The long-term outcomes for businesses are going to be tightly interwoven with how their people are managed through and out the other side of this crisis. Arguably, people management has never been so complex, and leadership never more challenging. This global crisis is throwing up scenarios many leaders will never have faced before, with no real guidance or case studies on which to draw. And if you are a leader in a small to medium sized businesses, the challenge will be even greater as you are less likely to have the support of an HR department.

The impact on businesses of Covid-19 has been varied. Your business may have been forced to shut down, with uncertainty as to when you can open, such as non-essential retail and hospitality. You may have had to upscale, to cope with increased demand if you are in essential retail, food supply or healthcare. Or it may be you’ve ‘pivoted’ your business during this time, switching online, offering new services, operating completely differently; in order to survive.

And what will tie all these operational changes together? They will already have had an impact on you, your staff, how you communicate, engage, manage, and motivate.

With such a difficult time being faced, it is understandable if your focus is entirely on the ‘now’. Navigating evolving government guidance and support, maintaining customer relationships, delivering products and services where possible, keeping an eye on cash flow and maybe negotiating with suppliers and landlords, will be keeping your hands full.

But failure to make time to look ahead and losing focus on your longer-term people management strategy could have serious implications for your business. Because you will need your people on board and battle-ready if you are to maintain your competitive edge and succeed in the future.

This means being both reactive, and proactive.

Handling the now

If you have a robust and successful employee engagement strategy in place, it is likely it will be serving you well now. For this reason, now is not the time to abandon it, or move the focus away due to the pressures of the day. Conversely, if employees were not well engaged before, you may have major problems on your hands now and you will need to give it urgent attention.

Because for businesses to pull through this crisis, your whole workforce will need to pull together.

Communication – with remote and furloughed staff

Are your staff working remotely, or are all or some of them furloughed? These scenarios will mean greatly ramping up communication. Remote working doesn’t suit everyone, and some staff may be feeling isolated, and struggling without team support, daily interaction and the social side of the workplace.

If staff are furloughed, they will be experiencing a very strange time. Not working, through no fault of their own, they may be experiencing boredom, a lack of motivation, and potentially anxiety and new or returning mental health concerns.

Do:

  • Regular video conference calls and updates as a team
  • Add in social elements such as team quizzes
  • Ensure you’re having individual conversations, continuing appraisals and make sure staff are clear you are open to hearing their concerns and will act on them
  • Use of an ‘intranet’ / internal communication tool or newsletter to communicate news and updates

Demands on training staff if you have pivoted the business

If you have pivoted into offering new services or products, or are operating differently now, such as moving the business online, you may need to invest in staff training in a number of areas.

Do:

  • Ask staff for any concerns around their capability to deliver and what training would help them
  • Explore the many online training courses and webinars available
  • Include furloughed staff in training programmes as this is allowed by the government and will help them feel motivated and part of the team and future of the business
  • Ensure staff are comfortable and able to use the technology required of them; digital systems, video conferencing, online ordering etc
  • Think about line manager training considering the new challenges they will be facing in delivering their responsibilities around staff development and support.

Health, safety, well-being and mental health

If your business cannot operate via remote working, you may have had to entirely rework the working environment to accommodate social distancing. This is likely to be the case for many essential retail and manufacturing businesses.

Do:

  • Think carefully around how communal areas such as washrooms and kitchens can operate
  • Ensure you have a good handle on the specific government advice for your industry
  • Keep a high level of communication and reminders to staff of their responsibilities to wash their hands, distance, and isolate if they have symptoms
  • Consider what equipment and other resources you may need and how you can prioritise the staff who will need it
  • Be visible and present to address any questions and concerns staff may have over new working practices.

Maintaining business values

How businesses handle the coronavirus crisis may impact significantly on their reputations. Like it or not, this period will become part of your brand story. We have already seen this with larger businesses, who may come under fire if they put staff in unnecessary danger or equally will be acclaimed for excellent, leading, and innovative practice.

Do:

  • Look at your values and ensure you are delivering on them.
  • Use your values to help and guide you. For example, if your values are around listening, has there ever been a time when listening to staff was more important than now? If your values are around creativity and innovation, are you using these to help you find solutions to current challenges?
  • Include staff in discussions around your values. Do they feel they are being upheld? Are there improvements you can make to deliver on company values right now?
  • Celebrate your values in your marketing and employer brand, this will help seal a strong reputation and profile when business picks up.

Planning for what comes next

The ‘now’ is so critically important and demanding, that looking forward may feel daunting and even impossible. But it simply must be done. Your staff depend on you and they will need reassurance and clarity that even in the light of uncertainty, you have a handle on the options, actions and direction the business will be taking, even if this may be subject to change.

