How to Prepare Your Company's Mindset for Coronavirus
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Rather, what this article aims to do is to help you prepare your company for the emotional impact a COVID-19 scare may have on employees and how to think about your corporate mindset.
With that said, here are 11 key points to keep in mind for whatever programs you install:
(1) Emotions will run high.
Regardless of whether or not COVID-19 becomes a pandemic or is contained, it’s possible that emotions within your company will run high on this issue. This is a normal human reaction. Trying to shame or “bully away” these feelings in employees may seem helpful in the short-term, but in the event that COVID-19 does become serious, employees will be very resentful about this later.
(2) The main emotion will likely be fear.
If you have not had to deal with significant amounts of employee fear, managing it may be a novel experience. In an article on Shadow Culture, I address how to talk to these feelings head on. If you find that your response to fear is anger or more fear, this is something you will have to prepare for before talking to employees. Getting angry at people for being afraid does not make them less afraid, it just makes them not talk to you. If you can’t find a way to speak to these feelings, you need to find a corporate point person or counselor who can.
(3) Another emotion may be outrage.
If employees feel that their safety is not being considered, they may get resentful towards the firm. Some of these reactions may be justified, some may not be. Having a plan in place to talk to outraged employees will be important, especially as negative sentiment can spread quickly.
(4) Different employees will react to crises differently.
Everyone has their own belief system about how to deal with health scares. Importantly, these reactions are vastly different from person to person. This is normal. Don’t assume everyone will panic and don’t assume everyone will be calm. Above all else, don’t assume everyone will react like you and don’t shame people who feel differently. At a minimum, you don’t know what their family situation is or if they have relatives in more affected areas.
(5) Don’t fight science or healthcare recommendations and don't shame people who do follow them (even if they look socially awkward right now).
In crisis, people often want other people to think or feel exactly like them. “We should all just take it easy!” or “We should all be very worried!” In fact, the only really important thing to agree on is what scientists and health care professionals recommend for prevention. That has changed little since the beginning of COVID-19 and includes washing hands, minimizing physical contact, and reducing exposure to crowds (see CDC & WHO). This information is practically everywhere and consistent. Don't shame, humiliate, or ostracize people who are trying to follow safety recommendations (for instance, by not shaking hands). In fact, actively de-shame these behaviors and stress that they are ok. Beyond these consensus safety guidelines, forcing people to agree on emotions or viewpoints with regards to COVID-19, such as "how worried to be," can be counterproductive.
(6) Some employees may try to shame others.
Some employees may view others as being too fearful and they may try to shame these “scared” employees. On the other hand, some fearful employees may try to shame carefree employees with accusations that going to conferences or meetings will increase risks for everyone. Although you can’t police conversations, just be aware that differences here may become a tension point in the firm, regardless of the scientific validity of employee views.
(7) Some employees may parentify the company.
When you pay employees, you are paying for their housing, their food, and their ability to finance their lives. They are vulnerable to you. For most people, the last time this happened was when they were children. In other words, in extreme crises, people may subconsciously view the company and its executives as people who should be concerned with their welfare, like parents. This may make their emotions particularly strong. This is not saying they are right or wrong, but to help you understand that you may have a lot of attention or expectations on you.
(8) Some executives / leaders may not deal with the crisis well.
Don’t expect all your executives or leaders to deal well with this issue. As mentioned above, different people will have different reactions to COVID-19’s effect on business - and that includes leaders in your firm. You may find that you need to coach leaders on how to stay compassionate and level-headed.
(9) Some employees may get sick or have relatives who get sick and should not be shamed, but treated with compassion.
Anyone can get sick, through no fault of their own. It’s very common in our society to dehumanize, denigrate, or shun people with communicable illnesses. Special care needs to be given to view anyone sick as a valuable human being who has not been diminished in any way because of their illness.
(10) Working from home and virtualized meeting processes should be put in place now.
Most companies know how to do this well, but contingency plans should be considered in the event that a much larger percentage of employees choose to work from home than what you are normally accustomed to. This is a time to make sure you have the technology and processes in place for seamless remote workflows.
(11) Contracts may need COVID-19 clauses.
Although this is not legal advice, it may be worthwhile to speak with corporate counsel about how to deal with COVID-19 contractually, especially if you have upcoming events or conferences which could get cancelled (Facebook just cancelled its largest annual conference, F8, over COVID-19 fears). You don't want contractual obligations to unduly influence your decision making if possible.
The goal of all the above is not to stoke fear, but to help executives prepare for organizational fear and emotion. This may occur in differing amounts until we get to the point where concern over COVID-19 is no longer a business issue. Many of the same patterns for dealing with organizational crises will apply to COVID-19 fears, so know that there is experienced help and know how out there.