“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

As an advocate of inclusive workplaces, Helen Keller’s words are my oxygen…my north star… and the inspiration and bedrock for all my corporate wellness programs and offerings. They are, without a doubt, more poignant than ever for me, in my quest to support organizations in this most unprecedented season of life.

As this pandemic progresses, it becomes ever more apparent to me that the only way we might survive (and perhaps thrive) through it, both as organizations and society as a whole, is to come together, to learn from — lean into — and be there for each other.

As I prepare this article from my recent interviews with nine corporate leaders and consultants from across the globe, Helen Keller’s quote becomes even more symbolic!

Without a doubt, we are traversing uncharted waters and journeying “Into the Unknown” (a phrase I have quoted often lately after listening to the prophetic words of Disney’s “Frozen 2”.)

There is no existing playbook to light a path forward.

But one thing I do know, without question, is that attending to employee well-being and safety is more critical than ever.

Perhaps we need look no further than the actions of Amazon’s VP for quitting his job [1] (in response to Amazon’s poor treatment of its warehouse workers) to witness the challenges and decisions organizations are grappling with and will continue to face in the days ahead.

Without our employees, there is no business.

Unless we make the safety of our precious front-line workers Priority #1, there will be no healthcare services to care for us when we are afflicted with this deadly virus, and no essential workers to provide us with food and other essential goods and services to sustain us and help us recover. 

As this pandemic quickly gained strength and began to show its true colors, my mind went into action mode.

As a Workplace Wellness program trainer and provider, it is important for me, almost imperative, that I use my God-given skills to serve and support where possible. As there is no roadmap to turn to, I felt the next best option was for us to learn from and lean into each other. And in so doing, perhaps collectively, we could create some semblance of a blueprint to help sustain life within our organizations and do right by our employees.

To that end, I interviewed industry leaders, close contacts of mine from Australia, Spain, Canada, and the US, to glean their perspectives on and experiences with organizational responses to this pandemic. I also gathered additional insights from a follow-up “COVID-19 Strategic Responses Workshop” with these individuals and others.

In reviewing and organizing my interview and workshop findings that I share in great depth in this paper, four pillars began to emerge which I have denoted as the “Four Pillars of COVID-19 Strategic Response”.  

Insights from my Interviews with 9 Corporate Leaders

Organizational leaders and COVID-19 task force groups are encouraged to carefully consider the following insights and recommendations from my global interviews and where prudent, incorporate them in their “COVID-19 Moving Forward Plans”.

[Pillar 1] Leadership Fundamentals

1. Real test of leadership – It will be critical for leaders to deal in facts when making decisions. Those I interviewed also suggested leaders would be well served to “walk in the shoes of their employees” for a day to get clear insight into the challenges they experience, both during this pandemic and going forward.

The best way to gain this clarity is to engage in frequent and open communications via various mediums, including one-to-one phone check-ins with direct reports.

2. Transparency will rule the day – now more than ever. Leadership needs to be timely and forthcoming with real-time info to their employees. Equally important, however, will be the need for full and honest transparency regarding what they know and don’t know. Employees want, need, and deserve the truth!

3. Honor and serve these three P’s and in this order…

  • Protect your people (first and foremost)
  • Protect your environment (i.e. industrial hygiene measures)
  • Protect your business (when we address the first two, we will be better positioned to stabilize, protect, and mobilize our organizations)

All of the above translate to: “Safe Today – Safe Tomorrow” – a personal quote shared by Sean Raible, (a Benefits and Mental Health professional and graduate of our Executive Wellness Leadership Program who I recently interviewed). It’s a valuable mindset for leaders to hold onto to help protect employees and should be the number one imperative in pandemic-responsive decisions and action planning.

4. Review policies with fresh eyes – we can’t go back, only forward. Now is the time for leadership to review existing corporate and workplace wellness policies and practices via a pandemic lens, assessing their efficacy in this current landscape.

5. Now is not the time to pull back resources – or remain in a holding pattern. Organizations need to avail themselves of and utilize all their financial resources to provide for and ensure employee safety and to rebuild their organizations. 

