Sometime in December 2019, it is thought that several animal-to-human zoonotic events occurred at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Hubei province, China, and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in humans was born.
Play forward three months, and with over 100,000 infected, over 3,500 dead, new hotspots of infection sources springing up each day, and over 90 countries reporting confirmed cases, the disease is well and truly into pandemic territory.
Over the last week, a number of emails have landed in my inbox from conference organisers informing me that events had been cancelled as a result of the health risks. Colleagues, partners and customers, have had to halt planning exercises, cancel corporate kick-off and marketing events, as health advisories and travel restrictions keep coming. Major strategic projects are also being delayed or paused.
What do we do in times like these?
As leaders, we are looked to for answers. When the situation is moving fast, and new data and facts come into view with each passing day, it’s difficult to have a reliable answer to the question: “are we going to be ok?” The business effects are undeniable – estimations by IATA that worldwide airline revenues will drop by $170bn, conferences and mass gatherings of all sorts being canceled, border restrictions affecting those returning from, or considering travel, and empty supermarket shelves showing the signs of panic-stricken shoppers. Some events that have been postponed are not expecting a return to normality until November. In Australia we have the unique overlap of what is expected to be the peak of COVID-19 infections and the usual flu season, around the middle of the year. That will take already-stretched health systems to another level that we haven’t seen before. New calculations show that $34 billion dollars will be wiped from the Australian economy, removing at least 0.5 percentage points from GDP in the March quarter.
Some organisations are now frantically referring to the “pandemic section” of their Business Continuity Plan (BCP) – which is usually the part that’s had the least development, since it’s not expected to be common. A British study from 2019 showed that only 54% of UK organisations had confidence in their BCP. The natural assumption is that Australian businesses would be in the same ballpark with their BCP, I would even go a far to say that mid-market organisations, without dedicated resources to operations and procedures, would have a lower confidence rate.
I’ve been asked about this a lot recently, so I’ve put together a few ideas that can work well:
Don’t Panic (in large, friendly letters)
As leaders, people will ask us a lot of questions, and there will be many we can’t answer because of the whole uncharted territory thing. But leaders are in their position because they can lead people through such waters with a calm, inclusive and compassionate head. It’s not our job to have all the answers, nor even to go away and research them all, but to know which ones to have to hand, and where to send people for more info, such as the comprehensive information being communicated by health authorities (and, specifically, not the latest news headlines!) If there is someone in your team who can be tasked with centralising updates on your company, suppliers and partners, conferences that may have been canceled, localised changes to transport and travel advice, this can be a big help to quell rumours.
If you are in the process of working out a plan, and don’t have the answers, tell people. You can also refer them to good guidance that has been consistently broadcast by health authorities on the various scenarios: if you’re healthy, try and stay that way with good hygiene; if you think you might be sick, stay at home; if you really think you might be infected, follow your health professionals’ advice on what to do next. The main thing leaders agree on is: the safety and well-being of their teams and customers and stakeholders is paramount. We just need to tell our people so. Agreeing with your management team a frequency of updates to the team, and then sticking to that (say to daily or twice a day) as the authoritative source of information – and of course this extends to your intranet and collaboration platforms for those traveling and working remotely. If you don’t have collaboration tooling in place, try this recent article on getting conferencing set up easily, as Microsoft and Google have extended their free offerings to help.
Have a plan
If you didn’t have a plan before, now’s the time to work one out. It doesn’t need to boil the ocean, and it should focus on what you’re likely to face in the near term. Things to consider might include: “what happens if we can’t come into the office?” – and what if that’s the case for a really long time? How could our supply chains be affected – will projects have to pause or be re-scheduled? What marketing, conferencing and travel plans should we review? Although you won’t have time to work through a full BCP now, the Australian Government has information to get you and your team started on one, so you can start to keep the ad-hoc workings you do now, and put them towards a long-term plan once things die down a bit.
Stay focused and positive
A lot of folks are going to panic. A lot already have. But if we have a steady hand on the situation, remain adaptable on what to do next, and hold the safety of our people at the forefront (without leading to panic), then we can do what people expect of us the most: lead our teams out the other side, with a positive outlook and ready to ramp up when things return to normal. And most of all, knowing and reassuring each other, that they will.
It’s said that situations like the Coronavirus pandemic that takes us into uncharted territory make us stronger as leaders. The experience we go through now, whether that be exercising well-thought-out plans, or building them rapidly from the ground up, will stand us in good stead for years to come – to help us get through whatever is coming our way next. Stay safe and well out there – and support each other.
Anthony Woodward is the CEO & Founder of Accelera