Companies that have spent nearly two months adjusting to a patchwork of pandemic-related business restrictions where they operate are now faced with trying to sift through a similar array of guidelines as local, state, regional and federal authorities seek to reopen economies.
Amid this uneven set of regulations and frameworks, CEOs and Boards of Directors must now convey how they intend to lead their organizations through this next phase of the crisis amid lingering uncertainty and significant anxiety among employees, customers and investors.
The stakes remain high. With U.S. economic indicators producing Depression-era results, corporate stakeholders are highly engaged with viewpoints frequently in conflict. Employees want to know how employers will balance health with financial security. Politicians want to know how companies will do the right thing for constituents and act responsibly to appropriately restart the economy. Investors want to know how boards and management will keep the business stable, position it to grow and generate a return. Customers want to know whether products can still be produced in this environment – and how quickly.
In a crisis, especially one of this magnitude with far-reaching implications, often there is no way to satisfy each group. The issue then becomes how to maintain credibility and ensure that the stakeholders who help keep the business stable continue to trust leadership. That is the foundational challenge for CEOs and Boards right now.
Here is our view on how CEOs and Boards can best approach returning employees to work in a way that can drive stakeholder support, minimize disruption and limit undue outside attention.
Illustrate the decision-making process
- What are the guiding principles?
Every stakeholder wants to understand what is driving the decision-making process. What is the company prioritizing and why? Anchoring the process in a company’s core principles and values will help stakeholders anticipate and understand how the company will behave when new uncertainty inevitably arises.
- What are the measurable factors that matter?
Businesses need to identify how they’re analyzing the myriad of existing data regarding the virus and what is considered “safe.” Many of these figures will be derived from national or local frameworks, though stakeholders may not be aware of these guidelines or why they matter. Companies should articulate how public and internal data is compiled and influences decision-making.
- Where are we getting guidance?
No one expects or even wants businesses to act alone. It is important to cite the community of experts, whether regulators or independent health advisers, that the leadership team looks to for guidance.
- Who are the decision makers?
In the same way no stakeholder expects companies to act independently, no one expects CEOs to decide on sending employees back to the office in a vacuum. Talk about the organizational structure evaluating the decision and make sure employees know that someone involved in the determination process is properly representing their points of view.
- How are we addressing the variations?
While regulations may not be in direct conflict, different parts of the business likely will be subject to differing guidelines and therefore, protocols. Which prevails when corporate guidance vs. local guidance conflicts? Employees need to understand how the company accounts for such variations, and leaders need to have an internal process for collecting worker feedback and addressing their concerns.
Thinking about life back at work
- How will we stay aware and vigilant in protecting against the virus?
Answer the key questions early and often. How is the company monitoring and managing sick employees? Will there be testing/screening? Will the move back into offices and other workspaces happen quickly or in phases? Few think this will be a smooth process, but it is important to let people know what will happen when the virus touches the company directly if it hasn’t already.
- What will a day in the office look like?
Here again public guidance has created confusion. Do we social distance in the office? Is a mask required at work all day? Will the company provide them? Will these policies be enforced? What will employees be allowed to carry with them to and from the office? Before teams return to any workplace be sure to think through the individual experience.
- What about those who aren’t ready?
The uneven return to work process will create new challenges for many employees. What about those with continued childcare issues? What about those deemed high risk or living with high-risk individuals? What if someone is simply scared to return? It’s important to approach these and related questions with compassion, flexibility and a focus on what’s best for the employee. The company’s core values and principles can be a powerful guide toward finding the right answers.
Effective communication around a return-to-work process for any organization will help maintain productivity through significant change, generate long-term trust in corporate leadership and brand while affirming the core strength of the company itself. This is where the value of credibility cannot be understated. Executives need to demonstrate leadership into an uncertain future but also ask for patience in figuring out the best solutions in face of the unknown in the near-term.