At the onset of this pandemic, employers became concerned about their employees. Initially, their prime concern was combatting the health risks of COVID-19 and ensuring the wellbeing of the staff. Then companies found that they have to struggle with the emotional repercussions of the disturbed, locked-down minds of the staff owing to the pandemic. For example, many employees started worrying about the future of their jobs. As a result, companies had to deal with their employees’ anxieties, doubts, stress, and depression as they had to balance new realities both at work and at home. Hence the employees were in need of guidance to overcome any psychological disturbance that they may experience.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, people have to live, societies have to move, entities have to function, and countries have to progress. In this article, emphasis will be given to the role of leadership in inspiring their staff to provide an outstanding service. There are seven practical ways in which leaders can inspire staff in a crisis to create the necessary customer-oriented spirit:
1. Genuineness in solidarity
The leader should be honest with his intentions. The staff should be convinced that the actions of the leader are in service for a bigger mission rather than the leader’s own selfish aspirations. Employees need someone to look up to for reassurance. A crisis is not an event for the leader to merely demonstrate his own capabilities to the top management, Board of Directors or principals. The staff should truly feel that their leaders are looking after the best interest of all stakeholders. Then the trust and loyalty can be established between the employees and the leader’s mission.
2. Concern on staff safety and wellbeing
Since COVID-19 remains unsolved across the globe, the leader must prove to the team that he truly cares about the safety and wellbeing of the staff. It is difficult for the staff to feel comfortable and serve customers from the heart when they doubt their own safety. The staff should see that the health guidelines set by the authorities are properly followed. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that masks, hand sanitiser, soap, gloves and personal protective gear are provided for the staff to work at ease.
3. Assure job security
The staff needs an assurance on the security of the job if the leader needs to inspire them in a crisis. If the concern here is ‘People vs. Profits,’ what is the priority? The answer is simple - just ask yourself, who helps you to build the brand or the organisation? People do. Then the next concern will be the cash flow and the affordability. Here leaders must reflect upon the importance of having a contingency plan, business continuity process, or payment guarantee insurance cover, to protect employee livelihoods. In a crisis situation, getting rid of staff without adequate notice or compensation is the worst thing that a leader can do. This will only create fear, and in turn demotivate all other staff. Studies have also shown that after a layoff, ‘survivors’ experienced a decline in job performance.
4. Gear towards ‘one step up’
Encourage the staff to be creative. There can be a need to educate the staff immediately on a new line of operation based on changing needs in the market place. Furthermore, up-skilling of the staff may be needed to place them in a newer position. ‘Working from home’ may require technical support and education. The leader should identify who is good at what, and place them at the appropriate locations based on their capabilities with the necessary resources. If any of the employees are mentally suffering from a situation created by the pandemic, such staff should be provided with mentoring or counselling. For many employees, just being able to have a constructive dialogue with the leader to relieve tension may restore them back to normalcy.
5. Enhance sense of belonging
A leader should show compassion towards staff. Have an open mind to welcome the concerns expressed by staff members. Most often, the ground realities are best known by the staff. Create Idea Generation Platforms (IGP) regularly to gather staff insights. Actively listen, and acknowledge valuable and practical ideas that can be implemented. Paying attention to employee concerns can help businesses react to challenges before they go out of control. When an employer cares for its employees, they sense inclusion in that entity. Hence, employees feel happy and perceive an ownership towards the entity. “During the crisis, it’s us who help to revive the company” is a good employee sentiment that will benefit the entity in the long run.
6. Recognise best performance
Some staff members may have really stretched themselves during the pandemic to give their fullest contribution for the business. They may have taken risks to perform the assigned task despite even family pressures. Take this into consideration, and praise those staff members in public. At the year’s end when the performance of the staff is due for appraisal, take such factors into consideration. Recognise staff members who created an extra value proposition through either ‘face to face’, ‘online’ or ‘work from home’ interactions with the customers during this crucial time.
7. Walk the talk
A leader should be on the floor, before anyone else, to set an example to the others through changed behaviours. Whilst demonstrating a sense of urgency, the leader needs to maintain his cool, calmness and maturity as well. The leader must be capable enough to understand what should be said and done specifically during the crisis to sustain the business and look after the team. Never try to perform miracles, continue doing what you are really good at.
