Leadership In The Days Of COVID

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in the late 1700s about the American colonists’ struggle to gain freedom from British rule, but those powerful words certainly resonate in 2020 as we face a struggle of a different sort – the open-ended novel coronavirus pandemic. 

As the CEO of a 34-chain group of convenience stores, gas stations and car washes, I am well aware of the many anxieties experienced by our nearly 400 employees – roughly 20 percent of whom have intellectual and developmental disabilities.  The largest percentage of our employees are front line workers, dealing directly with the public.

When COVID-19 struck in late winter, I recognized the stress it was causing our valued employees. I was also aware of the need for management to show support – both financially and emotionally. So, early on we gave all employees a bonus, and then increased hourly pay rates to demonstrate our appreciation and concern. 

We are fortunate to be able to do this, but I recognize that not all business owners can provide additional monetary support. There are other ways to express care and offer reassurance during these incredibly testing times – starting with leading by example. 

Business owners/management team members have the responsibility to provide guidance, support and a lift of spirits during times of crisis. Employees want and need to know that you’re in this with them. A simple email, text message or phone call that asks about their and their family’s well being can carry a lot of weight. 

Better yet, be present. Keep your door open for a couple hours a day as a signal that you’re available to talk. And when employees come in, have a genuine conversation. Ask about their families. Ask how the current situation is affecting their work and home life. Ask if they have concerns about their ability to do their job. And above all, ask what you can do to help. Deliver the message that your organization is doing what it can to prioritize the safety of all staff.

Encourage self-care in a way that makes sense for your business. That might include offering flexible remote working hours for employees who are home-schooling or caring for an elderly or ill family member. Promote healthy eating habits, adequate sleep, exercise and time off to regenerate. These elements are all important to help ease day-to-day anxiety, but additional mental health support may also be needed by some. You can provide employees with a list of coronavirus mental health resources and all the better if your organization has an Employee Assistance Program that offers counseling by phone or video chat. For those businesses that do not have an EAP currently, now may be the time to establish one.

Make available to employees the most current information about the virus and ways to prevent it using a source that is objective and knowledgeable about the pandemic; that way everyone in your organization will be on the same information page. And with information constantly changing, it’s important to have regular communication with your workforce if those changes directly impact business. If there’s a problem, try to offer a solution at the same time.

Be open about work policies and how flexible they are. If existing policies don’t seem adequate right now, consider supplementing them. One option to consider is a leave of absence sharing program that allows employees to donate vacation time to those in need. 

Kindness and caring count and there is nothing complicated about being empathetic. Yes, the work at hand still should remain a focus, but not the sole concentration. We have not experienced a pandemic such as this in modern times so now is the time for employers to exhibit the true mettle of leadership by having a willingness to not only listen to employees’ concerns, but genuinely hear and respond.

We’re all feeling the financial pinch of the pandemic, but there are ways other than monetary to show appreciation to those employees who perform above and beyond. Now more than ever people need a pat on the back (virtually, that is). A gift card for lunch or coffee, a nice box of candy – you get the picture. Or conduct a friendly survey and ask what small offering would put the biggest smiles on faces. In stressful times, many employees are touched by simple gestures; your demonstration of support is a signal that the workplace cares. 

While we’re all doing our best to deal with the negative impacts of the pandemic, we should keep in mind that an intensely stressful situation can have some positive effects. A deeper connection with our co-workers, redirected values, a more embracing culture – all examples of the “silver linings” of this public health crisis.

Keeping employees physically safe is, of course, vital, but regardless of the type of industry or the size of your organization, caring and empathetic efforts that include regular communication, financial support (if able to accommodate) and initiatives that boost morale is also essential during times like these. Tangible demonstrations are important, but no more crucial than supplying heartfelt emotional support – we are, as the saying goes “all in this together” – employees and employers alike.

Leo Vercollone is CEO of VERC Enterprises, http://vercenterprises.com.

 


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