Trust and clear communication are possibly the two most important qualities of leaders in times of crisis.
The talk about opening up has been bubbling almost since we went into lockdown as businesses worry about their long-term viability. And now here we are with a shift of emphasis from staying at home to ‘staying alert’, a call for those who can’t work from home to be ‘actively encouraged’ to return to work, but not on public transport if at all possible and a lot of confusion to start the week. Have things changed materially or is it all just an exercise in suggesting they have? What does stay alert mean when we generally don’t know if someone has the virus or not?
The main and immediate confusion is about whether people who ‘can’t work from home’ have to go to work, for instance, if they have no childcare, and whether they can get there if public transport is their only option. Other leaders have been popping up this morning saying the advice is essentially unchanged except for a few industries, but that is not exactly what the Prime Minister said.
We are promised more clarification on schools and, hopefully, childcare later this week. It would be good to know, for instance, why they are suggesting beginning with reception and year one, where social distancing must be the most challenging. Whatever happens, they will need to get parents to trust that their children are safe and teachers and support staff to feel they are protected.
Some nurseries appear to be suggesting they can take the pressure off schools by lengthening nursery time by a term. I can understand the argument that it could help children’s emotional well being to stay somewhere familiar in strange times and I can see that social distancing will be a nightmare in primary schools – even if kids go back in shifts – due to the size of classrooms, the number of children and other general logistics. But I’d like to know how on Earth social distancing is possible in a nursery. Pre-school childcare was not mentioned at all in Boris Johnson’s speech.
Apart from the practical issues, one of the main issues with returning to work is trust. You have to trust the people who are in charge. Once lost, trust is a hard thing to recover. It has to be earned. Good leadership relies on trust and clarity [even if it is only being clear about what you are unclear about], particularly in times of crisis.
I was listening to a webinar the other day about return to work. One question was about transport and is very pertinent to the Prime Minister’s update. What if you are anxious about taking public transport to get to work, someone asked. Could you be fired if you won’t take it? The advice was that if the Government says it’s safe, you could be disciplined if you don’t go in.
According to the update, people who can’t work from home should travel to work by car if at all possible – or, better, walk or cycle. The latter will only be possible for the few, though. And most people who work in busy cities will find travel by car difficult, even if many workers are still able to work from home. Other legal experts say dismissing someone in the current circumstances would be unfair.
Moreover, what does it mean to actively encourage people to go to work. Is that the same as forcing them? What if you have underlying health issues or no childcare? Apparently tube travel is slightly up since the announcement. Trust is hard in a situation where social distancing is impossible.
At employer level, trust is also crucial. Do your employees believe that you will do everything in your power to ensure they are safe? That doesn’t just mean trusting that you are obeying the guidance, because the guidance will not cover all eventualities, but that you have thought every aspect of it through.
Clear communication goes hand in hand with trust. People need to know what you are doing and have done to keep them safe, what the immediate, short-term and long-term view is where you have something you can tell them. They need to understand why too. Employers may be under huge pressure, but they need to get their employees on board with whatever they are doing and deal with the unintended consequences of decisions on individual’s people’s lives, because there will always be unintended consequences.
If employers get these two things right and demonstrate that they have put the thinking in, they are setting good foundations for the future.