Four critical questions for senior leaders to consider 

We’re in uncharted waters. The disruptions caused by Covid-19 are forcing all of us to adjust to different ways of living and working.  Shopping frenzies, empty shelves, shuttered restaurants, travel bans, mandatory remote work, whiplashing markets, rising case counts—this is the new reality for the near future.  Inside organizations, many employees are worried.  

Clearly, employee safety is the first thing organizations must focus on now.  But if you’re like most leaders, you probably find yourself grappling with a deeper dilemma, one that extends beyond this immediate priority: what’s the best way to meet the physical and psychological needs of your workforce while ensuring your organization continues to perform?  

Based on our research and experience, we’ve found the best way to work through this dilemma is to evaluate how your organization is functioning—right now, real time, amidst the pandemic—from four different perspectives: strategic alignment; organizational effectiveness; employee experience; and organizational agility.  If you want to get a read on your organization’s current state, here are four questions to consider.

  1. How aligned is your organization—both internally and externally—right now?

    During a crisis, organizations either pull together or pull apart.  When organizations pull apart, it’s often because stakeholders have lost sight of a unifying vision, mission, or goal.  To counter the confusion of the day, senior leaders need to make sure that people throughout the organization are aware of here-and-now challenges and new and emergent internal and external priorities. You can ensure people are aligned by taking three actions.

    • Reach out to your customers. Across industries, Covid-19 is a disruptive force. Now is a critical time to reach out to your customers and find out what they’re worried about, what they’re struggling with, and what help they need. Don’t rely on assumptions. Talking to your clients, either one on one or via digital listening platforms, is the only way you will find out how COVID-19 is affecting their business.
    • Reset your priorities. Unless your organization was planning for a pandemic, your strategic priorities probably need to shift, at least for the short term. Now is the time to take a fresh look at your plans for the next quarter in light of client needs, market shifts, and critical needs. By incorporating your customers’ new work realities into your immediate plans, you can focus on providing the goods, services, and support they need now.
    • Communicate, connect, repeat. Between remote work, crisis response meetings, and new work-life balance challenges, now is not the easiest time for leaders to be present and connected with their employees. But communication, clarity, and connection are critical needs right now. If your employees experience a communication gap, you run the risk that they will come up with their own narrative about internal and external problems and priorities. Now is the time to communicate clearly and frequently about where your organization is going and how you’re going to get there.


  2. How is this pandemic affecting the way your organization operates?

    Covid-19 is changing the way work gets done. Telework, skeleton crews, and social distancing are the new norms. In many organizations, these new ways of working are affecting team dynamics, cross-functional teamwork, and organizational effectiveness. Now is a good time to monitor emerging performance problems and identify new ways of working. Three immediate priorities stand out.

    • Ensure your remote workers have the tools, technology, and training they need. Many organizations now have some or all of their employees working remotely. For many employees, this is both a boon (because of the health benefits) and a burden (because of the practical challenges of working from home). Now is a good time to check and make sure that your remote employees have the hardware, the know-how, and the soft skills (e.g., time management, virtual meeting skills) to work remotely.
    • Keep an eye on decision-making and cross-functional coordination. During this pandemic, organizations need to be flexible, agile, and decisive. If part of your workforce just started working remotely, that may slow down decision-making and cross-functional teamwork. Ensuring important decisions are being made and executed during this time is critical. If Covid-19 has changed where (e.g., home) and how (e.g., virtually) your employees are working, it is important to understand the extent to which these changes are disrupting performance. Taking a socio-technical systems perspective can help. This essentially boils down to evaluating how technology and remote work are impacting interpersonal dynamics and organizational effectiveness. Are teams working together? Are new conflicts emerging? Are critical conversations not happening? If so, virtual distance may be slowing your employees down. Identifying coordination challenges quickly and taking corrective steps can help your organization stay on track.
    • Encourage your workforce to come up with better ways of working. Employees and front line managers often have the clearest insights about the tools, technology, policies, and procedures that aren’t helpful. Now is a good time to streamline processes and remove hassles. Doing so will increase efficiency and probably boost employee engagement as well. Consider efficiency-focused interventions—many which can be deployed virtually—like GE Workouts, hackathons, and triz.
  3. What support do your employees need during this outbreak?

