The pandemic has so many unknown variables — are leaders ready to address them all?
Crisis management plans most often address the physical safety of a company’s people and immediate business continuity — but they aren't up to the task of handling the fast-moving and unknown variables of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employees go through the drills for fires and earthquakes, there are estimates for how many days until the workforce can return to the building and there are designated media contacts from the executive team in charge of messaging — but all of that “is so far out the window at this point,” says Mindi Cox, senior vice president, People & Great Work at O.C. Tanner.
“There’s nothing like that for a pandemic that stretches on,” she says, noting if a company had the foresight to plan every detail that would have to be addressed, they’re magic. “I don’t know any company that had that all mapped out. Even if sounds good on paper, it plays out different in practice.”
Jean McClellan, partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s consulting practice and Canada's National People and Organization practice leader, says the pandemic “was something new for us in the business community to tackle, and it challenged each and every business in a different way.”
McClellan predicts “some form of disruption at least for the next 18-24 months,” but now that things have settled a bit companies have to make some longer term choices — and quickly. She estimates most provinces have a few weeks to figure it out, and some are already going back to work.
“If they haven’t already started, organizations need to be thinking about their return to workplace plan, their life after lockdown plan,” McClellan advises. “Even if they were an organization that was deemed an essential service or stayed open during the pandemic, they need to think about how they do this for the lang haul.”
Cox is intent on capturing everything that went right with O.C. Tanner’s response plan, but also what they could have done better, and this “ongoing debrief” is a good piece of advice for other organizations.
“Our memories are short after trauma — we just want to move on — but our CEO has challenged the executive team leaders to keep a running list of what’s working and what’s not and how we would improve it currently or for the long term,” she says.
McClellan recommends organizations develop a “very clear and distinct” return to workplace plan. First and foremost, health and safety — are you going to have extra cleaning routines or personal protective equipment? Are you going to do contact tracing on your employees or ask them to self-declare? Employers need to have a plan around those things, she says, especially given a PwC employee survey that found many employees are concerned about the safety of returning and being more intensely monitored by their employer.
Another piece is understanding what your worker needs and preferences are. 64% of PwC’s employer survey respondents are confident they can create a safe workplace for a returning workforce, but only 47% are “very confident” of their ability to manage their employees’ well-being and morale.
“No matter how physically safe the environment is, if your employees don’t believe it’s safe — if there isn't psychological safety — it’s going to be very hard to get the productivity you need from your workforce and avoid potentially costly litigation,” McClellan says.
She advises giving employees points of control — for example, a company may have an effective cleaning routine that would stand up to workplace code but it doesn’t hurt to offer extra supplies for your employees to clean their own work stations. Another example is allowing employees to continue to work from home if they’re more comfortable.
“I imagine there will be a number of different opinions of return to work plans,” McClellan says. “The extent people really are doing their best and trying to iterate through some of those situations that maybe aren’t going so well — that’s the piece that will rule the day.”
Another consideration is the nature of work — how is it going to change? Are you going to keep the workforce virtual? Do you have to permanently reconfigure a process or set-up within your factory to maintain pre-COVID productivity? Are you going to have to do reorganizations in your company?
According to PwC’s pulse survey results, 72% of respondents say their company will have better resiliency and agility going forward and McClellan says many employers had improvements during the pandemic — some elements of their business became more productive, or decision making has become more streamlined.
“The goal and the key now is to pick those big rocks, the ones that are most important to that organization, and do everything you can to keep them moving forward because they'll give you strategic advantage in the future.”
McClellan works with clients to make sure they stay in regular communication with employees — and potentially those that were laid off as well — to show the logic and some of the value in the decision making process can help everyone work together through this unknown situation, she notes.
“I have seen the business community grow more compassionate over the last several weeks — understanding family situations, personal home situations — there's much more openness to having that be part of an employee's life during the work day and understanding the impact that could have on an employee.”
For Cox, taking the opportunity for connection is top-of-mind. She sends a nightly email to O.C. Tanner’s workforce, and maintains a crisis management video journal on the website. The company has hosted virtual town halls, where the entire executive team was on every call with every employee group. It’s not about saying anything new, she explains, it’s about getting to see each other and hear a familiar voice.
Nobody has a crystal ball — a vaccine for the virus may change things, for example — but “just like in any business continuity planning the key is to plan for those things that might happen or could happen,” McClellan says.
Cox predicts every company will revisit their plans with an eye towards sustainability — it’s one thing to triage a response to a natural disaster for a few days or a week, but it’s another to provide some continuity of employee experience over months.
“Even though we had checked all the boxes, and I feel like we have a very responsible business continuity plan, it just doesn’t take into account the emotional well being of our people for an extended period of time,” Cox says of O.C. Tanner’s crisis response plan pre-pandemic.
Cox advises leaders pay attention to the overall sentiment — according to recent O.C. Tanner pulse surveys, 77% of employees doubt workplace culture will ever return to “normal” and 86.5% think it’s too soon to go back to the workplace. Getting employees onboard is critical, as it’s not only whether or not the technical aspects of a contingency plan are operating, it’s how people feel about them.
“We know people determine the success of any process — they can either adopt and endorse it or they can reject it,” she says. "That’s the same with different aspects of our contingency plans.”
This crisis has revealed organizations both operationally and culturally, and she urges employers to take the opportunity to take stock — those that will come out stronger have cultures centred on empowerment and on people feeling inspired by the purpose of the organization, which is impossible to triage in the moment, she adds.
“If you haven’t taken the opportunity to give people a rallying point that’s specific to the purpose you put into the world — it’s time.”
To hear more on this topic, sign up for OC Tanner’s upcoming webinar - Helping employees thrive during times of crisis, here.