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Responding to the Covid-19 Crisis: Fast Learning, Decisive Action and Targeted Communications

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“Alarm bells first went off back on February 2 when our senior leadership team got an email from an employee in our LA office who expressed concern about two employees returning from a trip to China. Though barely a blip in the U.S., the Coronavirus was starting to make headlines in China. We responded by asking those two employees to self-quarantine for 14 days and issued an advisory to our 50+ managing directors (MDs) to be aware of this threat and alert us if they encountered other situations.”

Over the past few weeks, Guided Insights has worked with several organizations to make a successful transition to a suddenly-remote work environment. In our opinion, no firm has demonstrated more alacrity than Walter P Moore, a diversified, nationally-recognized consulting engineering firm based in Houston. Chairman Lee W. Slade, who has been with the company 44 years and helped guide it through other tumultuous times of 9/11 and the Great Recession, shares tips and lessons learned (so far) with Communique readers.

“Fast-forward to March 3, when our CEO and 21 senior principals conducted a scenario planning exercise related to the threat, considering the possible impacts on our business. On March 6, we issued a travel advisory, restricting all international travel, and restricting domestic travel to ‘essential’ travel, which we defined as travel for activities that are essential to our business purpose and could not be conducted virtually or delayed. That same day, we decided to convert our two-day stockholders meeting scheduled for April 3 north of Houston, to a virtual session.”

“Three days later, we began regular meetings of a newly-formed COVID-19 task force to mobilize and organize our response and communications. This six-member taskforce included our CEO, CAO, CIO, head of HR, another senior principal with strong connections within our client and Texas governmental communities, and me. We knew we had to move fast, inventing processes as we went, constantly adjusting and adapting as we moved forward. And despite how quickly we had to make decisions and keep moving, we also understood the importance of building in mechanisms to capture what we were learning to better position ourselves the next time we face unexpected, rapid change. Here are just a few lessons learned to date, with many more to come.”

