We are living in a new world, and companies are working hard every day to react and respond to that to keep their businesses moving forward. This is Kevin Donahue with Protiviti, welcoming you to a new edition of Powerful Insights.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for organizations today. They’re working to address numerous areas – generating revenue, maintaining productivity and such – but today, we’re going to be talking about the people side of COVID-19. How do organizations stay resilient, keep their workforces productive, keep their people informed and manage them effectively? I’m happy to be joined today by Kathie Topel and Jim DeLoach. Kathie is a director with the Business Performance Improvement group with Protiviti and an expert in change management. Jim is a managing director with Protiviti and the leader of our global thought leadership program. Jim, thanks for jumping on with me today.
And Kathie, it’s great to speak with you as well. Let me ask you the first question, Kathie. In this current environment, one of the first challenges that comes to mind for organizations is managing their people and projects when their workforces become pretty much completely remote. There’s a big gap to fill in terms of face-to-face meetings, interactions and such. What are some key steps leaders should be taking now to address this?
Thanks, Kevin. That’s a really good question. I’d say step one is to make sure they have all the tools that they need to be effective. In some situations, I know this might seem like a lot of money up-front if you’re weren’t prepared before the crisis hit, but the payoff in productivity and motivation is really going to outweigh any onetime cost that you put out there. It really does build confidence that you’re concerned about the individuals and their ability to perform at their best. It’s going to demonstrate that you’re considering the continuity of the business for the customer also, and the stability of the future of the organization. So that’s really the first step.
The second step is, be visible and be present. I think this is so important in times of crisis – people have a tendency as leaders to be pulled in all different directions during a crisis, as we all know. It’s really important to be in the moment during meetings and be visible through video if at all possible. Seeing the leaders performing at their best in these difficult situations creates a true role model for the rest of the team to follow. Being present and focused in the current moment is really going to give you a lot of credibility as leaders to work with the individuals during the time frame, and your mindfulness of the work that they’re doing will go a long way in really keeping their performance on target.
I think the last step that I’d like to talk about is, work to instill confidence for the future of the organization. As leaders, I’m sure a lot of the people listening here today will find themselves dealing with situations that they never even thought of before, or need to improvise on a solution to it. It’s really important to realize that this is natural during a crisis. Strong leaders show that effective decisions and responses can be made quickly by relating what the challenge at hand is to other situations that they have seen. Sometimes the situations might not even be totally related to the challenge that they’re talking about, but it can be modified just slightly and then applied to what they’re seeing in front of them. Leaderships will be put in situations in which they have to think tactically, really put themselves in the situation and make the best decision possible, while providing agility to change if needed, because you can’t always have the answers.
Remote individuals need to know that the leadership team is strong and resilient in these difficult times and can take the challenge of the moment, put it into context with the future direction and balance that with the empathy for what individuals, one-on-one, are doing in those remote teams and what they’re experiencing. I know, Kevin, that’s a real tall order to fill, but when this happens, this is when you really see good leaders excel as great leaders, and the organization will come through the crisis as strong as possible.
Communication’s extremely critical, Kevin, in times like this. It’s really important to understand how you’re going to communicate as it is, what you’re going to communicate. A few key things to make sure your communication plans are as effective as possible include, first of all, identify the levels of individuals you need to communicate with. The degree of detail is important to each level, and the timing that will be effective. Be sure to take into consideration with a crisis that more frequent is usually better than less.
Then, what I suggest is, consider the tools and communication channels that are available and what types of messages should be sent through each channel, and ask yourself if you may need a separate or temporary task force to help support those communication channels and messages during the time of crisis. Leadership usually cannot do it alone, and there’s just too much information too fast.
Third, communication must be consistent and provide transparency. Don’t be afraid to bring the difficult news forward. Creating consistency is core, truly core, to success. Determine specific times for the communication, and don’t miss the designated time regardless of what you have to communicate. This is so critical. In times of crisis, establishing a consistent message time and channel from the top is a fundamental need. It really is. It gives people comfort to individuals to know when, where and from whom they can get the important information they need. Everyone’s looking for consistency and a feeling of stability in a crisis, and leadership being there through consistent and transparent communication provides a sense of calm in what seems like sometimes an insurmountable storm that’s coming at us.
