The impact of the coronavirus worldwide on global economies, commerce, supply chains and investments, not to mention health and mortality, is yet to be known fully.
However, with global stock markets and central banks reacting, it looks like it was the straw to break the 11-year-long bull market’s run and is forcing companies to adapt to the possibility of the first actual recession since 2008–09.
Hand in hand with economic concerns are the reports coming out of China that suggest that this has become the greatest work-from-home experiment in history. As such, it would behoove all companies to think about their ability to continue operations when face-to-face contact is undesirable or impossible (if not a pandemic, perhaps a natural disaster).
You might have concerns about your own department, team or role.
Here are 10 tips for coronavirus agility:
1. Stop shaking hands and hugging. In Thailand, the wai is used (a slight bow with hands pressed together in prayer position). At Darden, we’ve taken to using forearm bumps, reminiscent of the baseball-playing Oakland Athletics of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Fist bumps still involve skin-to-skin contact, so while better than handshakes, are not as far as you can go, safety-wise. Also recommended: whimsy. How about a Spock salute? “Live long and prosper” may have great meaning these days.
2. Get really good at virtual communications. Bill Jensen, author of The Simplicity Survival Handbook, suggests that every communication effort ought to begin with “Know, Feel, Do.” What do you want the other party to know? How do you want them to feel? What (if anything) do you want them to do? While you don’t need to be that explicit in your actual messages, thinking this through in advance helps you frame your message and choose words that convey your intended meaning better. And don’t hit “reply all” unless you mean it.
3. Find the virtual water cooler. One argument against work-from-home policies has been the presumed damage to cohesiveness, camaraderie and culture. Building relationship development into day-to-day activities is both positively energizing to others and helps us connect with followers’ values and expectations, thereby leading more effectively. But when we’re dependent on completely virtual means of communicating, we can lose that “high touch.” Three solutions: 1) build five minutes of chat into virtual meetings, 2) do a little “management by walking around” in emails (“how was your weekend?”), 3) pick up the phone (after sanitizing it, of course) every now and then and at least get vocal cues and personal connection beyond what email, text or other virtual means provide.
4. Manage yourself if your manager isn’t there. For some people it’s the dream: work in pajamas, make my own Trager Brothers French Sumatra anytime, listen to my music at my volume, pet my pet, take a siesta … what could go wrong? Turns out plenty, if you are not mindful that work-at-home is still work. Some people find that having regular rituals (e.g., get dressed, go into home office, shut door) helps them ensure productivity doesn’t lag behind what it would be in the office. To maintain focus, employ a Pomodoro or similar time-management technique. Figure out your prime time for high-focus work and guard it relentlessly.
5. Quit believing in the myth of “multitasking.” Okay, okay, maybe people have told you you’re great at multitasking or you know it about yourself. Only that’s wrong. Science has proven we cannot focus on two things at once. At best you’re a “quick-switcher.” While the cognitive, emotional and physical toll of being distracted and having to refocus may not be as great for you as it is for others who are not adept, it still exists. So, you’re on that conference call, and you’ve muted your line … what’s the harm of scrolling through your fantasy baseball lineups? It’s just a meeting, right? Yes. Just recognize what you are doing when it comes to the important ones or the ones you’re supposed to be leading or contributing to.
5. Adopt R.O.P.E. for your team. Despite many complaints and criticisms of performance appraisal systems and the concomitant need for impression management and logging face-time, most organizations endeavor to have some way to track, measure and reward performance. Some, such as Best Buy, have implemented a Results-Only Performance Evaluation (also known as a Results-Only Work Evaluation): As long as customer-service needs are being met, do your work anywhere at anytime. Obviously this requires tightly agreed upon objectives and measures, as well as individuals who have some self-starting capabilities, but it’s an interesting twist to how we think of performance, especially in retail and 9-to-5 jobs.
6. Emphasize purpose, meaning, mission, vision, values and all those other “leaderly” things. Strike a balance between information overload and information deficit. An important component of leadership is symbolic — framing ambiguous situations to provide meaning, mobilizing and channeling follower energy, and inspiring a compelling vision.
7. Enlist important and influential others in your efforts. Just as the virus is easily spread, so is social information in a crisis and/or in situations of ambiguity. Identify key influencers in your network and investigate information-sharing alliances with them. Make sure they are informed, have input (where relevant) and consent to the direction being taken — and are aligned with overall purpose.
8. Use “Assumption, Value or Fact?” as a Swiss Army knife. Often when we state something as fact, it is actually an assumption we are making or a value we hold (and which we may, in fact, believe to be fact). For example, try evaluating statements like “Competition is good,” People are self-interested” or “Tasks are better performed in teams.” This is good to practice face-to-face, documented by the Harvard Negotiation Project in Getting to Yes and Getting Past No and Roger Schwarz in “Ground Rules for Effective Groups.” This tool is especially important in this era of free information and when communicating virtually to clarify important terms, check assumptions and make values explicit.
9. Focus on important as well as urgent. Stephen Covey and others have presented a two-by-two matrix of high or low importance against high or low urgency that many have seen and promulgated as an approach of focusing on important and not just urgent. The question of whose urgency is also begged, as manifested in signs in offices stating “Your lack of preparation does not constitute an emergency for me.” In times of crisis, it is easy and often necessary to devote energy to fighting the known fires. At least make sure the urgent is also important, and be discerning about how you devote your and your organization’s energy.
10. Think of your organization as a living organism instead of a machine bureaucracy. The agility required by something like the coronavirus may be extreme, but it is here, it is real and it well might determine the survival of certain businesses. Adaptability, flexibility and learning are at a premium in situations like this. Thinking flexibly about your own leadership may be the next step to take. Will you allow your organization to morph into whatever shape it needs to in order to get the job done?
Bonus idea No. 11: Think out of the box about collaboration. In some sense, we are being forced into a grand telework experiment — not everywhere, certainly but in growing pockets of the world. In Hong Kong, Terence Lin says he can see his employees on Facebook or playing “Wangzhe Rongyao.” What if, like Best Buy’s Geek Squad did way back in the ’90s, you allowed people to play a game but get work done by using the game’s chat function. Could it be win-win?
While the challenges posed by the coronavirus are potentially daunting and will force many organizations to respond or put survival at risk, there are measures organizations can take to mitigate some of the concerns of virtual work. And precisely because the challenges are so daunting, it would be wise for all leaders to start thinking about agility now, in advance of the next black swan.