by Tony Uphoff
July 02, 2020
by Tony Uphoff
July 02, 2020
Every company faces obstacles, but during the COVID-19 pandemic we’re facing crises on multiple fronts — from international supply chain disruptions to domestic shelter-in-place rules and an economic downturn. Businesses right now need leaders who can navigate unchartered water with clarity of vision and purpose even when they can’t see the distant shore.
One of the most critical dimensions of successfully coming through unprecedented times like these is leading your team through this challenging period. I know because I’ve had to learn the hard way.
I’ve seen a number of historic current events in my past 20 years as a business leader. Each one was a little different, and I’ve had to learn how to handle their unique intricacies as they’ve occurred. Some things I got right, but other things I wish I could go back and change.
I’m leaning on the lessons I’ve learned from previous challenges to maneuver through this new challenge.
I was working my first big management job in San Francisco back in the late ’80s when the earthquake hit. I was leading a team in downtown New York during 9/11. And when the ’08 economic crisis hit, I was running a trade show-oriented business. I had to learn on the spot, just like so many other business leaders did, how to effectively lead my teams.
We learn through adversity, and I’m thankful now for the lessons I learned through the other trials I’ve faced in business.
One thing that holds true no matter what the situation is that for any business to be successful, leadership needs to invest in its employees.
Even before we were working remotely, I was a firm believer in the importance of communication. I regularly hold company-wide conference calls to check in with our employees, let them know what we’ve accomplished together, and give them a sense of where we’re headed; I’ve continued hosting these fireside-chat style video-conferences while working from home. I like to think it creates a sense of normalcy and routine during these times when everything else so often seems atypical.
Even when leaders don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle solved completely, we can still lead our teams by acknowledging that we’re all in this together. It’s helpful to keep staff updated as new developments arise and we, as leaders, make decisions on behalf of the company.
Communicate early, and communicate often.
One thing I like to say to everyone — department heads and staff alike — is to over-communicate. No one knows what you’re thinking or doing if you don’t share it.
Employees need to feel informed and safe for business to thrive. Safety comes in a number of forms, including health, both physical and mental wellbeing; job security; and vision from leadership on the direction of the company. If people are distracted by the very real anxieties we’re all facing and by office rumor mills, they’re not going to be able to perform at their usual high levels. They’re especially not going to be able to adapt and think creatively, which is crucial now that companies are having to change their business models on the fly. Keeping the lines of communication open is a necessity whether your team is remote or on the premises.
Empathy is key. I don’t sugarcoat things. These are tough times, and it’s worth acknowledging that no matter what one’s stance on the pandemic is, it’s causing many people to struggle for a wide variety of reasons. No one has anything to be embarrassed about if they need to reach out to human resources or use our employee benefits program to speak with a physician or mental-health counselor. Reminding staff of such resources as their employee benefits package can help ensure everyone gets the help they need.
At the same time, it’s really important for a leader to demonstrate a positive attitude. If you’re not positive about the future of the business, your staff certainly isn’t going to be either. As a business leader, you have to lead by example and inspire a can-do work ethos through your actions and your words.
Part of communication is being visible and engaging. Before COVID-19, I used to regularly walk the floors of the office and attend as many company events as possible, popping in for monthly bagel breakfasts and attending lunch-and-learns when we brought in guest speakers.
While Thomas’ New York and Pennsylvania offices have been working remotely during shelter-in-place orders, I’ve tried to remain visible — even if in a digital sense. I do the majority of my calls now with video, as I’ve found it really makes a difference to be able to see each other. I also actively engage with our company Slack channel, which has been a great resource for getting updates quickly to each other, sending out kudos for jobs well done, and even getting to know each other’s pets!
Leaders should look for ways to get out in front of the company whether it’s virtually or in person. It will probably be a while before staff can gather as a large group, so continuing to implement online forms of communication such as video-conferencing, webinars, and instant messaging helps everyone to stay engaged while working remotely or while practicing social distancing in the office.
While I’m looking forward to the day we can gather as a large group together again, I am proud of the way my team transitioned to working from home, launching new products like the COVID-19 Resource Hub, a free resource where close to 2,000 manufacturing companies posted their availability of materials and capabilities for producing PPE.
What helped keep staff engaged with work and productive was keeping up the company culture through virtual events. In a lot of ways, it brought us closer together.
We’ll find ways to keep our online interactions going even when we return to the office. This may mean continuing our virtual events, where people can teach their fellow colleagues new skill sets, bond over shared outside interests, and interact online.
Everyone is responsible for their part in creating a positive work environment, but business leaders are at the helm of building a company culture that fuels team-building and empowers individuals to generate new ideas.
The primary goal is the safety of our employees. The guidelines from the state on openings and social distancing are important, but they come in second to what’s in the best interest of the employees that make business function effectively.
We recently sent out a survey to gauge employees’ feelings about how to safely return to the office, and this is an actionable step human resource departments at other companies can take as well to determine how to best move forward with reopenings. One common response we received that may be of particular interest to companies where employees tend to rely on public transportation is that many people are concerned about riding mass transit. Any way that you can mitigate commuting worries will be welcome by your staff.
As with point 1, it’s important that these efforts are communicated to employees both before they return to the office and as they get settled back into the office. There have always been sanitary measures done behind the scenes that don’t get publicized, and increasing them isn’t enough. Staff needs to know about the measures so that they feel confident that we’re on top of things and looking out for their health. Whether your team is working remotely, clocking in at a factory, or traveling between sites, it’s important to keep staff informed on all matters that could impact their health and wellbeing.
The manufacturing sector in the U.S. quickly and efficiently pivoted to solve the crisis of the need for medical supplies and PPE during the coronavirus pandemic. Workers sometimes volunteered their own time, and in some cases even their safety, to help in this cause. This shows the incredible adaptability and innovation of both industrial companies and workers.
One of the things a lot of companies had to learn is the advantage of having a business with strong technological capabilities. For many, this has meant creating an online presence that attracts prospects and existing customers when they can’t conduct business in person. For others, it has meant the implementation of automation and 3D printing.
The COVID-19 pandemic is quickly accelerating the digital transformation of manufacturing. To succeed now and in the future, industry leaders need to adopt real-time resource management and the confluence of physical supply chains with digital supply chains.
Technological investments will help your team whether they’re working remotely or on premises. We may be looking toward a brighter business environment, but if another wave comes you’ll want to know your business can make it through the choppy waters and continue to sail smoothly.
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