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COVID-19 and the Snow Day Paradox: A Leader’s SMART Approach for Returning to the Workplace

Friday, July 31, 2020
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Growing up in the Midwest and the Northeast, I’ve seen my fair share of winter weather. I can recall numerous occasions as a kid in which I went to bed asking for snow, woke up to it, and anxiously awaited that announcement that would most affect my day. The tension was palpable; the suspense was unbearable. Today, Franklin Elementary will be . . .

For working adults, the COVID-19 pandemic is comparable to a winter storm that requires everyone to remain home to stay safe. And while this metaphorical storm has begun, potentially, to lift, there is much fear surrounding the idea of returning to the office. How can organizational leaders quell trepidations and offer proof that they have employees’ best interests at heart?

Consider This A winter storm is on the horizon, and you must decide whether to close the school or open your doors to students, faculty, and staff for the day. If you make the decision too early, without ample planning or forethought, you could be held responsible for closing on a day with no precipitation whatsoever. If, though, you fall victim to indecisiveness and prolonged circuitous discussions, you risk putting your families and employees in the direct path of disaster because you made the decision too late.

What do you do?

How do you ensure that your decision is what’s best for the school and everyone concerned? Do the students, parents, faculty, and staff know you have their best interests and safety at heart? Or will they think you’re more concerned with meeting the state’s mandatory minimum school day requirement before a predetermined date?

"Every crisis raises deep questions about the goodness of the organization and the people in it."
“Preparing Your Company for a Crisis,” Marshall Goldsmith, HBR.org, Sept. 15, 2008

Now that we’ve begun to flatten the curve, companies are at the precipice of reopening for businesses, at least to some degree, and employees are looking toward their leaders for direction over what’s next. There is real fear in the air about returning to work, with reintroduction to society too soon threatening a second wave of the virus that’s proving yet more disastrous than before. People are scared for their health, their loved ones, and their jobs.

Organizational leaders must use social and emotional intelligence to navigate through these challenges and strategize a smart approach for returning to the workplace. If done properly, employees will thank you, creating even more connectedness than before. Done incorrectly, however, and morale will shift as employees develop an impression that their organization would put employee health on the line to turn a profit.

Enter SMART

Here are a few SMART strategies for ensuring your employees know you have their best interests at heart.

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Surveying
As a leader, ask open ended questions and listen to responses before proposing solutions. In today’s uncertain climate, employee surveys are critical. They not only empower employees to voice their concerns but allow the administration to reconsider or develop new ideas as they are presented. Be transparent regarding plans for the company and share pertinent information with your employees when appropriate. Providing regular updates about return-to-work plans will increase morale, ease anxiety, and enable your employees to make personal arrangements in a timely manner to accommodate their return.

Moving Forward
Lead from the front; lead from the future.

Be forward-thinking and contemplate what will be sustainable in the long run. Your return-to-work proposal should be a working, continuous plan meant to grow and evolve over time. When generating your plan, recall lessons of the past. Shift processes and procedures so that the return to work is better than work was before employees left.

“Uncertainty stems from our inability to compare the present to anything we’ve previously experienced. When situations lack analogies to the past, we have trouble envisioning how they will play out in the future.”
“Learning from the Future,” J. Peter Scoblic, Harvard Business Review, July–August 2020.

Agility
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to overcoming COVID-19. Hope for the best, expect the worst, and be flexible; that should be your new mantra. Use best practices, current information, and an empathetic mindset to plan actionable next steps. And always remain fluid. An adaptive approach will best serve you in times like these when every day begins with breaking reports on the coronavirus case fluctuations, new government regulations, and ever-evolving WHO and CDC recommendations.

Reassurance
For every decision, put people first to prove they matter most.

Put yourself in the position of each employee and determine methods for assuaging their fears. Think about your employees’ individual lives, needs, challenges, and potential reactions about returning to work despite COVID-19 continuing to make headlines across the globe. Implement special protocols for employees with unique circumstances and allow for various levels of return as opposed to an all-at-once approach. This graduated effort will be much appreciated among your staff.

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“If employers don’t address sources of anxiety and assist employees in managing their mental health, bringing people back to work will do little to help companies return to pre-COVID productivity and engagement levels.”
—“Help Your Employees Manage Their Reentry Anxiety,” Sarah Clayton and Anthea Hoyle, HBR.org, June 24, 2020.

Talking
Your employees are looking toward you for direction. Be front and center and always offer a response; even saying “I don’t know” is better than not responding at all.

Over-communicating is acceptable and encouraged for ensuring that all involved understand your vision: where you are, where you’re headed, and that concerns are being addressed. There will be a need to adapt to new work environments and the only way this will happen is if the message from leadership is clear, consistent, and apparent.

"The best managers provide steady, realistic direction and lead with excellence, even when the strategy isn't clear."
—“Managing When the Future is Unclear,” Lisa Lai, HBR.org, Jan. 9, 2019.

Conclusion

The modern-day world is an unpredictable and scary place—that much is clear. When you’ve decided to leave the school open and that impending snow squall finally does pass through, adjust, come up with a new plan, and move forward from there. In the end, much like choosing to call or not call a snow day, all organizational leadership can do is put its best foot forward and place employees first.

Regardless of the situation, planning requires constant review and reevaluation as the situation evolves. This is not a set-it and forget-it scenario. As the leader of your organization, remember to embrace agility, keep your employees’ best interests in mind, and execute full transparency. The result will be a stronger workplace culture in the post-pandemic era.

About the Author

Alex Winnicker is the principal consultant at Winning Consultations, LLC, specializing in leadership development and team building.

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