There has been a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ and this is not the time to bury your head in the sand or procrastinate. Get out front, be bold, be creative and involve your staff. This is the way to survival.

Forecasting demand and what staff will be needed where

You may have had to tear up the business plan and start again. What are studies and surveys indicating will happen in your sector? What is your gut instinct, knowing your business as you do? What do customers think – have you asked them? Are more or fewer businesses operating in your space?

Do:

  • Involve your staff where possible and appropriate in reshaping your business plan. What are their ideas for how the business can adapt? It is likely some of your staff are closer to the customers day to day than you, what is the feeling on the ground?
  • Review the transferable skills and talent within your workforce and include your people in the conversation. How do they think they can adapt, use their skills and experiences differently?
  • Share the plan with your staff and teams, sensitively and with clarity, facilitating answering questions and addressing concerns.
  • Take a realistic look at the risk of redundancies or changes to core terms and conditions, whether this can be avoided through restructure, or is likely or inevitable. Consider if you need to bring in an HR Consultant or Outplacement professional who can objectively support you through this.

Safe and different workspaces

The workplace of the future is likely to look quite different. The seemingly temporary adjustments you have made now may need to be more permanent, and adapt as you gradually bring staff back in.

Do:

  • Take the time to be fully aware of your legal obligations around safety at work in the ‘new normal’
  • Ask your staff for their ideas of operating safely under new constraints, what is and isn’t possible and how any changes would affect their day.
  • Review how workplace changes may impact on individual and team productivity and performance. You may need to make staffing changes as a result.
  • Ensure clear communication and buy-in from all staff in the new ways of doing things, so that change is presented and received as a positive rather than a barrier to efficient work.
  • Build your team up gradually if possible, so you can test, review, and react to staff feedback as you go
  • Look to the future and what technology may be needed. What training will be required and how will digitisation impact staff roles?
  • Review your staff benefits and culture. Are there activities you can bring into the business which will help to improve staff well-being and support their mental health? Anything from offering yoga/subsidised fitness memberships, access to mental health services, looking at holidays and flexible working.

Social, inspiring, motivating workspaces = more engaged workforces

As you take your business into the future it is essential to take your staff with you on this journey. It will make it smoother, enhance customer experience, boost your employer brand, and improve business performance.

It won’t be easy. It may require investment. It might involve tough and sensitive decisions. It will test your company values. But it could be an incredible opportunity.

Do:

  • Think about how you can bring staff back in with the maximum engagement and positivity about the future as possible. Communicate and celebrate the successes, ensuring staff know you could not have done it without them, their understanding, their cooperation.
  • Consider an induction/welcome pack and process. It may have only been a few weeks or months, but this period may seem far longer to someone furloughed or working remotely. They may feel distant from the business, nervous about coming back. Consider how you manage probation and performance reviews impacted by any gap.
  • Undertake a staff-inclusive review and update of company values. How have you operated through the crisis and what might be needed in the future?
  • Breathe new life into your social and reward programmes. Ensure performance is celebrated through employee schemes and awards, and social interaction is enabled in a safe and appropriate way. No doubt your staff will have lots of ideas on how to do this, so ask them to contribute.
  • Think about your CSR strategy. What might be more relevant for the future and help bring staff together in a joint purpose? Involve your staff and ask how they would like to see the business making a positive impact on the wider community.

Building resilience for the future

It is fair to say this pandemic has been like a bolt out of the blue for policy-makers and business owners, across the globe.

So what lessons can businesses learn? There is no way to predict what might lie ahead (and of course nothing of this magnitude may happen again). But we can look at how we will react in the face of another unprecedented crisis.

Do:

  • Make the time to review the performance of your senior team. How did communication, teamwork, decision-making, response times and flexibility hold up under this immense pressure? When the dust settles, is this the time to invest in some high-quality leadership training or coaching to ensure maximum resilience to future challenges?
  • Review your risk-registers, policies and action plans in the face of what has happened. What do you have, did they help and can they be strengthened to help through other potential crises, down-times, or an unexpected reduction in capacity?
  • As already discussed, the coronavirus has had anxiety implications for people at all levels in organisations. What can you do now to reassure your people about how to access support and that they have no fear of negative repercussions should they experience mental health issues?

The future is uncertain, and this is a challenge for leaders in all industries.

However, it is also an opportunity for you to carve out a better future – for you and your people.

Different yes, challenging, of course. But with vision, planning, staying true to your values and making staff views, ideas and talent central to how you shape your business vision, you can emerge from this with a strong and engaged team ready to help your business survive and thrive.