Business leaders are used to taking challenges head-on. But the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is one of the toughest leadership tests in recent years even for some of the most seasoned leaders.

Economies are in a tailspin and the future of their businesses is unclear. Morale is low as the end isn’t anywhere in sight for now. Business leaders have no precedent to turn to for guidance to deal with this crisis. But what they do know is that they have to plan for the long haul.

Some top corporate leaders have already taken steps to support their employees during this difficult period.

Pepsi North America decided to increase the pay of its front-line works—those involved in transportation and delivery—in acknowledgment of the risk they face in the line of duty. Patrick McLaughlin, chief of human resources for the company, was quoted as saying: “It’s a change in how we’ve done things historically. We’re being flexible where we can be.”

Closer home, IT company HCL Technologies has started a 24×7 healthcare helpline for its employees. According to its Executive Vice President (Sales Transformation and Marketing) Arthur Filip, the company launched an executive-level crisis management function as early as late-January.

When leading a workforce that is stressed and anxious as a result of external factors, there are some key factors to take into consideration.

1. Motivation 

More challenging the times, the more motivated you have to keep your people. Alienation and isolation are serious threats to an employee’s well-being. Ask yourself what you’re doing to look after your employees and keep productivity high. Consider rolling out incentive-based programs and be sure to actively address all concerns that are being raised. If your workforce is working remotely, make sure your employees are technologically well-equipped. If possible, provide perks like discount coupons for things like ergonomic working chairs and headsets. 

2. Monitoring and Managing Work

When the pandemic initially hit and the lockdown was in full effect, many organizations doubled up on meetings and reporting to ensure that work was getting done and to hold their employees accountable. Adapting to a completely remote setting will require trial and error with regard to people processes. Increasing monitoring also involves understanding that there may not be contingencies in place to support a remote working staff.

In such situations, it is imperative to empower employees to work in the way that they want to work. Given the increased stresses in all spheres in life, leaders should not expect all their people to adhere to the strict work schedule followed in pre-pandemic times. Show some leniency when it comes to schedules and timings—it will go a long way in improving employee morale. 

More challenging the times, the more motivated you have to keep your people. Alienation and isolation are serious threats to an employee’s well-being. Ask yourself what you’re doing to look after your employees and keep productivity high.

3. Effective Delegation

In a prolonged emergency situation, it is natural for leaders to want to tighten their grip around internal processes and work functions. However, it is important to take a step back and reassess your approach. Leaders must trust their teams now more than ever—give your people freedom and rely on them. This will be more beneficial than a micro-managerial approach. Looking over an employee’s shoulder will exacerbate the pressure they are already feeling, and is likely to lead to conflict and burnout. 

4. Changes in Mentality and Approach

When a shift as radical as this takes place, there has to be a reevaluation of the manner in which work and people are approached. Now, it is more important than ever to listen to what your employees are telling you. Do not make blanket decisions based only on your own assumptions about what employees want. Use surveys, have people from your HR function get in touch with employees, and get your data directly from the source. Take decisions using the data but don’t forget to display empathy. 

5. Be Transparent, Listen, Take Action

During the initial phases of lockdown, the leadership of many companies fell silent due to the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Be honest with your employees even if the news regarding the future of the company is bad—it is better than being silent. 

A big part of transparency is open communication. If leaders are being honest with their employees, they must also strive to receive open and honest feedback. If you identify a problem that is affecting your staff, act swiftly. If you only listen and do not act, you will lose the respect of your employees—this will create a ripple effect that could potentially affect every vertical within the company.

Tariq Hazarika is Manager, Operations at Harappa Education. He did a self-designed major in Anthropology, Journalism, and Gender and Women’s Studies, from Knox College in Illinois. He worked in AI research straight out of college and has been working with digital products ever since. 

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