6. Ask the “hard questions” and the “BIG WHY” – Our organizations and employees are the not the same as they were pre-pandemic. As our employees return to worksites, their needs/interests will be different than they were pre-COVID-19, and we need to be mindful of this. Leaders will be called on to continually ask questions—especially the hard ones—to help illuminate “truths.”

As one of my interviewees, a former senior VP of a global enterprise, suggested, “We need to put that dipstick into the oil pan more frequently.”

In the world of coaching we call it the “Five Why’s” or peeling away the layers of the onion to get to the truth.

As leaders we need to keep peeling away the layers with ourselves, our employees, and our organizations asking, “why is that important, and why is that important, etc”. And, just like Simon Sinek’s “Start with WHY,” keep asking ourselves the hard questions until we uncover our “Big Why”: the real reason we show up every day.

7. Cultivate a “Speak Up” Environment – Collaborative and fully participative management practices and cultures are needed now more than ever in this emerging hybrid environment of virtual and worksite operations. However, as Edgar Schein, (my hero and arguably the Godfather of workplace culture), reminded us in a webinar I recently attended, a speak-up environment will only be effective to the extent we embrace and practice active and empathic listening – as leaders and employees. In a world where many are working remotely, developing and utilizing strong communication skills will be more critical than ever to highlight employee needs and concerns.

Additionally, creating open feedback loops and being receptive and responsive to employee feedback will be key determinants of how successful we will be, both in the present day and going forward.

8. Exhibit HUMILITY and reverence in words, deeds, and actions – be humble and transparent. Employees need this now more than ever.

9. Lean into each other’s strengths – as leaders we all have skills, strengths, and unique perspectives. Now is the time to use them and develop “symbiotic relationships” to identify and mobilize responsive solutions to serve and support our employees and businesses.

10. Protect our “moral code” –This was expressed to me, in this way, by one of my interviewees. He shared that a senior leader he spoke with expressed concern about the possibility of employees breaching their moral code in being dishonest or less than forthcoming about their work productivity, or in expressing their personal needs and challenges relating to home working or the pandemic in general. His main concern was that if this happens, it may erode the pre-pandemic bonds of trust and open communication honed between leaders and employees. And if such occurs, it might hamper work performance, work relations and self-efficacy.

11. Leaders as “Coaches” – One of the senior well-being leaders I interviewed suggested that employees need their managers to be there for them now more than ever not only as leaders but as coaches, to support them through these uncertain times.

12. Check-in with employees – Gallup in their March 23 2020 article, “COVID-19: What Employees Need From Leadership Right Now”[2]suggested that employees are looking to their leaders and their leadership traits as a sign that their lives will be ok, and that how they lead and care for employees matters now more than ever.

Gallup’s pandemic related tracking, as reported in the above article revealed that:

  • Only 39% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to COVID-19.
  • Just over half of employees (54%) strongly agree that, considering the recent impact of COVID-19 on their job, they feel well-prepared to do their work. We are all adapting to this massive disruption.
  • Less than half of employees (48%) strongly agree that their immediate supervisor keeps them informed about what is going on in the organization as it relates to the impact of COVID-19.
  • When asked to consider the recent impact of COVID-19, less than half of employees (45%) strongly agree that their organization cares about their overall wellbeing.” [2]

Considering these findings, it may be argued that one of the best ways to lead employees today is through “Servant Leadership” (more on this later). To start, leaders might embrace the practice of doing daily check-ins (or, at a minimum, weekly touch points) with their direct reports via a combination of personal emails and phone conversations.

Introducing the “COVID-19 Transitional Leader”

In my interview with Phil Bohlender, a leading change management expert and strategic business partner, we discussed the need for a new, more evolved and dynamic leadership model. 

Both Phil and I felt a new approach was critical for leading and mobilizing organizations in this heightened VUCA environment (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous).

A hybrid model that is responsive to the current climate and organizational and employee needs (i.e. Situational Leader) AND inclusive, empathic, and employee-centric (i.e. Servant Leader).

From this realization, our COVID-19 Transitional Leader model was conceived.

