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6 Tips for Leading Through a Pandemic (and Beyond!)

Effective tips for HR pros and leaders to continue promoting the well-being of employees through times of uncertainty.

Aimie Ye

by Aimie Ye - September 15th, 2020


It's September 2020, and as of this writing, no one knows what the workplace is going to look like in three months. COVID-19 continues to spread. School reopening and attendance plans remain tenuous. Further action from Congress is uncertain. Official rules from the Department of Labor might even be struck down in court, further adding to the confusion about what employers are supposed to be doing.

Leading an organization right now can feel like driving to a destination you’re not sure exists on a road that’s changing right before you.

In this situation, we need to accept that the typical ways of leading a team may not prove successful. The simple question of what success looks like right now isn’t easy to answer with either clarity or consistency. For instance, conventional wisdom around goal setting says that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART goals). But the pandemic has made it much more difficult to pin any of these down. Think of the movie studio executives attempting to calculate the risks of releasing a feature film on a streaming service instead of in movie theaters. Or grocery store employees trying to mandate mask wearing and social distancing when some vocal customers don’t want to cooperate. What success looks like in these situations is not at all clear.

While it’s unlikely that leaders can bring true clarity and certainty to the present moment, there are leadership practices that can help promote the well-being of the organization and its people. We recommend the following:

1. First and foremost, ensure that employees are healthy and safe in the workplace. 

Stay up to date with the latest safety guidelines. Provide employees with adequate PPE, cleaning supplies, and safety training, and prioritize their health and safety when making business decisions. If your employees are doing fine working from home, don’t feel pressure to return them to the office just because that’s the way things used to be. If they want to take extra measures to protect themselves at work, allow it. If they suggest modifications that they feel will make everyone safer, seriously consider investing in those changes.

2. Enforce the rules.

Employees desire and deserve safety (and OSHA requires it) and are looking to their leaders to create and maintain stability. Although you may have some “squeaky wheels” who are vocal about not wanting to follow the rules — whether that’s wearing a mask in the office or turning on their video for Zoom meetings — consistency will be essential to keeping the workplace both safe and orderly during these strange times. Enforcing company rules and policies, along with the rules of your state or locality, will increase both safety and overall trust in leadership.

3. Be compassionate and fair.

The mental and physical stress of the pandemic is affecting people differently, so they may need different treatment. This doesn’t mean bending the safety rules for those who don’t like them or letting employees overlook basic online etiquette because they’re stressed out. It does, however, mean adjusting your expectations when employees are in a caregiving role, sick themselves, lonely, anxious, dealing with children who are home 24/7 for the foreseeable future, living with unruly pets, or all of the above. With back-to-school season in full swing as well, HR also has an important role to play in supporting working parents. Productivity may be down, and it may stay that way for quite some time. If it’s any consolation, nearly every organization in the nation is dealing with the same issues right now. Even for companies whose profits are up, productivity, morale, and scheduling are a struggle. Good leaders will accept the situation and set about making it as workable as it can be for employees and the organization as a whole.

4. Focus on the overall mission of your organization.

Analysis from Gallup indicates that people in a crisis look to their leaders for trust, compassion, stability, and hope. We’ve already talked about the first three, but don’t underestimate the need for hope right now. Do what you can to reach out proactively to employees and ensure they understand how their work is connected to the mission and success of the organization. Remind everyone of what you’re all doing and why you’re doing it.

Hard numbers and specific projections are still important, but they may not be the most important thing to highlight at this time. Scott Burns, CEO of Structural, touched on this point during a recent Digital Workplace Day (a virtual event that brought together innovative leaders of digital teams) when he said, "make sure you're investing in creative collisions, serendipity and in expansive connections, rather than just focusing on how much you can get people to get done in the role that they're assigned to that day." Where numbers fail, knowing that at the end of the day (month, or year) your organizations will still be able to deliver a quality product or service that will make the lives of your clients and customers better can go a long way toward instilling hope.

5. Understand how COVID-19 has changed your standard workflows.

The pandemic has not only done damage to businesses, but it has also greatly affected the day-to-day operations of your HR pros. From general HR tasks to remote onboarding and benefits administration, make sure that your HR software can help streamline administrative tasks to alleviate the burden on your staff. HRIS software like GoCo can help you track COVID-19 sick leave requests, stay compliant, evaluate and review benefits programs, and easily onboard new hires virtually.

6. Continuously review and update your remote-work policy.

As remote work becomes the norm in places all over, ensure that you have regulations in place for any uncertainties that may be causing your team members anxiety. From how often employees can work remotely to communication expectations, make sure the policy supports your team while encouraging productivity. With employee management software like GoCo, you can create and edit your policy as a Magic Doc, automatically sent it out to team members, and require employees to digitally acknowledge and sign it. You can also automatically keep employees in the know with updates to the policies.

GoCo helps reduce the burden HR pros and managers feel around onboarding, paid sick leave, benefits, and more.  Schedule a demo with us today!