    Based on various polls and studies, employees are concerned about Covid-19 and how it will impact their lives—both physically and financially. In one recent study we conducted, we found that 91% of participants were worried that the virus may affect themselves or their families. During this time of heightened anxiety, it is important to approach your employees with empathy and understanding. Here are three ways to support your employees during this period.

    • Be flexible. As more people move to remote working and as schools close temporarily, many employees are facing new day-to-day challenges. Now is a good time to be flexible and let your workforce work where they can and when they can. Sometimes leaders and managers think that flexible work arrangements lead to performance problems. Research shows that’s not the case. In our global norms, we’ve found that employees with flexible work arrangements are significantly more motivated and committed than their office-bound peers. Researchers from Stanford University have found that call center employees working from home were 13% more productive than their in-office peers. And researchers from the University of Texas have found that telecommuting employees put in more hours than their in-office coworkers.
    • Increase support for immediate managers. Based on our research, we’ve found that most immediate managers care deeply about their work, their organizations, and their employees. But stress can derail even the best of managers. And these are stressful times. If you want your immediate managers to take care of their direct reports, you need to make sure you are taking care of them. What are their concerns right now? What are their pain points? What help do they need? Just like we said above about customers, don’t rely on assumptions. Talking to your managers, either one on one or via digital listening platforms, is the only way you will find out how COVID-19 is affecting their teams.
    • Sustain a sense of community. Finding ways to keep your workforce emotionally connected right now is critical. No matter how far flung your people are, it is important to convey a sense of community and connection, even in a virtual world. Various studies have found that social support increases our resilience and ability to cope. So find ways for your employees to connect with you and each other. As bad news and challenges dominate the atmosphere, make a concerted effort to celebrate good news and successes that occur within the team. Inject something fun or light-hearted into team meetings where possible. Ask how people are doing when you talk to them or send emails. And tell other leaders to do the same. Small acts of kindness and compassion can make a big difference.
  4. How does your organization need to evolve?

    No one knows how long this pandemic will last. But it looks like this event will change the way we work and the way organizations function going forward. That means organizations need to learn—both on the fly and after the pandemic ends—to increase their agility and resilience. Here are three ways to promote learning and innovation now.

    • Focus on small wins and little innovations. With a distracted workforce working in new and different ways, most organizations don’t have the bandwidth to focus on major innovations in the near future. But that doesn’t mean innovation needs to stop. By encouraging employees to focus on small innovations and incremental changes to the way they are working or serving customers, your organization can discover new and powerful ways of doing things.
    • Identify new and emerging needs. Crisis is the mother of invention. So what inventions is this crisis calling for in your organization? For some organizations, it may be discovering a new way to service customers. For others, it may be finding a new way of streamlining product development. By searching for novel approaches, new ideas, and adaptive responses during this crisis, your organization may discover innovative solutions for the future.
    • Conduct after action reviews. After action reviews can help organizations learn quickly from real time events. By reflecting on four questions (What was expected to happen? What actually occurred? What went well and why? What can be improved and how?) leaders, managers, and employees can quickly explore how they are responding to new internal and external challenges associated with Covid-19. These can be conducted at the team level, business unit level, or organizational level. Through this process, organizations can learn from both their successes and mistakes and start preparing for the next possible pandemic.
Meeting the challenges of the day isn’t going to be easy.  But now is a defining moment for leaders.  The only way to support your employees while ensuring the long-term success of your organization is to balance deep empathy with economic realities.  The four questions presented above can help you and your team strike that balance and guide your workforce through one of the most profound global challenges we have faced in decades.
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