Leaders and HR: How to respond to COVID-19?
People. Still People.

Check your calendar. What were you doing four weeks ago? What were you planning? How were you feeling?

Four weeks ago, I'd just offered someone a job that no longer exists. I'd planned an exciting video shoot that is now on hold. I was heading to New Zealand for a long-awaited family holiday that was cut short by two weeks in self-isolation.


Social distancing.

Infection control.

Of all the phrases that could feed your soul, these three... well, they don't. Yet we're chewing on them daily. We're existing hour by hour, peering like lambs at a live feed, checking the cases and deaths (1,331,032 and 73,917, as I type), wondering whether life will ever be the same. Knowing it won't.

And we sit here, trying on every emotion, on rotation. Sorrow, uneasiness, frustration, disbelief, a weird kind of curiosity, despair... and fear. Always fear. Then we compare. We remember that we have it better than most / many / some / someone. And we imagine how they must be feeling. Except we don't. Because we can't. Not really. So we return to the live feed and check the stats (1,341,907 and 74,476).

And we try to work. And we try to lead. To be strong when we feel weak. To bring clarity when we have no idea what's coming next. In these surreal and overwhelming times, perhaps we should start by remembering why we became leaders in the first place. For me, it was to help and empower people to be the best they can be. That applies now more than ever, no matter how hard the conversation.

Here are four mantras I'm living by, and leading with, to respond to COVID-19.

1: We can deal with change; it's the unknown that scares us.

You don't have the answer right now. No-one does. So own that and share it with your people. But make them a promise: that you'll connect with them every day and share what you know, even if there's nothing to say. You'll be amazed how much that will mean to those who work for you.

2: People need people. Human contact matters.

Your people are not physically together. Only now are they realising how much they need to be. So prioritise contact. Video meetings. Live feeds. Chat groups. Photo shares. The good, old-fashioned phone call. Not everyone wants to dance on Skype or do virtual yoga with their boss. But every person will want or need respite from isolation. There are leaders out there who, faced with a crisis, pull down the shutters, at least until they have 'a solution'. Right now, that's the worst thing you can do.

3: Don't tell your people how they should feel. And don't assume you know how they do.

All our jobs are at risk. We know it, even if you're not saying it. Everyone will feel differently about what they're experiencing - that's their right. Share your view, by all means, but don't try to shift their perspective or mood to match your own. And if and when you need to make changes to - or remove - someone's job, be careful not to jump in with too much life advice or 'find the positives' chat. It might make you feel better but it’s unlikely to help them.

4: People aren’t the problem; they’re the answer.

If you or your fellow leaders are asking questions like, “How do we ensure people keep working hard when they’re at home?”, you’ve missed the point. If your people hate working for you… if they feel insignificant… sure, their effort and performance may suffer when you’re not standing over them. So how about changing the question?

How can we stay connected with our people?

How can we remind them how important and valued they are?

How can we help our people survive and thrive through this? And how can they help us do the same?

At Employer Branding Australia, my team owns our response to this crisis with me, for good and for bad. I’ve invited them to embrace the change ahead, and they are. Seeing them care, challenge and innovate is a highlight of my career and of our company’s story.

Because at the end of the day, that's what it's all about, right?


Still people.

Always people.

Mark Puncher

About the Author

Mark Puncher is Employer Branding Australia’s Founder and Chief Energy Officer. Having spent much of the last 22 years with one foot in recruitment and the other in marketing, Mark loves helping fantastic, imperfect organisations bring their stories to life to engage their future superstars.

About Employer Branding Australia

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