and lead by example. Check in with your colleagues often and don’t take ”I’m alright” as the final answer. In mission mode we’re too busy to notice we’ve entered burnout zone until it’s too late. The more employees who fall ill to the virus, the more tasks gather to those who remain, the more critical it is to ensure the firefighting group is well.

2. Upskill remote workers for self-leadership

Second, organisations need to upskill their remote teams in self-leadership – fast. Gone are the natural encounters at the office, the visual oversight, the ability to walk a few desks away to ask a question. With everyone confined to their homes, we all need to truly embrace remote collaboration. It’s one part trust – not for example yielding to the lure of micro-management, like asking for a daily remote workday report as one unnamed IT-company did (“Why? I don’t create reports on normal office days, do I?” was an employee’s frustrated reaction).

More concretely, it’s about training people in workday design: how to set up a remote day, communicate with colleagues, and manage the shifts from home-mode to work-mode and back when the boundaries invariably become blurred. In the best case, this can be positive. Like one management consultant said, “I’ve never seen as many partners in PJs”, enjoying the surprising lowering of hierarchies.

3. Overcome paralysis with a “one team” mentality

Third, and this applies to the entire organisation – whether you’re in firefighting or idle mode – organisations need to proactively curb anxiety and help people come together. It’s easy to feel fearful given the gloomy prospects for the economy and our jobs. Paralysis is a huge threat – both for business and for employee morale.

Organisations need to keep up momentum and a positive outlook. Managed well, this virus can be a glue binding together teams in a collective response against a faceless enemy. Great companies were built in times of adversity, and actions powered by shared humanity can feel deeply meaningful.

4. Build leadership resilience

Fourth, and above all, responsible leaders take care of their own mental wellbeing. A tired leader running on vending machine snacks and little sleep is unlikely to make good decisions, and unlikely to lead the team’s wellbeing either.

Swift action can contain this pandemic. Mindful leadership, on the other hand, can help us not only survive, but thrive – through this crisis and beyond. Organisations are facing a massive challenge in avoiding burnouts and avoiding paralysis – at the same time. People are the key to finding innovative ways of working and collaborating in this new normal, and people are powered by their wellbeing – especially in times of crisis. In the world’s biggest working-from-home experiment, leaders who find a renewed focus on employee wellbeing may come out stronger.

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