Since the first cases of coronavirus emerged in China’s Hubei Province at the end of 2019, governments and experts have been bracing for and attempting to predict its impact.

Yet we are still very much in crisis mode, reacting to new information as and when it is available, which is partly shocking, partly frustrating, and at times – as with any overload or reaction to stress – even amusing at times. And despite the city of Wuhan now being out of its initial lockdown, we still cannot fully imagine what is really to come.

Emotions take the best of people, and sadly fear is one of the major emotions gripping many of us at this time. Fear of getting sick. Fear of losing loved ones. Fear of not being able to care for relatives adequately. Fear of losing our employment. Fear of not making any more money and therefore losing our security – fear of existence.

Dealing with these fears and keeping up with our own needs, as well as the needs of our families and our companies must be our top priority. It’s time to take responsibility: as citizens, parents and leaders.

Fear is often irrational and threatens to become overpowering and paralysing. We cannot think well if we allow these stories to play out inside us. Self-pity and whining about the ever increasing misery are episodes well-known to all of us. And we don’t always come out of this state easily on our own, but rather need the help of others.

There are not many remedies for fear that we can offer each other. But one thing helps in many cases: Talking!

During these times, I often hear in conversations with managers that they inform well, they have every conceivable protective measure for their people, but they have the ‘bush telegraph’. They tell me: “Those who work in the home office are doing well. They are seen and their children are taken care of! What about us? Will we get infected here?! ”

What was to be done against the ‘bush telegraph’? Well, again, as with defeating fear – communication is the key to success. It’s tempting to say that information is sufficient. Information is important, but it does not replace dialogue.

Information appeals to the mind, but do we know how people are doing right now? How do they cope emotionally with the situation? How do they process the information given? And what does all this mean for companies, for managers?

Managers and companies alike are currently being challenged: we have to keep the companies running and ensure their economic survival. We have to show care for our employees. We do this by sending them to work from home wherever possible, and of course keeping in regular contact over the phone, email, or via video conferencing.

We also do this by taking protective measures for those who unavoidably continue to work at their worksite: creating small groups that take turns, creating distance, organising availability of respiratory masks and disinfection in sufficient quantities.

And we do this by “communicating” well. CEOs write personal correspondence, newsletters, letters, keep video messages with words of thanks, perseverance slogans and the request to stay with it.

We do this by putting together instructional films, either purchased or compiled by ourselves, with the latest COVID-19 rules and obliging all employees to work through them.

In many cases, however, these measures are a one-way street, and information is not communication in the human sense, it’s not a dialogue back and forth. So here are the pertinent questions:

  • How do we maintain dialogue with our employees in times of Coronavirus?
  • How do we find out whether our employees feel sufficiently protected by the protective measures we have put in place?
  • How do we know how our employees are really doing in their home offices?

Well, here’s what we know: Only healthy employees are motivated employees! We are only really good when there is fun at work. Personal responsibility increases with participation in decisions. Everyone is the expert in their own environment – we make those affected involved.

The crisis team should meet daily, since there is new information every day that reaches employees via defined routes.

The questions arise, then:

  • How do we ensure that this information reaches all employees quickly and reliably?
  • How do we know what this information triggers?
  • How do we ensure that there are solutions and implementation?

Leading and communicating at a distance

We are not machines, we are humans, and to operate optimally we require more than facts, we enjoy our workplace relationships, too.

Frequently, however, only the factual level is served via email or other written channels. Yet as we know, about 80% of communication takes place at the relationship level.

Put in practice, this means that if we receive a very factual email, but actually just needed someone who understands our situation and listens, then the recipient’s reaction may be: “He is only interested in the results! He doesn’t care how I feel about it!”

At that moment we are blind to the sender’s potentially good intentions. The recipient determines the content of the message – this is universal whether in times of good health or of COVID-19 lockdown.

So what can we do? Practice mindful communication: give feedback, ask questions, communicate. Ask open questions and listen actively. Ask for solutions and ideas. Participate and encourage – affirm and empower!

And you’ll be pleased to hear, that all of this is possible virtually.

In one company, by the initiative of one colleague, the employees were invited to a “virtual coffee break” from their respective home offices. The invitation went to all colleagues who normally work on the same floor – including the boss and supervisor. The two immediately agreed and were the first to register for the coffee break, thankful that someone took the initiative and invited them to it. The two are currently in daily meetings with the crisis team. It’s not an easy task and requires a lot of energy and strength. With effectively a senior level sign off, the team felt comfortable to jump in, too – and it worked very well. Everyone came to the invitation. Just 15 minutes from everyday life, away from worries, away from overly objective topics. After that, pictures of the home office situations were exchanged. Business relevant? Definitely not! But it was so good for everyone that they agreed to meet again for the end of the week … for informal, beneficial, team-building chat in the virtual coffee corner…

It’s important to organise not only the information chain from top to bottom, but also the feedback loop. How do we weigh up whether the right solutions have been found on site and whether we can be responsible for them? We know these processes from our on-site security dialogues. Now we are asked to conduct this dialogue differently.

We grow with our challenges, especially in these times. Adapting and creating virtual spaces to speak – both about work and seemingly frivolous topics – we remain connected, human, happy, and productive.