Listed below, are just a few of the many traits and attributes of our new COVID-19 Transitional Leader model.

  • Able to see the big picture
  • Agile and adaptable in leading organizations in times of crisis and in this VUCA climate
  • Leaders in the development of contingency – business response – continuity plans
  • Cultivators of employee empowerment, and employee-centric, team-oriented cultures

[Pillar 2] COVID-19 Logistics

1. Engage in continual Risk Assessment – Risk Mitigation – in an inclusive fashion, consulting all stakeholders in your organization …especially essential and front-line, customer-facing employees.

2. Create COVID-19 health and safety policies/procedures – that put employee physical and psychological safety needs front and center. And create such policies and procedures with a short-term mindset as organizations and the business climate will be in a constant state of change for some time. 

“The New Normal will not be business as usual.” Gallup

3. Redesign of safe worksites – that are responsive to employee and organizational safety, and industrial hygiene. Organizations will need to identify creative funding sources and/or re-prioritize budgets to implement safety accommodations. 

Commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield has build a prototype called the ‘Six Feet Office’, which encourages workers to continue social distancing when they return to the office.

[Source: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/30/business/lessons-from-china-business-coronavirus-intl-hnk/index.html]

4. Form inclusive COVID task forces – that seek ideas, opinions and solutions from all stakeholders, including union reps, and as previously mentioned, front-line, boots-on-the-ground, client-facing employees who are arguably the best information source of organization wide needs, safety measures, and pragmatic solutions.

5. Create “Moving Forward Plans” and “Return to Workplace” Guidelines – with clarity, and again with short-to-mid-term objectives, as the landscape will be dynamic and in a state of flux for the foreseeable future.

6. Develop Business Contingency – Business Continuity – “Workplace Emergency Response Plans” – that identify tactical strategies for dealing with new waves of the pandemic or sudden worksite closures. By all accounts, massive work disruptions like this pandemic may well be our new normal for years to come.

7. Cultivate sensitive and “emotionally safe” work cultures – where employees feel comfortable in openly sharing how they are feeling and that it is “okay to not be ok”. Most importantly, widely promote internal, EAP, and community supports available to support employees with any emotional and mental health issues they may be experiencing.   

We need to affirm that, it is “okay to not be ok!”

8. Create one-stop portals – and clarify the WHY and value of info being released. Develop a coordinated approach and platform for disseminating COVID-19 resources, work bulletins and wellness tip sheets. This will help mitigate the overwhelm many employees have reported experiencing with the plethora of resources they are receiving from their managers, HR, EAP, OHS, and wellness departments. Also, provide employees with “snackable content” via one-page tip sheets or work bulletins that are easy to consume and digest.

9. Secure IT systems to enable safe interface with and networking of remote devices – and create processes and protocols that enable and permit employee engagement with commonly used virtual conference and e-learning platforms. This will help connect employees with their friends/family, external training providers and online support services during this pandemic especially.

10. Identify and fund necessary worksite enhancements and home working accommodations – with employee safety top of mind.This may also require supplying employees with ergonomic equipment/workstations or at the very least, work-around measures to ensure they are working safely at home.

11. Create guidelines and procedures for “hybrid” work arrangements – such as policies for calling in sick when home working, schedules for utilizing co-working spaces for client meetings, and protocols for collaborating with home workers, etc.

12. Consider and provide parental and elder care supports – including co-parenting needs and arrangements as identified in this article, and as stated in this Medium article that espouses parent-friendly organizations are good for business.

13. Mitigate virtual conferencing fatigue and virtual communications overwhelm – by limiting meetings to one to two times a week versus daily scheduling, and by refraining from unnecessary phone calls and emails. Also, create and employ best practices for how, what and when information is sent out to employees from managers and co-workers. For example,managers might be encouraged to consolidate and limit their communications to direct reports that, where possible, will be sent in the morning and afternoon or early evening. And, make sure to include prominent headers in the email body along with clearly stated expectations of deliverables and required responses versus rapid fire of non-essential emails throughout the day.

14. Employ varied communication strategies – to meet the unique needs and preferences of employees. Not sure? Simply ask them how they prefer to communicate with you. This will build enhanced respect and cooperation between employees and leaders at a time when needed the most.

