Executive Springboard helps leaders succeed in new roles. It’s easy to call what we do “onboarding” until you consider what onboarding usually entails. We don’t help people with security badges, laptops and benefits selections. We don’t lead people through compliance exercises. Instead, we focus on the strategic and human elements that are critical to accelerating impact and sustaining it long-term. We guide leaders’ learning, engagement, adaptation and performance. We identify key derailers to leaders’ successful assimilation and help executives develop strategies to manage them. The difference between our activities and traditional onboarding is why “Springboard” an appropriate name.
As business begins to dial up again, now’s the time to consider RE-BOARDING. And by this term, I don’t just mean following the CDC or OSHA guidelines. The mechanics of reopening is the equivalent of onboarding. As with “springboarding,” there are strategic and human elements that are important as we return to the office.
With thanks to Executive Springboard mentors and long-time HR leaders Gretchen Rawdon and Gregg Tate, I offer these ten considerations:
1. Help people feel safe coming back to the office. Communicate the steps you’ve taken to minimize the risk of contagion in the workplace. How are work-stations allowing for social distancing? Are there new physical barriers established? Which sanitizing procedures have been enacted? What are new behaviors involving employee interaction that must be followed? And make all of this common sense, so safe behavior can easily become habitual.
2. Accommodate workers who are uncomfortable or fearful of coming back into a shared office space. People will be uncomfortable or fearful coming back into shared space. It might be concern for themselves, their immediate family or because they have responsibility for others who are at higher risk. This fear will remain until a more permanent solution like a vaccine is available. Companies will need to provide flexibility, and they’ll need for all employees to feel like they are getting equal treatment. Even calling this an accommodation might be problematic for equal treatment.
3. Use a clear and consistent process to end furloughs or other temporary salary/benefits cuts. The economic impact of all of this is very real. The communication around those decisions will influence a lot of how the decisions are received, and how much employees trust the thought processes and intent behind them. If employees perceived that there were ulterior motives behind any furloughs or job cuts, distrust will quickly grow across the employee base. The order in which these things are reinstated must also be clear and consistent to ensure trust and fairness are cultivated.
4. Provide creative, consistent child-care solutions for those with school-aged children. These needs will get more complex over the summer. Working from home while kids were distance-learning required parents to balance many complex needs and logistics. Now, as we move into summer schedules, distance-learning/school will be completed, and the daily need for child-care will get more complicated. Many summer camps, which parents counted on for child-care, have been cancelled or will have limited enrollment due to social distancing. Parents may be scrambling to find nannies from a shrinking pool, as many college kids have already moved home. Getting creative in flexible work hours and work arrangements will be a necessity for businesses, due to these critical and evolving child-care realities.
5. Use scheduling innovation to allow for social distancing and reduced on-site occupancy. Suppose office occupancy has to be reduced by half to allow proper social distancing. Those workers who wish to work at home may provide a pressure valve. But another way to ensure social distancing is to build it into the work schedule. If I am in the office Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and you are there Thursday and Friday, we can effectively cut our workplace attendance in half. Next week, we can reverse the order; you are in for three days and I am in for two. There are other models that might be tested. Will everybody have the same work week, or might it flex into Saturdays for some with Monday as the second day of the “weekend?” Will four-day work weeks gather steam, either at full or partial pay, to help address child-care and as the path back from furloughs?
6. Address on-site versus WFH silos. A lot of the magic of the workplace happens when people bump into each other in a hallway or lunch room and talk about what’s going on. For all the “good enough” features of our work-from-home routine, we are missing the spontaneity of these random interactions. Those who go back to the office will have the benefit of this experience once again. Those who stay at home won’t. Also, we may have gotten over proximity bias to a large degree the past few months, but it is bound to come back. Those who we have a chance of seeing will be those who are more top of mind. Leaders will need to find ways to be inclusive in unnatural ways. And they will have to build channels of communications so that remote employees continue to work with each other and with in-office colleagues. Silos could develop c from shift work during the week, as well.
