As COVID-19 outbreaks continue to be reported around the world, employers and their employees have been caught in the crisis.1 The ongoing threat to public health requires social distancing — and teams of co-workers collaborating in office buildings completely contradicts those efforts.
Much like many workplaces across the globe, Mercer offices are largely empty, but work continues from employees' homes. People around the world are adjusting to working from "out of the office" and interacting via video chat and other digital platforms.
Collaborating via video can be surprisingly effective. My own team spans 17 different time zones, and while getting everyone together in person can be lots of fun, it can also be a logistical nightmare. This year, we held our annual kickoff meeting virtually, with the whole team gathered via videoconference. We could all look each other in the eye, and it was almost like being together in the same room. Our meeting was highly productive, and nobody had to deal with jet lag.
So, there are bright spots to relish about this new way of working. But being thrown unexpectedly onto a path of life-altering changes — along with a health crisis and widespread uncertainty — can also cause fear and anxiety. Leaders must take time to understand the emotions their employees are dealing with, so they can accurately empathize, communicate and lead through a chaotic time.
People are thirsty for information, and if they are not provided with clear communication about what's happening around them, they're likely to create their own narratives. Unfortunately, some people have been rather misinformed about COVID-19, and false information has slowed the response in some areas.
Companies can show strong leadership by providing accurate and clear communication — not just on company expectations, but also on technical information about the health crisis. Nearly 81% of respondents to a recent Mercer survey said that their organization has developed a regular cadence of communication from senior leadership, as well as company-wide communications that focus not only on data but on practical actions the company has undertaken, too.
Because information changes quickly, virtual workspaces that can provide updates in real time are better positioned than those simply crafting emails that could be outdated by the time some employees read them. Some leaders are sending out short videos of themselves talking to connect more closely with employees. It can be helpful for leaders to show they are vulnerable during a crisis; they should project positivity but remain realistic.
While the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges to our businesses, it also presents opportunities. And strong leaders can take this opportunity to communicate authentically and reassess the way things have always been done.
Maybe those all-hands — and other in-person meetings that require scheduling and logistical superpowers — really aren't necessary. Maybe they can be just as effective via video conference. Perhaps stressed workers who are constantly juggling home and work demands really can be just as productive working remotely or on flexible schedules. This is a chance to try out new paradigms and consider retaining the ones that fit, even after the current crisis has passed.
Moving forward, companies around the world are likely to take business continuity planning more seriously. Those who had already started down the path of digitizing their workflows have had a much easier time maintaining operations throughout the chaos; many of those who haven't are playing catch-up.
As we've watched the novel coronavirus move from one country to the next, and around the world, we've seen many of the same stages of response repeat themselves over and over again. Here in Germany, I moved out of the denial stage and started working exclusively from home a few weeks before my American counterparts. Our company leaders in China are several weeks ahead of us in the process. As those in one country begin to breathe a sigh of relief, others are just getting started in dealing with this pandemic.
By seeing our Chinese co-workers preparing to return to work in shifts, we can feel hopeful that the crisis will pass here, too. It's an ideal situation for sharing and learning from each other about what to expect and how to move forward, each step of the way.
We can expect there will be painful losses, and people will need time to grieve and heal emotionally. But we're all in this together, and as a global community, we have rich data and experience in dealing with pandemics. By sharing knowledge and positive outcomes, we can also have hope for healing and ongoing success.
1. Elflein, John. "Coronavirus (COVID-19) disease pandemic- Statistics & Facts," Statista, 3 Apr. 2020, https://www.statista.com/topics/5994/the-coronavirus-disease-covid-19-outbreak/。