The effect of Covid-19 has invoked uncertainty over health, income, and indeed our very future. The effect of the pandemic means that normal life has been overturned. The metaphorical alligators are amongst us…
‘When you are up to your neck in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp’
Against this backdrop, leadership in companies has also been challenged. Guiding staff through uncertainty demands a radically different approach than leading in times of relative stability.
But recent experiences with clients have highlighted outstanding examples of managers and directors, by instinct, in response to Covid-19. They have swiftly adopted a new approach in the direction of their businesses and staff.
The model of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is useful in explaining how this was achieved. Not that the managers and directors involved had ever heard of this concept! The model is not new, far from it. However, it does offer a structured view – when stability turns to uncertainty – of the new priorities we should focus upon. Maslow’s concept suggests that there are supporting layers in a path towards personal development, fulfilment or self-actualisation. The first layer is the essential physiological requirement of food, water and shelter; then psychological needs of safety and stability in our world followed by love, belonging and identity. The illustration below summarises the model.
Likewise companies may have self-actualisation aims such as launching new products, breaking into new markets or being ‘world-class’ in their sector. Similarly the impact of Covid-19 has slowed these ambitions or even halted them.
So what specifically did the directors and managers of these companies do in leading during Covid-19 uncertainty?
Talking with clients about their experiences there is a mixture of big actions and small gestures in safety, psychological needs and belonging:
Where the business could continue at some level of trading, then rapidly establishing working-at-home practices and providing resources helped create ‘regularity’ in life;
Maintaining messages, communications through regular video meetings; this about staying connected and sharing the updates and what the directors and managers were doing; and that staff were still part of the ‘club’. Interestingly, one middle manager commented ‘we’ve never had this level of two-way communication before… paradoxically it’s an upside of the pandemic’
Adapt to New Opportunities
Agility and adapting to new opportunities: meeting the increased demand for protective measures meant that companies have modified existing production machinery and methods. For example one business that made curtains and blinds now produces facemasks. Similarly another company, previously making seats for performance cars has also switched to protective screens for supermarkets. This means, for staff, that there has been some income, regularity of life and maintaining identity and belonging. Maybe these issues may not seem significant pre-Covid19, but when faced with uncertainty they increase in importance.
Rethink the Workplace
Adapting the workplace: for some key companies maintaining output in critical supply chains has naturally focused on staff safety and social-distancing. This has required a complete rethink as to shop-floor layout, work-flow and staff stations. The staff agreed to work two-shift system and so spread the work-load – and staff footprint – over 16 hours rather than a single shift of 8 hours. All this has meant a considerable investment by the directors and work by the staff in relocating equipment machinery and work-flow design. But it works and production output levels have been maintained.
Care for Staff
Reaching out: a small but significant gesture by one director was what he described as a ‘welfare visit’ to staff based at home. Naturally with the current safety measures this meant that this visit was just safe-distanced chat at the front-door…however it had the intended effect of demonstrating care for staff. ‘You really are our most important asset’
In summary: supporting, as far as practicable, the basic and psychological needs of staff has required a different style in leadership. One that some directors and managers have adopted swiftly, while others have taken more time. But in the companies I have worked with, all have been successful in their own way.