7. Provide emotional space. You feel stress. So do your people. Life will be uncertain for all of us. It’s not just people being concerned about being in the office; uncertainty will extend to the health of the business. There is the real threat that we are entering the eye of the storm, and that a second spike could confront us in the fall or winter, with big consequences to the economy as a whole and your business in particular. Employees are facing a more unsettled financial situation than in the Great Recession. Sometimes that stress will be exhibited in behavior. Recognize it, be sympathetic, help your team understand how they can be supportive of each other and remind them of your enduring values.
8. Learn from others and share your own learning. Many of us have had a crash course in remote management. Managing by walking around hasn’t been happening much. But there are people on your team with years of experience managing geographically dispersed teams. Sales functions often have regional territories, and leaders may have been time zones away from reports for years. Get tips from them. CIOs often have outsourced resources, and Ops leaders manage diverse plants with multiple shifts. Tap into their experience. Now is the time to ask functional counterparts in other businesses or industries what is working for them. And it is also the time to be generous with others on what you’ve tried, what has worked and what you’re learning. I’d go so far as to say the normal rules of competition might need to be relaxed a bit. For the next few months at the least, we are more in the business of rebuilding demand than winning market share.
9. We are all works in progress. Build agility and flexibility into your planning. None of us will get it all correct when we reopen. We cannot anticipate all the issues that we will confront. But we have spent the better part of two months planning for the eventuality, so we have a path to take. As you follow your plan, be very sensitive to where your best guesses are not working. Fail quickly and readjust. Or adapt the learning from others who are even more successful than you are in certain aspects.
10. Be human in all you do. Remember, the only thing that is easier about re-boarding than locking down is that we’ve had time to plan for it. It’s hard for you and for your workers. Be authentic. Respect the commitment, creativity and contributions of your team. Demonstrate your confidence in them and in yourself to get things right. Operate with humility, because you won’t have all the answers. Recognize winning ideas wherever they originate. And realize that, with everybody a bit more on edge than usual, it is the best time to implement a “no asshole” rule.
In late March, I had a conversation with a headhunter in Silicon Valley. At a time of almost universal bad news, he had was upbeat about his business. I found his message unnerving.
In one day, he had received three inquiries to conduct CEO searches. The reason in all three cases? The current CEOs had determined that putting their businesses back together again would just be too hard. They didn’t need any more compensation, although their personal wealth had taken a hit in the previous two months. Quitting was the best thing for their wellbeing. This led panicked boards of directors to seek out this recruiter for searches.
I asked other search firms if they had seen the same phenomenon. Their immediate response made me think this was a one-off, or that the recruiter was just blowing smoke. But, over the next month or so, yes, there were more confirmed cases of COVID-related retirements. And the implication of this micro-trend was pretty startling to me:
In a time of unemployment rates approaching or surpassing 20%, we don’t have enough experienced CEOs.
People will be thrust into top positions for the first time. They will need the support of their leadership teams. They must earn the alignment and engagement of an employee base that is feeling very uncertain. They’ll have to demonstrate confidence in their convictions yet be quick to adjust when things are not working.
Over the past few months, we have lauded the heroic efforts of healthcare workers and first responders. Putting the economy back together will require equally heroic actions from corporate leaders, who will be tested like never before. Gregg Tate, in his series of LinkedIn posts, made clear that The Return will be far more difficult than our recent exit and lockdown. It will require transparency, flexibility, patience and, above all, humanity.
Leadership is often a lonely undertaking; it doesn’t have to be. I urge leaders to seek counsel from those who have lived through other crises, who are willing to share their scars and their wisdom.
In heroic literature, Arthur pulled a sword from a stone, fulfilling a prophesy, and was proclaimed king. Nobody thought he was ready for the role or up to the challenge. But he had Merlin as a mentor. And he had his executive leadership team at the Round Table. To the heroes who are stepping up when they are most needed, I offer this advice.
Find your Merlin and embrace your knights.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.