Image created by Daniel Barreto. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives, help stop the spread of COVID-19. Via Unsplash.

Leaders Managing Through COVID-19: The Experience of Staff Matters More Right Now Than You Think

The benefits of empathic leadership during a time of crisis

Only a week ago we were sitting at her picnic table drinking wine while our children were jumping on the trampoline. This was a day before the government announced the closure of all schools, daycares, restaurants, sport centres and urges social distancing due to the COVID-19 virus which also hit our country, the Netherlands.

We are discussing whether or not our children can play together and what this new situation means for our work. My neighbour works for a large company that consults the government on social issues. She is the line-manager of a middle-large team and has to commute 1,5 hours by train to get to the office.

Her management had been pushy she mentions, emphasising she was expected to motivate her team to come into the office for an important meeting. She did not feel comfortable about it and called into the meeting from home and has not yet returned to the office.

As my neighbour expressed concern and disagreement with her management, it got me thinking about the impact of leadership and management’s decisions regarding their employees during the COVID-19 crisis. There are many ways in which companies can deal with the situation and they are pretty much free in whatever kind of policy they wish to implement, leaving employees in a vulnerable position.

In order to build resilience for when the worst of this pandemic is over, the best strategy is one of empathic leadership in which leaders care for their companies by caring for its people first.

The trap of the directive reflex most leaders fall into

Dutch professors in behavioural science and leadership Janka Stoker and Harry Garretsen warn for a crisis reflex by leaders during the pandemic.

They conducted an international study on the effects a financial crisis has on leadership among 20.000 managers in 980 organisations across 36 countries. The results show that leaders become more directive towards their employees when dealing with such a crisis. They tend to manage more strictly, take decisions independently and practice a higher level of control.

This increased directive leadership does not support the creativity and innovation that is needed to solve the problems that come with an externally imposed crisis, the professors warn. Nor does it convey trust. In the short term a directive leadership style softens ambiguity and insecurity among employees, but it is counterproductive in the long run.

In order to solve the new problems that come with this pandemic, leaders must be open to ideas from others, collaborate and express trust in their teams according to Stoker and Garretsen.

Policies differ greatly and so do experiences

A popular quote being shared on Twitter conveys the difficult situation many are in: “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

Yet, not all employers are able to make that shift in their mindset. Asking around, more of my friends worry about their position and the expectations of their management in terms of availability and performance while all of this is going on.

An architect tells me his management had sent messages that tried to convey trust, but achieved the opposite. In an email, the directors of the firm “allow” working from home while the office is still open, but “urge” everyone to keep careful track of their hours and to use vacation days for time that is not spent efficiently on work. One “free” day is allowed as employees struggle to organise care for their children and to make up for lost time organising their work space at home. The architect tells me he would have appreciated more care.

“It would be nice if at the very least the directors would make a phone call to ask how we are doing.”

A foreign embassy officer mentioned a rotating schedule at which the team is split in half. Part of the team works in the office while the others work from home and after a week they switch. At a car dealership they divided key staff from the headquarters among their other locations.

These tactics are meant to spread the risk of employees getting infected with the virus and spreading it to many of their (key) colleagues. The impression it leaves is viewing employees as resources that need to be protected for the company to stay operational, not as human beings with families and communities around them that might severely suffer in the case of only one infection happening.

Contrary to these stories, there are cases in my network where management took initiative before the government’s announcement, which was highly appreciated by employees. Staff received computer screens at home to set up workstations and are not expected to keep detailed track of their hours as a sign of trust and understanding.

At some organisations care extended to receiving tips for working from home, updates on the COVID-19 situation, psychosocial care and a daily “online coffee” to check in with everyone. I heard about a university and a national insurance firm that even sent flowers home to thank employees for all their efforts during this time.

Especially companies and organisations that have country offices around the world or that work intimately with foreign partners seem to be particularly aware of and concerned about the impact of this crisis on the health and wellbeing of their staff.

At an international research institute they made sure to let people know that wellbeing and inclusion comes first, tells a friend.

“My company started with talking about corona and the implications for work and continued, ‘but the most important thing…’ and then talked about how we should take care of our families and loved ones.”

Staff at the research institute is encouraged to frequently check in with colleagues and reach out to those who missed a meeting to keep everyone included and to offer help, my friend explains. Employees also receive paid leave days for taking care of family members if needed. “All in all, a good experience,” she says.

The experience of staff matters more right now

While it is understandable for leaders to first and foremost worry about the financial impact of this crisis, there will be a post-pandemic time and assuming the company is still standing, employees will have an opinion about how management ran the show and this opinion will matter a great deal.

Under a small poll I posted online, most of the respondents hold much value towards their employer’s actions during the pandemic. While thankfully most feel supported by their employer, an overwhelming majority (83%) say their employer’s actions during this crisis influence their attitude towards them.

The poll only reached a small group of 40 respondents in total, which is far from representative, but it includes people from a diverse set of disciplines and may reflect a sentiment that lives among many.

In times of the COVID-19 crisis, do you feel supported enough by your employer?
How much does the (lack of) support you receive from your employer during the COVID-19 crisis influence your attitude towards them?

It is striking that a majority of 79% say that the way their employer handles the COVID-19 crisis will even influence their decision to stay at or leave the company.

This includes many of the respondents that answered “no” to the first question of whether they receive enough support from their employer. All in all this is not a promising sign for those companies. They may end up losing staff and with that gain a reputation of being a bad employer.

Will the way your employer handles the COVID-19 crisis influence your decision to stay at or leave the company?

The point that I am trying to support with this poll is that what will make you stand out as a leader running an organisation or a company during the COVID-19 crisis is not whether your company is still there after the pandemic, but how your employees feel about how things were managed.

Empathy is key

Our new reality is insecure, frightening and unpredictable. Much of our daily routine is gone and replaced by a completely new system. Be it with family or alone, it is a big adjustment for everyone.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with an extraordinary situation in which work takes on a new position in our lives, as we are suddenly confined to home and our priorities have shifted.

This crisis exposes our vulnerability when it comes to who is in charge and whether or not we are blessed with an empathic boss, because in the end it all comes down to empathy.

The best way to care for a company during a crisis is to care for its people first.

Those leaders that possess the skills needed for empathic leadership will find their teams to be more motivated, more loyal, better socially connected and in a healthier mental state at the other end of this crisis. These are also exactly the ingredients that are needed to rebuild everything when the worst part of this pandemic is over.

Press freedom advocate, media consultant and indiefilm producer. Medium publications in The Startup and Digital Diplomacy.

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