  • Gather, distill, synthesize and communicate information into actionable nuggets. We needed to quickly create a system to gather, curate and disseminate the enormous volume of incoming material so people can always find information that’s helpful and relevant to them. I leapt into this role for Walter P Moore, working with the CEO and others to distill articles, links, blogs, videos, websites and other sources to a subset of accurate, useful, well-organized information. People have been overwhelmed by the velocity of information coming at them, and we wanted to make sure that people can find reliable, evidence-based information that has real meaning for them.
  • Establish a reliable, continuous way of communicating through asynchronous means. On the first day our Covid-19 taskforce met, we set up a Microsoft Teams site and created a firmwide SharePoint site to communicate with our employees in a sustainable way, giving both durability and proximity to communications in a way that email advisories cannot. We began by posting all of the helpful information we could find, and then very quickly realized that to make the most important information easily accessible, we’d have to build an information architecture, and document-naming protocols to create, vet, name, and post policies, advisories, and resources.
  • Create a flexible decision-making infrastructure to enable rapid response. In the throes of a fast-moving crisis when things can literally change by the hour, senior leadership simply can’t afford to debate things for too long. Someone has to be willing to declare intent and take action. We’ve experienced the consequences of delay and inaction all around us, measured by the growing number of cases and the effect on our global economy. To make well-informed decisions, we established a process where we use accurate, insightful data combined with intuition based on our collective experience to anticipate a handful of likely scenarios. As a team, we discuss options given the information we have, take action, and remain prepared to improvise changes as things unfold. A decisive leader (like our CEO, Dilip Choudhuri) is crucial to pulling the trigger on important action steps.
  • Give front-line managers what they need to inform, guide and reassure their employees. As the fulcrum of communications for our company, managers need a steady stream of accurate information, including an honest assessment of the current state of our business, new policies and processes, and helpful resources, both online and within the company. Since our migration to work-from-home began in New York City on March 9, we’ve had a series of all-hands meetings for managers throughout the country, where we set expectations for them as leaders, providing them with resources they and their employees need for information and assistance. In each call with managers, we outline four or five of the most important things they should do each week, starting with keeping their staff as safe and connected as possible. For now, we’ve asked managers to hold at least two virtual team meetings each week, where people can openly share their thoughts and feelings about the current situation (personal and professional), recalibrate individual and shared goals, and agree on team communication norms and channels as they adapt to new ways of working. We have also encouraged our managers to focus on those employees with less experience, making sure that work assignments and deliverables are clearly communicated and that there is a mechanism of checking in and answering questions.
  • Trust local managers to make the best decisions for their teams. Early on, executive leadership overtly gave our office managing directors the responsibility to make decisions regarding work from home and office closings. This proved to be a wise move, as the managers were well attuned to rapidly changing local conditions and mandates. We then provided best practices guides – often with the ink still wet – to help manage the migration to work from home. No one had experience doing this, so we had to continuously “fast learn” as an organization, sharing lessons learned as we went. Each team has different challenges depending on their location, configuration, and nature of their work. The role of senior leadership is to provide them with the information and tools they need to make decisions in the best interests of their teams.
  • Be patient, flexible and compassionate. Not only are people who have never worked remotely suddenly working from home but, in many cases, they’re also forced to share their workspaces, computer systems and internet connections with their families. Adding to the stress, with children out of school for extended periods and childcare options almost non-existent, many employees are struggling to find ways to get their work done while others are vying for their attention. And playing in the background is an ever-present fear about the effects this virus might have on the health of their family, friends and neighbors, as well as a growing concern about the near-term and longer-term financial impact on their own personal situation, our company, industry and country, as well as the world at large. Our focus has been to help each employee manage the distractions and mitigate the frustrations that come with them. Conducting a home technology audit with all staff on March 13 put us in a much stronger position to provide the IT resourcing that our team needed. We ask our supervisors to check in with their people frequently, ask how they’re doing, and find out what they need right now. We’ve also provided resources to help them deal with the emotional challenges of the new normal.
  • Help people stay engaged and focused at a time when people crave stability and predictability. Now more than ever, people need frequent affirmations that the work they do matters – to their teams, our company, our customers, and perhaps most important, their families. While performance goals may need to be reset, most employees crave accountability for achieving clear, measurable goals they can work toward, which can serve as anchors when the rest of their lives feel untethered and unpredictable.
  • Establish routines, schedules and (reasonable) deadlines that people can count on. For managers, this may mean a regular cadence of team and 1:1 calls, daily check-ins, and defined “office hours” for people to drop in (preferably, via video) for unstructured, informal conversations. For employees, this means waking and starting work at a set hour, keeping shared calendars up to date and setting aside time for reflection, meals, exercise and family. At a time when so many aspects of their lives are in flux, deadlines have a way of concentrating the mind.
  • Map optimum communication channels to audiences and related messages. Now that our staff is safely in work-from-home mode, we’re establishing a consistent set of communication platforms geared to each major audience, both within our entire organization and for external stakeholders such as clients, partners, subcontractors, vendors, and collaborators. We want to make the greatest use of the systems and applications we have in place; at the same time, we recognize that some people will need encouragement to adapt to new tools and protocols, so we are simultaneously developing training tools and opportunities. We’re aware that each audience may need different kinds of information to make well-informed decisions, so targeted messaging will be crucial.
  • Take care of yourself and your peer team. Even – and perhaps especially – at the executive level, throughout this crisis we have worked to support each other with patience and compassion. The stakes are high and no one is immune to the stress, fears, and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis. Personally I have found it therapeutic, not to mention helpful in a very dangerous time, to become an information junkie, processing what I learn into meaning for myself, my family, and my company.

Now that over 96% of our 750 staff members are safely working at home, our leadership focus has turned to “fast learning” the best ways to work as a fully remote company. The fact that, prior to this crisis, we had routinely worked as a single global platform with a strong technology infrastructure, and a culture of sharing has helped us immensely. And we’re starting to think about the decision points that will drive our return to offices and the protocols we will need to institute to keep that process efficient and safe.

We’re absorbing and adapting lessons from many sources and found that the common enemy has encouraged and enriched the sharing of resources and lessons learned among even our fiercest business competitors. We don’t know how long we’ll have to manage a remote workforce, but we do know that we are learning lessons that will make Walter P Moore a stronger and more resilient company regardless of what the new normal looks like. It is very likely that we will find that we are more efficient, nimble, and competitive for talent with a more hybrid approach to where our team members work. Time will tell.

Links

Walter P Moore – company website

The Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief – Harvard Business Review – March 2020

Guide to Living Your Best Quarantined Life by Morning Brew, a daily blog

Adjusting to Remote Work During the Time of Coronavirus – videocast and transcript

Blueprint For Remote Working: Lessons From China – McKinsey Report – includes sample communication matrices for remote teams

Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers – Harvard Business Review – March 18, 2020

Keeping Your People Engaged And Productive Through The Crisis – Recorded webinar from Korn Ferry

Remote Working with Microsoft Teams (2-page quick reference guide from Nevada Learning Series) – order printed copies directly through Nevada Learning Series

12 Tips for Building Trusting Relationships Across Your Virtual Team – Communique, online newsletter from Guided Insights

Cultivating Trust from Afar in Tough Times –– Communique, online newsletter from Guided Insights

From Jaded to Jazzed – Quick Tips for Sustaining Happy, Healthy Virtual Teams – Communique, online newsletter from Guided Insights

Galvanize Great Global Teams with Clear Operating Principles – Communique, online newsletter from Guided Insights