Business managers need to be open with employees during pandemic

By Jamie Herzlich
April 26,2020

As coronavirus spreads, so does fear and uncertainty, which makes leading an organization right now a difficult task.

After all, there’s no playbook for navigating through a pandemic.

But now more than ever leaders and managers have to be open and transparent and ramp up communication to build trust and quell fear, say experts.

“More and more leaders are stepping up because that’s what the crisis is demanding of them,” says Gordon Rudow, a partner in the organizational effectiveness practice of management consulting firm Oliver Wyman in its San Francisco office.

It’s important they acknowledge their role as leaders, which is to “stop the hysteria, manage themselves and recognize their moral responsibilities to maintain as much calm and levelheadedness in their organizations,” he says.

He likened it to an ER surgeon doing emergency surgery, noting managers/leaders “have to sort of lift up and get out of triage mode,” adding, “just because they’re in triage doesn’t mean they should create an environment where everyone else is in triage.”

Empathy, listening, and communication are key to creating a positive environment amid the chaos, Rudow says.

Janine Nicole Truitt, chief innovations officer at Talent Think Innovations, a business strategy consultancy based in Port Jefferson Station, agrees, noting it’s a time for leaders “to be more empathetic than they normally would be in a business environment.”

The first line of defense is “to make sure people feel safe and heard” she says.

If they are worried about their safety, then it’s hard to function well, Truitt says. It’s important to check on them beyond just how work is going, but also do they have enough food/supplies and are they holding up OK emotionally, says Truitt. With so many people working remotely “there’s a sense of loneliness and lack of belonging,” she says.

Mitch Maiman, president of Intelligent Product Solutions, a Hauppauge-based tech-focused product design and development firm, recognizes there are two sides to the equation — the operational efficiency side and the emotional side.

IPS has the tools for their entire team to operate efficiently remotely, but Maiman also tries to deal with the emotional side and that includes having themed social check-in Zoom sessions daily at 4 p.m. They have even hosted a Happy Hour Zoom and periodic social virtual game sessions via Slack.

“We’re trying to create as much normalcy as we can in an abnormal environment,” says Maiman, adding “what we’re dealing with right now is the equivalent of if the 1918 pandemic coincided with the Great Depression of 1929.”

To help create a sense of normalcy and calmness frequent communication is key.

For Melville-based H2M architects + engineers that has meant increasing communication on all levels, says president Richard Humann, whose firm has 350 employees on Long Island with the majority working remotely.

“Our communication is all centralized,” he says, noting early on he designated chief human resources officer Liz Uzzo as their internal “coronavirus czar” for that very purpose.

But he first asked her if she was up for the task.

“I actually accepted it without question,” says Uzzo, noting, “I think if you don’t give people information they will make it up on their own.”

Among efforts to keep employees informed, Humann does a 9 a.m. pretaped video communication daily with updates for staff; leaders do daily WebEx meetings with their direct staff and every other day those top leaders do a WebEx meeting with each other to discuss any updates or issues.

Staff can contact either Humann or Uzzo directly or alternatively there is a dedicated email address for COVID-19-related issues, says Uzzo.

In communication, Humann finds it’s important to address the future so employees know there will eventually be an end.

“We need to have an eye toward what it will look like when this is done,” says Humann.

And it’s OK if you don’t have all the answers as long as you are honest and transparent, says Barbara DeMatteo, director of HR consulting at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates Inc. in Jericho.

If employees are asking something specific about the future and you don’t know, you can simply say, “I don’t have an answer for that. …when I know I will tell you,” she says.

She said employees should feel like they could come to their managers/leaders.

“The pitfall is the manager who hides,” says DeMatteo, adding “I believe that this is a real opportunity for managers and leaders to rise to the occasion.”

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