- Clear, constant communication should be business leaders' top priority.
- It's time for small business leaders to let their guards down and show their authentic selves and form more personal connections.
- Leading with empathy is crucial to discern how people are feeling and provide a safe space for them.
In my years connecting and empowering small companies for Salesforce, I've never experienced anything resembling the altered reality every small business owner currently faces.
None of us has. Once-in-a-century global pandemics have a way of rewriting all the rules.
The coronavirus outbreak has changed how the world operates and has forced us to reevaluate just about every aspect of our lives. As we've seen in other crises, the silver lining is community. The fabric that binds us together is thicker than we imagined. Residents of cities large and small are banding together to save their small businesses, raising funds for local bookstores, offering extra support for restaurants, purchasing gift cards for local retailers, and more. There's a desire to help out there, but there's also a lot of worries. How do small business owners weather the storm, keep the doors "open" (in some form), and provide stability for employees?
Situations like these can leave us all feeling anxious. Tough decisions are made every day about furloughs, funding, and project delays – decisions that small and midsize business leaders have to weigh to come out on the other side of this intact. As a leader, you've got to keep everyone connected and make sure they still feel like a valuable part of the team while also recognizing that not every employee is the same. You might have a single parent who's now expected to double as a homeschool teacher, or perhaps you have employees struggling with isolation. It's vital to connect and listen to each and every one.
Here are strategies and tips I've learned from a few of the wonderful leaders in our small business ecosystem to help keep your team and business afloat during these uncertain times.
Clear, constant communication is more important than ever given our isolated status. Employees are afraid of the unknown – "Am I doing enough work-related tasks? Are we equipped to handle many more weeks of this?" – and you can help them with words of encouragement and explanation. And maybe a reassuring smile over video.
So the top priority of all small business owners and managers should be to communicate. Then communicate some more. Right now, overcommunicating is the best thing you can do. People value transparency from their managers and guidance from their companies in times of crisis.
As the COVID-19 outbreak began, Alice's Elizabeth Gore found herself in the thick of a wave of surging business. She wanted to maintain momentum and chose to press forward with business as usual. But she quickly realized it was more important to give her team room to voice their growing concerns during that initial spread. In hindsight, Gore is relieved she slowed down and took the opportunity to be empathetic and flexible toward her team members who needed support in an uneasy time.
These are unprecedented times for every business, and Gore knows the rules have been – at least temporarily – tossed out the window. She understands that her employees need more space to connect and vent as they work on behalf of countless small businesses that are suddenly struggling.
If ever there was a time to let your guard down and show your real self, it's now. People value authenticity in trying times, so you have to be real and honest about your challenges. Seeing others on video helps build connections, so turn on the camera even if you don't want to. The other morning I was still in my pajamas and juggling my 9-month-old. It was a great connecting experience because we all have real life to deal with. One of the byproducts of this pandemic is being reminded of how vulnerable and human each of us is.
Amy Nelson, CEO and founder of The Riveter, encourages small business leaders to be as transparent as possible with team members and focus on keeping morale up. Challenges have a way of bringing people closer, so don't be afraid to show some humanity.
Employees everywhere, but particularly those in small businesses, are operating in so much uncertainty right now, in both their professional and personal lives. If leaders are intentional about taking the time to check in with them often and explain the reasoning behind the decisions we are taking at the highest levels when we can, that will go a long way in building solidarity and boosting morale in a tough moment. That is something Nelson has been striving to do at The Riveter, and she believes it’s helping the organization move forward as a team.
In the end, teams will end up stronger after experiencing an era-defining moment together. When we do come out on the other side, we will see a different work dynamic with deeper personal connections and genuine, authentic interactions.
Lead with empathy.
Every employee processes things differently, especially in uncertain times. This requires leaders to quickly read situations and act on the fly. It's hard to stay incredibly focused all day long, so feel liberated to go off-script now and again. Those little moments when the team can share funny stories or some quarantine activity ideas mean a lot.
Have you noticed how many business meetings begin with "How’s everyone doing today?" You need to keep a pulse on how people are feeling and provide that safe space for people to show emotion and concern about things outside of work, but generic questions like that don't encourage participation or demonstrate empathy. Ask real questions to strengthen bonds and pull teams closer. "What is the best thing you've read lately? How are your kids handling all this? Is there anything I can help you with?"
Sharon Miller, CEO of Renaissance Entrepreneur Center, knows that's true. Each day comes with all sorts of new hurdles to clear, so Miller requires a daily check-in meeting and encourages all staff to meet regularly with their teams. Given busy schedules, many team members can feel like this directive is a burden, but she knows it's critical to stay in touch individually and remain focused. Plus, you can monitor the various stages your workers are in and push support toward those who need it most that day.
Take advantage of current technologies to create fun team interactions. Human connections throughout the workday are so important, and you can lead those efforts as the person in charge. Utilize Slack, text, email, or whatever tool available to make sure your teams achieve the connection they seek.
To that end, incorporate fun bonding events when possible. Everyone I talk with is loving the group happy hours and coffee chats held over video, or here's a personal check-in my team likes to emulate. Those seemingly small activities can help build more community and camaraderie.
Every day brings new information and a new set of governmental guidance that applies to our personal and professional lives, but taking things one day at a time will be what gets us to the other side.