How to lead people during a pandemic

COVID-19 puts business leaders in an unenviable position.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 20 Mar 2020
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It’s highly likely that aside from the 2008 financial crisis, many business leaders have never faced anything like the coronavirus outbreak in their career. In some cases this may well be even worse.

The impact of coronavirus on the way we work is going to be wide reaching and profound. It will put multiple demands on bosses, testing their ability to lead people who are potentially isolated and nervous about their own personal health and their long-term employment, while at the same time trying to ensure the business survives as a going concern. 

It’s an unenviable position - there’s a reason they say that it’s lonely at the top. Knowing what to do and say is a struggle. 

From a practical perspective the first thing an employer should do is plan how they intend to respond to different scenarios, says Tom Calvard, senior lecturer in organisation studies and HRM at Edinburgh Business School. 

Having a contingency plan for business continuity reinforces the ‘better safe than sorry idea’ to your staff.” 

This will be different for each business, but will involve reviewing a range of relevant policies and being prepared to communicate and implement changes flexibly and rapidly as conditions evolve. Layoffs and imposed unpaid leave should be considered a last resort, says Calvard - it could be costly and from a legal perspective should be covered in an employee’s contract. 

Put people first

Mark Price was managing director of Waitrose between 2007 and 2016, during which time he was faced with having to lead the retailer through Sars, avian flu outbreaks and floods that decimated suppliers’ stock. 

Although he says none of these can compare to what business leaders are facing with the potential impact of coronavirus, he says that his one guiding star was a focus on keeping his stakeholders safe.

“Think what you need to do to maintain that relationship,” says Price who since served as a government minister and founded workplace happiness company Engaging Works. 

Sadly some bosses may have no choice in the matter. 

“In uncertain times we need inspirational leaders with high levels of EQ (emotional intelligence). They can't just be rational people who are doing ‘just rational things’,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational health and psychology at the Alliance Manchester Business School.

“They've got to use their personality and sense of purpose, and communicate what they’re doing to maintain people's jobs and health.”

This is possible while teams are working remotely, but it is important that staff see each other and communicate face-to-face via video conferencing. Cooper warns that communicating strictly via email might cause more trouble because often people say things in an email that they would not say face-to-face. 

Bosses who have to keep their staff in the workplace - for example in manufacturing - could find it harder, warns Cooper, because many of their workforce could potentially be ill, or worried about becoming so. 

“A leader’s job is to make people feel part of a team and part of something. Show them that you care and that you have their best interests at heart.”

Malcolm Cannon, the national director of IoD Scotland, agrees. He says it will be a testing time for bosses, but insists the businesses that communicate openly and are prepared to “try new things” will be the ones that are most likely to pull through - and they should look to their staff for potential solutions.

“Creativity and imagination will play a major part in getting through these challenges. No leader has a monopoly on good ideas. Staff will want to air their opinions and have their thoughts listened to,” says Cannon. 

The leaders who can get their staff on side, show them that they have their best interests at heart and are clear in what they want from them will pull people together - it’ll also make it easier when inevitably they have to deliver hard news.

“There’s this thing in Britain called the Dunkirk Spirit,” says Cooper. “In tough times people come together.”

Image credit: Fox Photos / Stringer via Getty Images


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