With the onset of COVID-19, work life has been stressful for all of us. When it became evident that the COVID-19 pandemic was not something that could be confined to Asia, businesses began adjusting how they operated starting with restricting travel and asking employees that did travelle to self-isolate after returning home. What quickly emerged was a requirement for businesses to prepare for and manage through a crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetime.

While we understand that COVID-19 is a fluid crisis and our collective response must be as well, it is helpful to look at responses to addressing COVID-19 in 3 stages:  Containment, Sustainment, and Post Lockdown.

This first of 3 postings focuses on Containment.

Containment

Containment work has involved identifying critical risks to businesses and the actions required to contain that risk during the COVID-19 emergency.  This work starts with reviewing, adapting and implementing business continuity and risk management plans that have been developed over the years but rarely executed.  Critical decisions must be made regarding employees, customers, finances, supply chains and business operations. Ultimately, we are answering the question “What do we need to do to keep our business viable during and after this crisis?”

An organization’s principles and values which are largely aspirational at the time they are created, act as critical guideposts through a crisis. As we know, principles are most important when they are most inconvenient. Principles guide us in how we work together and how we engage with all of our key stakeholders during good times and bad. The years of effort invested in building goodwill with our employees, customers and the broader community can either be reinforced or destroyed as an outcome of our actions during these trying times.

Employees have a wealth of experiences and innovative ideas that could be adopted to mitigate the myriad of challenges presented by the pandemic.  Leaders can access and leverage this knowledge through virtual meetings designed to address their unique business challenges throughout all phases of this crisis.  Not only will solutions be more robust, but employees will be engaged and commit more strongly to a solution that they contributed to. Employees who are part of the solution don’t lose focus or momentum. Leaders can further engage employees—and create the impetus for change—by actively communicating and sharing information and explaining what decisions have been made as a result of employee input. Teams made up of cross section of managers and individual contributors with the appropriate skill sets can ensure that issues and opportunities are effectively addressed.  Managerial leaders should consider the following questions when framing an issue for a team:

  • What is the problem or issue we need to solve for?
  • What needs to be done to maintain the viability of our business?
  • How should our mission and values inform us about the actions we need to take?
  • What are the statutory guidelines we need to work within?
  • Are our recommendations in line with the business strategy?

Living our values will be critical to engaging employees throughout the pandemic and will potentially define the image of an organization as a best employer going forward into the “new normal”.  How well we treat our employees during this period will reflect on their commitment and performance in the future. The pandemic requires decisions that recognize the reality of the current lockdown while treating our employees respectfully, fairly, and supporting them with communications that are frequent and transparent. For those still working on the frontlines, we must ensure their health and safety. The temporary layoffs that are necessary for business survival is an additional stressor experienced by those who are already feeling the strain of the unknown.  Now is the time to consider how an organization might stay connected with employees after they have been unavoidably terminated or laid off.  Remember, these same employees (who know your business so well) could be critical to ensuring success in the as the economy reopens.  One of my family members was treated very well by her employer, including communicating supports the employer would provide if layoffs were required, up until the point where her work ended. When the layoff did occur for her and her colleagues all support and communication ended, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. Better to have under promised and overdelivered rather than to over promise and do nothing.

Maintaining a positive customer experience during the containment phase will be critical to excelling in the “new normal”.  The same principles that maintain high employee engagement apply to maintaining a loyal customer base.  Leverage your established knowledge of your customers and their needs and provide them with frequent and transparent communications about service levels.  Stay connected through social media, advertising and possibly through the introduction of new “offerings” that meet their needs during the containment phase.

It has become evident throughout this crisis that leaders who put customers first are maintaining and growing their levels of goodwill.  Think of insurance companies that are reimbursing months of car insurance revenue until people can start driving again – they will be paid back in the future with a stronger level of goodwill in the “new normal”.  Leaders who react with consideration only for the short-term negative realities by not expressing empathy or concern for the safety of their stakeholders and not providing a plan of action will find it more difficult to re-establish the goodwill of these same stakeholders in the future.

Effective financial and cost management are more critical than ever. Economists are predicting the greatest shrinkage of the economy since the great depression and that some consumer businesses will take 4.5 years to return to 2019 earning per share levels. Under these circumstances cash management is critical for survival. Reducing variable costs, negotiating terms with suppliers, taking advantage of government support programs and regularly revisiting estimates as conditions evolve is critical to survival.

Rethinking supply chain has become a strategic imperative—as it becomes evident that for many companies all supply chains link to China, even for those suppliers in other countries that many of us thought provided diversification. Sourcing new suppliers in the immediate term to meet current demand and assessing supply chain strategy in the longer term will be critical for all businesses.

Overall containment allows organizations to prepare for whatever the future provides and sets the stage for both the sustainment and return to work stages.

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