Originally published in Chief Executive
By David Levin
For corporate managers and other executives, the COVID-19 outbreak is a new kind of crisis that no one alive has had to deal with before.
But, if there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it is that transparency is paramount in the face of these kinds of challenges. Whether it’s a business downturn, a natural disaster or a global pandemic, it’s human nature to yearn for information, good or bad, so that we can make our own decisions and to rally the troops.
This crisis is going to pass at some point. But once it does, the reality is that many businesses are going to suffer massive performance deficits. Sales are going to be behind and profits are going to be down.
The faster we can get our workforce back to full productivity after the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, the faster we can recover from the lasting impacts and related economic damage. Open and clear lines of communication will be critical to generate the kind of momentum in the workforce to help solve the problem.
Here are some recommendations for CEOs to start thinking about now to lead the transition back to the office in the post-coronavirus environment.
1. Reassure employees their safety remains at top priority. It will still be extraordinarily important that we take the same preventative measures when workers return that we took on their way out of the workplace to keep this thing from coming back. We need to reassure employees that we are sanitizing surfaces, encouraging hand washing, and maintaining an appropriate level of social distancing. Companies may want to consider staggered work schedules to allow greater amounts of individual space, and to ensure procedures are in place for proper cleaning of floors and work spaces. We have created a presentation with sanitizing reminders that we have posted throughout the workspace, and we will keep that going when workers return.
2. Manage the yearning for collaboration. After working from home for an extended period, employees will likely have a heightened desire to collaborate, craving increased face-to-face encounters with their coworkers. It will be important to make that possible while at the same time enforcing some form of social distancing. There will be stresses on meeting room resource scheduling, and there will be a heightened need for availability of other collaborative spaces. People will have missed that part of their job – working collaboratively face-to-face with their co-workers. Space optimization will be critical. If you have meeting room applications, tightly manage them.
3. Share information liberally. Businesses are going to be suffering: sales and profits are going to be behind pre-pandemic projections. The faster we can get our workforce back to productivity, the faster we can fully recover from this economic lag. Business leaders should be open and transparent as possible as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. How much information should be shared? Almost everything. Remind people what the goals are, where the business currently stands in achieving those goals, and celebrate successes as they happen. People can’t help if they don’t know the situation, and people can be extraordinarily helpful if they are as informed as possible. So, the more people are told, the more they can get aligned for this challenge and make a positive impact.
4. Address the big distraction. Layoffs may have already happened, and returning workers will be nervous. The desired comeback will be more difficult with that heightened level of anxiety. But, employees appreciate straight talk – even when the news is not so good. Figure out a way to responsibly address what is going on. Everyone will be looking for information to plan for the future. Let them know what the company has to do to avoid the worst-case scenarios – and more importantly to achieve business goals. Transparency is a great tool for that.
5. Start re-engagement now. Begin thinking about re-entry as soon as possible. Getting people back to a normal functioning office environment will be hard work. Will everybody come back all at once, or will groups be eased back into the workplace gradually? Which functions will come back first? Will their schedules change? Will remote work be part of the future? What equipment needs to be returned and when? These and other questions need to be grappled with now and communicate as much as you can as soon as possible.
Disseminating policies around all of this is difficult and especially so the bigger the company. Using your communication tools effectively to manage the return process will make all the difference. Use them to send the right message, in the right way, at the right time.