You know, Kevin, I thought Kathie’s comments were spot-on. I just had one additional point, and I’ve heard it from a lot of people – the importance of appropriate cadence of communications from various leaders so that employees know when to expect messages, as opposed to feeling left in the dark and then not really getting the message, and conveying empathy to employees, and being sufficiently forward-looking so that everybody knows what’s happening around the company, and I think that’s very important. As you know, as tough as this crisis could be, I think it’s really important to be sufficiently grounding in terms of the reality of what’s happening, and the message around that we’re going to get through this. I think that’s extremely important, rather than droning on in negativity about what’s happening here.
And I want to note that Protiviti has a paper that goes into some of these areas in more detail called The People Side of COVID-19: The Ultimate Test of Operation Resilience? that’s available at the Protiviti website at protiviti.com. Jim, despite these terrible circumstances right now, organizations do have an opportunity to learn more about themselves and their ability to work remotely. What are some things you think leaders should be assessing right now?
I think this is particularly important because over time, there have been some trends to work remotely. These have been evolving over time, resulting in improvements to employee quality of life. This situation, dealing with COVID-19, can be viewed as a laboratory of sorts on how remote workplaces can impact employee satisfaction, how they reduce unscheduled absences, foster flexibility and trust, eliminate unnecessary meetings, and increase efficiency, as well as optimize employee performance. It’s an opportunity – not just how we make these processes work more effectively, but an opportunity to engage everyone in the organization, asking them for feedback. Make them a part of ensuring this environment work effectively so that the organization can learn as an organization, and emphasize sufficient virtual face time with colleagues and team leaders.
Jim, turning that around, turning that perspective around two years from now, what do you think CEOs and executive teams should be looking at in terms of what they might have learned from the COVID-19 crisis?
Oh, that’s a good question. I guess you put this in the context of time. Let’s say they’re looking back two years from now. What are they going to see? Will, for example, they recognize what they learned from these temporary transitions to a distributed workplace and how they serve as a catalyst for accelerated workplace design? Have they learned and formed ways of altering company strategy, including the way that the company does business or goes to market? Will the lessons learned from the crisis alter management’s view regarding the organization’s real estate requirements?
These are the kinds of things that I think the CEO and executive team should see – I would hope they would be observant – if they look back on this experience, as opposed to viewing this crisis as a mere bump in the road, because it’s a lot more than that. It has a potential to drive new thinking or lead to have a new normal. These are important questions that I just raised because they point to the power of technology to transform how and where people work.
So, I think when the sun rises and we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, companies should conduct a postcrisis assessment in the cool of the day. In fact, for companies, to Kathie’s point earlier, that are unprepared for this crisis or perceive they are unprepared, a process should be put in place very quickly to capture the lessons learned in real time before memories fade, Kevin. Company plans and procedures for navigating abrupt business disruptions, including a global pandemic, should be updated using these lessons, as well as potential opportunities to reconsider the configuration of the business model, business processes and the workplace in general.
Thanks, Jim. I want to ask you about some of the specific technology considerations here. What are some of the technology-related things leaders must address now, or soon, to ensure an effective and productive remote workforce?
I think Kathie made a few relevant points. I do think that keeping everyone on the same page in a remote environment requires very special attention, because of the unique stresses, pressures and concerns that the COVID-19 crisis presents to the organization’s people. It certainly creates, as Kathie pointed out, a difficult environment, and that environment can impact morale. Which is why a virtual mobile workforce must be equipped with and trained on the technology and tools that the teams need to work remotely, and address the void left by the lack of physical face-to-face contact. It’s especially helpful when the technology and tools allow for audiovisual interactions, because we all know that nonverbal cues – the body language that is only possible to recognize through face-to-face communications – are an important part of human interactions.
So, what are we really talking about? First, we’re talking about some simple things, like, do our employees have the necessary equipment – chargers, accessories – to work away from the office? Do they have the necessary network bandwidth at home? The simple stuff. Then we move to enabling technologies and tools that facilitate the communications and collaborations so necessary in a remote workplace. The question is, are they good enough? Do they maximize everyone’s effort? Do they facilitate effective communications? Are upgrades needed? Our virtual team's performance is directly impacted by the enabling technologies and tools they deploy. If the crisis forces organizations to function remotely for a sustained period of time, which I hope does not take place, these tools deserve a closer look.
That’s why I go back to an earlier point that I made and that Kathie made. Listen closely to the feedback from your team members to ascertain their needs, grasp their learnings, and evaluate the utility of the tools they have and make improvements where necessary, as Kathie pointed out. What are these things? Security issues obviously come to mind. The company security team should be engaged to ensure that the new collaboration or cloud tools or whatever that are put in place to facilitate the remote distributed environment do not give rise to security risks, so remote environments should be patched and updated regularly with the same diligence as on-site environments.
