Coronavirus is an unfolding crisis. Gripped with fear and uncertainty, people on every continent around the world are struggling in uncharted waters. As events develop, business needs to be part of the solution.

I have staff in China, Japan, USA and the UK and they have been giving me detailed updates on their experiences and insights. From these I have developed a set of practices that could make a meaningful difference to businesses that are about to disrupt their employees’ lives for what could be many weeks.

Preparing for a new normal

Learning from my teams’ experience, I believe fear and uncertainty can be contained through sure-footed preparations that must be focused on people. The headlines are relevant to all of us and I’d like to share them here.

The threat from coronavirus is less the disease itself and more the uncertainty that comes with it. It wasn’t death-rates that killed off the troubled airline Flybe, it was fear and the associated drop in bookings. If you and your company are right now trying to see the light in managing uncertainty then let me offer some reassurance. Many of the business questions thrown up by coronavirus come with ready solutions. The key is to take meaningful action that involves more than handwashing and logistics.

Step 1 – Start with your staff

In difficult times, businesses crave clarity. We believe leaders can begin to reclaim certainty by first protecting staff, their most important asset. Given the official advice on self-isolating, a greater proportion of the workforce will soon be working from home. For some companies this might be a new departure, but working from home does not automatically mean less productivity.

Setting aside the fact that many of my own staff work from home, independent research has shown that if managed correctly productivity can potentially increase. Stanford’s Professor Nicholas Bloom monitored 500 employees at Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency. Half continued to work at HQ as usual while the other half were sent home. Over two years, Bloom found an impressive rise in productivity among those working remotely. Workers in the US showed similar productivity in research published last year by Airtasker.

Ironically, in my experience I find that although the human element is the main factor behind continued success and productivity, it is all too often overlooked. I’ve been surprised to discover strategies for change that focus mainly, or even entirely, on tech. The fact is homeworkers must be given the emotional support they need to accommodate change. This means offering them more than software and a train ticket home. Many staff will suddenly be working alone for the first time and they must be properly supported. Only then will they have the best chance of working to their best. Tech is a key part of the overall package but it must be accompanied by excellent communication from senior leaders. For me, the secret sauce is a smart blend of good tech and good communication. Together, this combination makes leadership easier.

Step 2 – Supporting senior leaders

Leaders can be supported with training in key areas, ideally through one-to-one coaching. At Working Voices, we have recently developed courses on Leading Through Change, Managing Uncertainty, Advanced Critical Thinking Training and Motivating Remotely. These expand upon core themes such as recognising that productivity relies on robust decision-making processes. If they are to tame uncertainty, leaders need a bold sense of clarity so that they can execute clear decisions. Ultimately, leaders must retain the ability to think clearly under pressure.

Decisions must be clearly communicated. Regular updates ensure everyone is working towards the same objectives. It’s not always an easy part of the process. Keeping people aligned is hard when they’re not in one location. We understand that motivating people at home, without getting panicked, calls for a calm sense of persistence in delegating, giving feedback, managing tasks and driving results.

Step 3 – Helping junior staff

For many people, working remotely will be a new experience. Our advice for junior team-members focuses on building an underlying sense of resilience. For example, a strategic attitude will help foster a new way of working. Clearer, braver communication with managers and teams will break down a sense of isolation though may require new skills in remote influence and persuasion.

Some staff may benefit from techniques helping them to maintain focus, others will need advice in organising their home environment. Whichever package of solutions works best, the human element stands front and centre when it comes to helping people work from home.

Step 4 – Getting the best from tech

Tech, the other half of the equation, must reliably enable teams to stay in touch regardless of location. During group events like presentations, distance can be overcome through online platforms like Zoom and Webex, both of which are simple to use. Presenting remotely is valuable in keeping everyone on the same page. Tech must be regarded as enabling opportunities to connect. Faces must be seen, voices must be heard, there must be actual human connection. We’ve all spent time working on emails, or browsing Facebook or Twitter, we know that being plugged into the internet can leave us feeling isolated compared to the sense of connection that comes with genuine human contact.

Connection is strengthened through structure. An effective worker needs routine. This can come in the form of a check-in call at the start of the day and another at close of play. This gives shape to the day and reduces the impact of distractions. It also allows leaders to spot signs in those who might be struggling, particularly in people who live alone. To those working alone, contracting coronavirus is a remote possibility. But a sense of isolation is a likely risk and something that needs to be understood. Connection can be made easier through group activities, led by trainers with experience in bringing teams together. For example, at Working Voices we lead sessions on well-being, where we train staff around safeguarding their mental health when confronted by sudden change.

Step 5 – Communicate your plan

Human connection recharges our emotional batteries and must be built into any strategy for dealing with coronavirus. It can be easily implemented and practiced in advance. Doing so will shore up a company’s resilience, making it better placed to manage the unexpected. Once established, the strategy shouldn’t be a secret known only to the board. Leaders must communicate the plan and take the mystery out of it. The prospect of change will be less daunting and easier to initiate if staff can see that solutions are in place and life largely will be business as usual.

I believe these solutions are worth taking seriously. Peter Piot, Director of Global Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has said that the UK outbreak will peak around Easter but could last for another six months, infecting millions of people. Some changes may be temporary, but the norm that businesses return to may look permanently different. In healthier days to come, companies will be judged on the actions they took when things were at their toughest. And for us in the UK, the toughest period is just about to begin.

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