15. Develop virtual meeting best practices – to optimize meeting efficiencies and productivity. Start virtual and onsite meetings with a Huddle, similar to what Simon Sinek does with his employees as referenced in our Staying Connected Guide. This will help create social connection and bonding with employees. It is also most effective to end them with a STOP, START, CONTINUE Retrospective to facilitate purpose- driven, and “high involvement – high commitment” meetings and outcomes.

[Pillar 3] Organizational Culture

1. Balance accountability and autonomy – Striking the right balance and rhythm between employee empowerment/autonomy and responsibility/accountability will be job #1 for many leaders. For those with a proclivity for micro-managing, this will require honest self-evaluation of their leadership style and practices. Some may even need to hone new leadership skills such as those we identify in our COVID-19 Transitional Leader model.

2. Create a culture where “not knowing is ok” – as we traverse this new landscape and co-create our way forward.

3. Communicate “I CARE” – This pandemic is a punctuation in life, as Phil Bohlender shared in our interview. There will never be a more critical or poignant time for leaders to demonstrate care and compassion for employee well-being. Simple but powerful gestures such as mailing out hand handwritten letters to employees, calling them to see how they are doing, or sending out grocery gift cards to those experiencing financial hardship… will go a long way.

4. Cultivate “Speak Up” environments – so employees feel they have a voice in how the organization will move forward with new work processes and policies. And most importantly, as leaders, engage in empathic, active listening to let employees know they are truly being heard and that what they say and feel matters to you and the organization.

5. Foster “psychologically safe” work cultures – As leaders, create safe spaces for employees to share their feelings about this pandemic and to openly discuss their worries and concerns. Whenever possible, reassure them most things will be “figureoutable” (to borrow the title of Marie Forleo’s book), and that together, as a team, you will co-create optimal solutions.

6. Create new norms and values “TOGETHER” – Previously established organizational norms, practices and values may not be relevant or best serve organizations and their employees in this new landscape. They also may not reflect the new mission and goals required of organizations going forward or support a hybrid work environment. Creating new mission/vision and core value statements via team meetings or organizational contests, for example, could be a meaningful way to help bring disjointed teams and organizations back together.

7. Develop norms and processes for regional flexibility and decentralized decision making to help shorten and optimize turnaround times for consensus-building and time-sensitive, mission-critical tasks.

8. Nurture “cross silo leadership” – This will be more critical than ever to ensure departments are collaborating, leaning into each other’s talents and resources, and co-creating responsive solutions for today’s dynamic climate.

9. Revisit and cultivate “Learning Organizations” – commonly defined as organizations who facilitate the learning of their members and continuously transform themselves. [3]

10. Develop Virtual Rewards and Recognition programs – to help keep employees inspired and motivated. Solicit employee input into recognition programs and rewards that are relevant for these times and have value and meaning right now.

[Pillar 4] Employee Well-being

1. Provide inclusive, multi-dimensional wellness programs “virtually” – to support all aspects of employee and organizational well-being via group wellness programs. 

Virtual offerings will help to accommodate, support, and bring together both onsite and remote workers. Now, more than ever, workplace wellness change agents and their offerings will want to focus on cultivating both employee and organizational wellness, inclusive cultures, and virtual team building to help support hybrid work environments. Programs and wellness challenges will need to be responsive, engaging, fun and multi-dimensional (i.e. Physical Well-being, Emotional Well-being, Social Well-being, Career Well-being, Community Well-being, etc.) Educate employees on the premise that “Taking care of our bodies takes care of our minds”.

Now more than ever, it will be critical that our health and wellness programs coach employees in: how to support their immune systems via healthy, mindful eating; the importance of the Brain-Gut connection; and the impacts of nutrition and movement on emotional and psychological well-being.

2. Encourage the use of EAP and community mental health supports – and ensure employees feel safe in accessing them. Clearly communicate the opportunities provided through these programs, their benefits and how to access them.

