We are now at a tipping point in multiple countries around the world where community transfer of the coronavirus is starting to occur or expected to. This is where transmission is between those within the country who have not been out of that country or exposed to those who have been. There is anticipated to be a significant increase in these cases globally over the next few weeks.
Governments and Health Authorities are already taking their own steps to deal with the challenge on the national level but what about organisations and their leaders? Should they do anything more now than just note the guidance they are getting from Governments if wider spread occurs in communities?
The senior leadership of all organisations should already be aware of the relevant guidance from their Government and Health Authorities and be acting upon this, but there is a powerful argument that they should go further. The possibility of community spread is already causing concerns amongst some employees and in such situations inaccurate information and rumour have a tendency to flourish which makes their concerns, and the situation, worse. Organisations need to ask themselves if they have an additional role to play in the management of coronavirus outbreak with their people via a combination of both management and leadership responsibility. Management in the sense the physical provisions made to reduce or prevent transmission and the communication of key information about the virus, the outbreak and the organisations response. Leadership in terms of how are we showing our employees we care about them and the reassurance they have our full support at this worrying time.
The management role is about ensuring that employees, not just senior leaders, have the accurate facts about the virus; from the fact that it is statistically less dangerous than many annual flu viruses to the simple precautions employees can take to minimise spread such as washing hands for at least 20 seconds, especially after bathroom visits and traveling on public transport, and clear guidance on the importance that people showing any symptoms should not come to work, potentially working from home where possible. This also includes provision of additional facilities such as disinfectant hand gel in offices and other supportive measures.
The leadership role is about delivering a clear message from both senior leaders and indeed team leaders that the organisation is aware of the issue, has prepared, that it will keep all employees fully informed about the virus and its potential impact on their workplace. Further it understands the need for people to self-quarantine if required and seek advice from the Health Authorities. Note that I specifically mention team leaders. In these situations it is critical that all levels of line management are fully briefed so they can answer the day to day concerns of their people and not have to either guess or saying “I don’t know”. They need to be briefed in some way. This doesn’t have to be complex but clear and concise information they can pass on if asked. This is a key part of the role of a line manager – to act as a reference point for the team in bad times as well as good, to keep them fully and accurately informed and show they care about their people. This demonstrates the leader and organisation has a clear “we not me” culture which will pay dividends when the virus is long forgotten.
My former military experience in emergency management absolutely confirms the need to make sure that everyone knows what is going on, not just senior leaders, and everyone is aware of the elements of the response plan which they need to know to be reassured. Senior leaders must not just have a response strategy but must also keep everyone fully informed. Without this, in such situations, people have a tendency to respond emotionally to rumour, speculation and inaccurate information. With clear communication and guidance from their organisations employees are likely to respond rationally and then be able to confidently continue working and give their best for the organisation.
In the end this is really just about the core principles of good leadership – trust, communication and having a good plan that everyone is signed up to.