Employees should be given guidance and training on how to update their laptops, their phones and other devices that are used to do remote work. Their computing devices should also function under a virtual private network so that data can be sent across shared or public networks as if the devices were directly connected to the private network, thereby benefitting from the security features of the private network.
So, Kevin, these are a few of the technology-related considerations, and I think for highly mobile organizations, this transition is relatively seamless, but for organizations that are tethered and anchored to their offices, this can be a big change. The good news, I think, is that there are some proven platforms from which to choose to support, communications, project management, document sharing and workflow while also automating mundane tasks so employees can focus on the work that really matters.
Thanks, Jim. Kathie, did you have any points you wanted to raise around the technology side of things?
I just wanted to bring it to a closure. Jim touched on so many great points in his conversation. One thing that I just want to make sure people are challenged with when they do go remote is that the companies are very consistent as to what channels and tools individuals are to use. Sometimes less is more. In this day and age of the technology usages of tools, we can all realize how many communication ways there are to send information, and making sure that people know where to get what communication at what time frames, and that stays consistent, is just very, very important so they don’t miss any communication and they don’t miss any motivational opportunities and connectivity to the office options.
Thanks, Kathie. Great point. This has been a terrific conversation today. I’d like to ask each of you one more question here. So, Jim, first for you. During a crisis like this, why is it vital for companies to stay connected with their customers?
Yes, that’s a part that I’m not convinced a lot of companies have focused on sufficiently. I think that the crisis presents an opportunity to deepen relationships with customers. We’re all in this together, you know? This is the time for out-of-the-box thinking on how to help customers, particularly those that may be struggling to survive. This will help differentiate the companies that are flexible or agile from those that are not, in the eyes of the customer. In the marketplace, the eyes of the customer rule.
From what we see, the relevant questions here that companies ought to be asking themselves – and we know companies are asking themselves – for example, are, what are customers’ safety protocols, and do ours mirror theirs? How have they implemented their respective pandemic response plans, and can we demonstrate that our plans meet their standard? Can we sustain ongoing collaborations and communications with our customers while ensuring the safety of their employees as well as ours? Can we maintain continuity of service and deliver product either during a lockdown or immediately once it’s lifted? Have we worked with our customers on a case-by-case basis to demonstrate those aspects of our relationship that may not be addressed through remote work arrangements during the crisis? If we have, and there are aspects of the relationship that are not being addressed, have we ascertained available alternatives both during and following the crisis to achieve the best possible outcome for both the customer and ourselves?
And by the way, such alternatives that this assessment might give rise to could include changing priorities in real time, leveraging technology and collaboration tools – as Kathie and I have been talking about – reworking delivery schedules and project plans. I think the point, Kevin, is that this is a time to differentiate by demonstrating the kind of flexibility and agility with customers that they will both appreciate and admire.
That’s very informative. Thanks, Jim. So, Kathie, again, thanks for joining today. Why is now a good time for management to watch for potential leaders to emerge in their organizations?
Thanks, Kevin. In these times of crisis, leadership really can’t do everything alone in this crisis situation. Leaders are going to need to turn to specialized teams and to support them with information gathering, along with solutioning and decision-making. The people asked to participate with the focus teams will usually not be operating beyond their normal operational functions. They’re going to be doing things that they haven’t done before, a lot of times.
And being able to observe how well the individuals function in the crisis team situations can provide a valuable insight as to how they’re going to perform as leaders that they may not have gotten the opportunity to show and demonstrate in the past. You’ll have a chance to experience their ability to stay calm, take appropriate actions, demonstrating leadership skills that would not normally be noticed. These leadership skills are usually the ones that are difficult to measure in your typical performance management tools that might be put in place already. Giving you an opportunity to see them in action really speaks louder than any certification or degree could, so this really can be that opportunity for people to step forward and show capabilities they haven’t had an opportunity to show in the past.
Kevin, I’ll just put a little capstone on Kathie’s response, which is spot-on. I’m a history buff, and history teaches us how generations of leaders are often steeled by extraordinary events. To Kathie’s point that leadership can’t do it alone, that is so true here, and everyone in the organization is going to be battle tested, is being battle tested, and so this is a real opportunity for management to watch out for those team members who really step forward to shine and show what they’re made of.
Jim, Kathie, thanks again for joining me today. This was a terrific conversation. Read our flash report on this topic, The People Side of COVID-19: The Ultimate Test of Operation Resilience?. I also invite our audience to subscribe to our Powerful Insights podcast series wherever you find your podcast content.