3. Cultivate employee “Psychological Capital” meaning “an individual’s positive psychological state of development” (Fred Luthans, et al., 2007) … characterized by high levels of HERO: Hope, Self-Efficacy, Resilience, and Optimism.” [4]

Leaders can help foster psychological capital with their employees by including huddles at the start or end of their meetings that involve tactical conversations around cultivating hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism during this pandemic. Leaders might also nurture employee development of these four elements via purposeful skill-building assignments.

4. Be extra perceptive and responsive to employee PTSD – and do regular check-ins with employee groups both at the start of meetings and in one-on-one conversations to be attuned to signs of PTSD, new challenges employees may be experiencing working from home or new fears they may have about this pandemic. Support them in finding appropriate programs and services who specialize in PTSD.

5. Understand the diverse range of employee needs – through open communications, to glean the unique and individual needs of employees. This will take a concerted effort, especially with remote working employees. And, we need not look any further than Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to help guide and inform our conversations with them.

Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

6. Opportunity to “be there” for employees – Many leaders I interviewed are indeed looking at this pandemic as a reset opportunity, a chance to really be there for employees. As Bob Chapman advocates in both his book and documentary, Everybody Matters, [5] we need to treat employees as family, remembering they are someone’s precious child that we have the honor and responsibility of caring for 8-12 hours a day (now more than ever)!

7. Cultivate compassion in the workplace – by simply being there for employees and communicating the message, in words and deeds: “I Care.”

Listed below are questions leaders might ask of their employees to identify their concerns/needs, and to reinforce that they are there for them:

  • How might I support you at this time?
  • How are you managing with home working?
  • What resources, support or guidance might I offer to support you while working from home (or at the worksite)?
  • Are there any challenges that you are experiencing that perhaps I or someone else in our organization might help you with?
  • What is not working for you at this time? And how can I help?
  • Is there anything your teammates might support you with (i.e. emotionally/physically or relating to your job assignments?)

8. Create fun virtual work projects/competitions and virtual wellness challenges – Everyone loves friendly competitions and prizes. Offer grocery gift cards as incentives, as one of the safety leaders I interviewed did with her team in a friendly project competition she organized. Opportunities such as this will go a long way in helping keep the pre-pandemic team spirit alive and preserving your organization’s culture.

In conclusion, perhaps the most prominent take-away from my interviews and workshop with these leaders is that we will all need to work together to get through this pandemic.

Employee safety and the future sustainability of our organizations may well depend on it.

To this end, our Workplace Wellness Centre of Excellence has partnered with change management expert Phil Bohlender, of “Seed and Lead,” in co-creating a highly interactive, self-paced “COVID-19 Transitional Leader Recovery Course”

Through this offering, organizational leaders, consultants, and Workplace Wellness professionals will receive pandemic responsive toolkits, and have the ability to connect and collaborate in the sharing of perspectives and experiences, and co-creation of best practices to help illuminate the best way forward for us all.

TOGETHER, anything is possible!

[“COVID-19 Strategic Response” Interviews]

Much gratitude to the following corporate leaders for sharing their perspectives in our “COVID-19 Strategic Response” interview series.               

  • Schmidt, Craig. Personal interview. April 20, 2020.
  • Orr, John. Personal interview. April 21, 2020.
  • Raible, Sean. Personal interview. April 21, 2020.
  • Toomey, John. Personal interview. April 22, 2020.
  • Wolf, Ryan. Personal interview. April 22, 2020.
  • Dee, Marie. Personal interview. April 24, 2020.
  • Bohlender, Phil.Personal interview. April 27, 2020.
  • Press, Mary-Jo. Personal interview. April 27, 2020.
  • Lallana, Fernando. Personal interview. April 28, 2020.

Key Citations:

1] Business, Vancouver, Vancouver Amazon VP quits in ‘dismay’ over apparent COVID-19 dismissals

2] Gallup, COVID-19: What Employees Need From Leadership Right Now

3] Wikipedia, Learning Organizations

4] Positive Psychology, Psycap 101: Your Guide to Increasing Psychological Capital

5] Bob Chapman, Everybody Matters: A Documentary Short Based on the Best Selling Book [Youtube]