Setting priorities every 4 hours: the new normal for leaders

As leaders right now, we are doubly challenged. We must run our business, but, of course, in a new uncharted world. While we are still in the business of making money, most of how we did that a month ago is irrelevant. The way we now need to work is more than just adapting to the work processes we had in place last week, as we moved to our new virtual workforce. Traditional methods about employee performance must be jettisoned in favor of a refocus on the whole person. Your employees aren’t just going through COVID-19 as employees; they are going through as full people. We must change how we lead and how we work to adapt to this new reality and not retreat back to our past ways as the market corrects. Yesterday, we were leaders and employees, but today we are all humans scrambling forward.

We need different instincts to be successful and get through this.

Scott Cawood

To start, we need to respond, not react. Turning the “respond” button on means calming the world around us down by finding the right info and providing guidance and reassurance for the full person. This requires a constant flow of communication and continual updating about the whole experience, not just the parts that apply to work. Decision-making is now happening every four hours. Business metrics of organizations require constant updating; waiting for a few days or weeks to get status updates could be catastrophic. We need to lead at the pace and velocity that the world around us is changing.

This new reality is an opportunity.

One thing has become abundantly clear as offices empty out and workers set up their “desks” remotely: People are a businesses’ most important asset. The empty cubes and hallways are a stark reminder that people are indeed the life of the business. And, the world is watching how they are being treated when the curtains are pulled back and we are all at our most vulnerable point. Now is the time to recognize that companies are compelled to look at employees as whole people, not just stakeholders and profit centers. Your competitive advantage now is how you take care of your people–but not only during this pandemic, but after as well, when business returns to normal.

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Look for ways to engage the full person: Their safety and health is their top priority now, and it should be yours, too. Addressing employee fear helps morale. They’re worried about their health, their families and, of course, their work today and the stability of the workplace tomorrow. Leaders must talk to the individual–with all their concerns–as a whole person, not just as employees. Communicate often–daily, or more frequently, as necessary. And act in ways that demonstrate the depth of care that often gets sidelined due to things being “business, not personal.”

Anticipate employees’ immediate needs. Some may get sick, or need to care for loved ones. Not everyone has paid time off. Find ways to help. Find ways to protect. Our senior management team donated half of their accumulated paid time off days to employees who may need it to take care of themselves or their families, for example.

Also see: The new reality of remote work and caregiving

Equip employees with the tools they need to work at home and the leeway to do it their way. With schools and childcare centers closed, realize that working with rambunctious children in the next room–or even the same one–is where work will get done. And yes, the occasional pet will indeed attend a virtual meeting. The work ecosystem is stressed and most traditional management methods of how work is done, including performance, merit processes, and working 9-5 are, for all intents and purposes, retired. Managers who focus on the arrival and departure time each day are going to lose their minds if they cannot break out of the belief that work is Monday through Friday, 9-5, and when you work is more important than how you work. Trust that work cultures will change, and many organizations have already made numerous structural shifts to accommodate more flexibility in how and when people work–and then the rest of the world’s organizations caught up last week, when the workplace as we knew it shut down.

Reimagine command and control.

Decisions have to be made at warp speed, which requires a flatter organization with most authority being pushed down to the people closest to the customer. A control hierarchy (monitoring what time employees get to their desks and what time they leave) doesn’t work. Flatter organizations have inherently more options because they do not have as much of a chance to be polarized by competing vice presidents. You don’t need to give up titles to flatten an organization because the things that need to be “flat” are elements like communication, access to information, opportunity to learn, getting recognized for great work, being able to bring your full self into work and having a true stake in your future. Push out more authority to more people to make decisions, even though they are now working from their living rooms. This will result in a sense of purpose for employees and continuously build capability throughout the organization, not just at the top.

Protect your people.

Every CEO has a hard decision coming her or his way: to reduce staff or try to retain them despite the financial implications. We all must acknowledge that traditional organizational metrics have to change now–at the individual, team and organizational levels. Corporate profitability must be set aside for the next year as organizations invest what reserves they do have in their people. The bar for most global organizations is no longer big profits, but to remain viable. Further, existing reward and compensation programs must be redirected to align with our current reality.

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Instead of reducing headcount, encourage managers to:

  1. Focus on consumer confidence by looking at all of your products and services and reengineering them to be delivered in this new virtual environment.
  2. Keep in constant communication with all constituents.
  3. Develop different metrics of success for your teams (work happens when work happens). It’s not about face-to-face.
  4. Encourage all managers to think holistically about benefits because when we get on the other side of the pandemic (and we will), we will face a whole new set of people with different expectations about their relationship between the world and their work.

This will require a leap of faith. You’ll need to make decisions based on non-traditional information, and you’ll need to be constantly updated to translate next steps that make sense for your organization, even when the path forward is clouded with uncertainty and angst. When we get on the other side of this virus, these changes will be seen as benefits–forced into doing them now, but helpful in setting the stage for future generations.

Scott Cawood
Scott Cawood is president and CEO at WorldatWork, a nonprofit professional association in compensation and total rewards. We serve those who design and deliver total rewards programs to cultivate engaged, effective workforces that power thriving organizations. Questions or comments about this story can be sent to [email protected].