- A prolonged disruption to business can be less damaging if business owners and managers keep their staff moving forward with encouragement and high expectations.
- Recognizing that employees who are falling short may be experiencing anxiety or even grief can turn personnel problems into productivity solutions.
- Celebrating small successes and communicating honestly with staff are two ways to build trust and loyalty, even during an uncertain time.
It's tempting during uncertain and disruptive times to cling to old routines and, if that's not possible, to stop everything until those routines return to normal.
During this coronavirus pandemic, that's just not going to work because nobody knows exactly how long it will last: another month? Six months? A year?
"Temporary" is a relative term. A temporary upheaval that could last for a year is not something that too many businesses can wait out. So companies and their employees have to keep moving, or they might not survive the disruption. Instead of clinging to routine, smart business owners are already creating a new normal for their workplaces, and sometimes even recreating it every few days. Here are a dozen ways business owners can help employees navigate the uncertain workplace – and how they can lead, rather than simply manage, the change.
1. Don't put anything off while you wait for the coronavirus threat to pass.
Nobody knows when that will be. A business that's on hold indefinitely will not be ready to ramp back up when the time comes.
2. Turn excuses into solved problems.
Managers can respond to clients who want to postpone sales calls and to employees who want to postpone deadlines by politely disapproving. They can make it clear that standing still will not help the business.
Business owners and supervisors can help those people adapt to this uncertain business environment by finding a new normal way to handle their responsibilities.
Sales reps who usually meet clients in person, for example, can learn how to use a videoconferencing platform. For an employee who says she can't meet a deadline because of technical glitches, the company's IT manager can give her a call to resolve it.
3. Analyze excuses.
Supervisors should listen carefully when an employee makes an excuse for not being able to work or meet a deadline, even though she has the equipment she needs and has agreed to fulfill her duties via telework.
Before dismissing the employee's problem as a ruse to get out of work, managers should try to force a discussion about the root of the problem.
It could be that the employee is inexperienced with the technology she's using at home. It also could be that she is suffering from anxiety, panic or even grief.
This crisis is bringing out both the best and the worst in employees. So managers would do well to ask them some questions: "How are you feeling about teleworking?" "Do you need any training to learn how to use the equipment?" "Can you help me understand your biggest concerns are right now? Maybe we can solve that together."
4. Build trust.
For both employees and clients, the threat of illness; the shift to telework; the house full of kids; the uncertainty of future paychecks and so much more has added stress to what might have already been a stressful job. Managers should talk to them about it.
Even managers who are feeling overwhelmed themselves can let their employees and clients know that they care enough to ask them how they're doing. Making a phone call with no other agenda than to check in and say, "How are you? Do you want to talk about it?" can go a long way toward building rapport with an employee or client and help them out of a rut.
5. Step up.
Even lower-level managers and supervisors can shine during this time of dread. This is a time when people with compassion who take the time to reach out to colleagues, bosses, employees and clients with a kind word and an empathetic ear can step into the spotlight.
6. Offer perspective.
Managers should reinforce the notion – with panicked employees and clients – that the world is not coming to an end. It has changed, and it will change again and again until the pandemic runs its course.
Supervisors who solicit questions from customers and co-workers have a chance to learn what is confusing them and to teach them how to overcome those problems.
They can take the opportunity to remind employees and customers of other times when businesses have had to change on the fly: after 9/11; during the recession; when compliance regulations drastically changed; when the former CEO quit with no notice. They can assure employees that because the company survived all of that, it will survive this, too.
7. Find alternatives.
When it means the difference between laying off employees and keeping them busy, some business owners are shifting their business models so they can keep everyone working.
An example: Wind City Books in Casper, Wyoming, put the sales associates who usually work in the store on phone duty to call prospective customers and ask them if they would like to place orders over the phone for curbside pickup. The sales associates offer suggestions for books and fill the orders the same day, in most cases.
Likewise, the hiring managers at the U.S. Forest Service, which hires 9,000 seasonal workers every summer, has shifted to an online new-employee onboarding and team-building process if parks will be open this summer.
8. Look beyond the headlights.
Good business owners manage change. Great ones lead it. Managers who look at what's next instead of what's right now can help employees prepare for the unexpected.
That kind of leadership also calms employee fears and builds workforce confidence.
It's important for sales staff – and all employees – to keep moving so they don't get stuck in place waiting to see what happens next. Leaders can plan their next steps and clue their employees – and clients – in so it's clear that the business is doing all it can to remain viable.
9. Re-evaluate the team.
Few things are more difficult for a manager than laying off employees. Yet it's possible that not every employee will be up to the challenge of a constantly changing workplace, new responsibilities and altered processes.
Employees who are unable – or unwilling – to adapt will do one of two things, or both: make a lot of excuses for not getting the work done, or infect their co-workers with a "can't-do" attitude. Either way, that employee is not good for business.
Managers sometimes have to make the wrenching decision to let once-valuable employees go so they don't bring down the whole team. Losing a single employee is often a better business decision than retaining him and letting him affect the productivity of his peers.
It's a sad fact that even the best manager can't "fix" everybody. And sadly, not every employee can adapt to telework.
10. Be honest.
If layoffs are on the table, it's a softer blow for employees when they know the cuts are coming and can prepare for the day it happens.
Don't sugar-coat the truth. Managers will keep their staff loyal if they are transparent about what's happening in the company and the industry. Overcommunicating is much smarter than keeping secrets when everyone is worried about everything.
A restaurant owner who is going to temporarily close the business, for instance, should let the staff know when and what it might mean for them. The owner can give the employees information about how to file for unemployment insurance; whether they will get severance pay; and if they will be eligible for their old jobs once the crisis is over.
If the owner decides, on the other hand, to convert the sit-down restaurant to a delivery and carry-out business, sharing that information with the staff as soon as possible will stop them from worrying about losing their jobs and paying their rent.
11. Have a plan.
Even though plans may change from day to day, depending on what's happening with the virus, government guidelines, and the health of your employees and clients, it's better for a business owner or manager to have a plan than to let employees believe they don't have one.
Be straight with employees. It's OK to acknowledge that everyone is dealing with this pandemic one day at a time. But business owners can assure employees that at least for today, there's a plan. Employees will take comfort in that.
12. Celebrate successes.
A success, no matter how small, is worth celebrating any time, but especially at a time of chronic work-at-home fails.
Was every member of the team able to see every other member's face during the latest video conference? Make a big deal out of it. Did the staff pull together to finish a project that got interrupted when the governor ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down their face-to-face operations? Offer up a virtual toast.
So many things can go wrong during a disruption like this pandemic. When something goes right, give credit where it's due. Give credit to every single employee who was involved in any way.
These might not be the usual jobs for leaders of small businesses. But the business landscape looks different today. Success, for now, is intertwined with flexibility and people skills. Adapt to today's reality to lead your company into tomorrow.