Case 1 – Innovate to inspire
Toyota Lanka Ltd. is one company that strongly believes that their staff is their greatest strength. Its Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer Manohara Atukorala is always hands-on in strategising ways and means of looking after and maximising value obtained from this asset. COVID-19 was yet another challenge he faced with confidence to make a difference. With the threat of this pandemic, the Government immediately decided to stop importing non-essential goods, including motor vehicles and spare parts. It had a significant impact on Toyota Lanka’s core business. At this juncture, the CEO’s prime objective was to safeguard his 1000 employees and their families. He got permission from Toyota headquarters to retain every staff member, with the assurance that within the next three months he will turn the company around. Having launched the ‘Rise for Crisis’ motto, he individually addressed every staff member and showed them the importance of enhancing their spirit to achieve greatness. The staff was grouped and different programs were launched through the Human Resources Division. This was done to improve both the employee mindset and skill set, to positively and productively face the changing environment. So many units were formed within the entity using existing talent to fulfil varied requirements.
Every activity carried out were immensely successful at keeping the staff inspiration levels at its peak. Once things settle down, everybody is getting ready to open up their new branches as per the 2020 business plan.
The external environment may change with unforeseen threats coming every now and then. The leader must immediately take control of things within his purview with the available resources. Treasure your greatest asset in the organisation - the employees. Take the lead to protect their jobs and assure job security. In a crisis situation inspire the staff and give them mental strength. Use the existing talent to create value to others as well. Inform the staff of the importance of being in touch with the customers with a positive spirit. The leader must show his/her staff that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Case 2 – See opportunity in crisis
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the General Manager of the Legendry Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya Refhan Razeen immediately began planning the next course of action with Chairman/Managing Director Gerard Ondaatjie. The General Manager was instructed, first to retain all 370 staff members, including contractual and trainee employees. Furthermore, to go ahead with staff promotions as they were planned previously.
The management decided to use this lockdown period to upgrade the hotel, to bring it to a five-star heritage luxury property. Although a significant capital expenditure was incurred to modify the main restaurant kitchen, the staff’s monthly salaries were paid well in advance during the crisis. The staff accommodation was refurbished to give a newer outlook. A WhatsApp group was formed with all the staff members. Their Culture and Colleagues Experience Manager started sending a weekly inspirational message to all staff members. The executive staff decided to forego their travelling allowances as there wasn’t any running around involved during this period. Furthermore, other staff took the initiative to bring vegetables from their own home gardens to cook at the staff kitchen for their meals. All these initiatives helped save some expenses to the hotel.
In addition to all this, the ‘Rise Up Sri Lanka’ video was launched to uplift the spirit of the staff during this time. The General Manager made it a point to individually speak to all the staff members. He got involved in counselling and mentoring the staff who faced different issues during the lockdown. The staff were educated on how to follow the COVID-19 protocol. Health and safety manuals were introduced, and staff were awarded with certificates on successful completion of an examination. With the relaxation of the lockdown, all the staff anxiously reported to work immediately. Every morning they decided to begin the day with religious rituals at the multi-religious shrine room. The staff is now starting the day positively, spending the day actively, and ending the day joyfully. The pandemic by and large has helped them to further enhance their working spirit. They strongly believe that eventually all these initiatives will help create more valuable memorable experiences for guests in the years to come.
In a crisis, use the reserves to look after the interest of the staff first. Give the staff what they deserve without holding anything back, because keeping their morale up is the leader’s greatest responsibility. With the changes taking place in the environment, be prompt in whatever you do and be ready for new beginnings. If you are a key player in the marketplace, modify and improve your product during free times provided you have reserves built. Make that change be felt and experienced by the staff as well. When you genuinely look after the staff in a crisis, they too will reciprocate in some way or the other, most importantly by developing loyalty to the entity. At the end of the day, happy employees will create happy customers.
Nobody can predict when this invisible virus will perish or vanish. Nevertheless, the human race has to progress. Hence the leaders must remain confident, positive, passionate, and sensitive when handling its people, so that they too will continue to do their best for the entity. In order to inspire employees, leaders must prove that they truly care about their safety and wellbeing. Providing professional development opportunities for staff assures that there will be a future for them in the company. Due emphasis should be given to have open discussions regularly with staff regarding changes that are needed to protect and to enhance overall business performance. Taken together with the other learnings outlined in the case studies, entities can emerge as completely new enterprises after COVID-19.
(The writer is a sought after ‘Service Excellence’ specialist in Sri- Lanka. Over the last 25 years he has conducted nearly 3,000 inspirational and educational programs for over 750 organisations in eleven countries. His work can be seen at www.dhammikakalapuge.com)