The Covid19 pandemic gave us a powerful chance to demonstrate care for our people and the results were remarkable.  Like many organisations, the early days of the manifestation of the pandemic resulted in lockdowns and sending people from the office to the safety of a “socially distant” work from home arrangement.  Online meetings were instantly the norm.  The novelty soon wore off as we realized that this would be the working method for an extended period.

A defining moment in the Pandemic

Our people were scared. And stressed.  We have a large population of young professionals with young families who suddenly had to balance the demands of working online, caring for children in the home, trying to manage schoolwork, and managing the home situation.  Many people did not have decent workspaces or desks to operate from.  May also had deep-seated fears around the disease and some already had friends or family affected.  Productivity was understandably likely to be impacted.

This became one of those moments that matter.

We needed to care for our people.  And then be authentic about that care. And demonstrate that care with some symbolic acts – but also genuine conversations. So, we adjusted our goals and targets.

Like many teams, we set goals and targets for productivity at the beginning of the year.   When the pandemic arrived and we realized the impact on our teams, we knew that chasing an arbitrary target would just create untenable pressure and our people were already suffering.

A critical opportunity for transformation

We had to be genuinely prepared to sacrifice delivery, given the circumstances.  I felt we needed to confront and manage the perceived threat of a stern uncompromising board or unmet regulatory expectations.  But in these circumstances, my team had to come first.  We are in a long-term game.  Winning a battle in one year at the cost of a team that was burnt out, disengaged, and resentful would lose us the war.

But rather than announcing a simple blanket reduction in the metric (which ironically would signal that work still comes first – only slightly less so), we instead chose to abandon the metric as a performance measure entirely and communicated this to the broader team in all-hands meetings and broadcast emails. A strong signal to the team that it doesn’t matter.  You come first!

We followed this up with one-ones to clarify the contribution. But that was followed by individual conversations. All line managers had individual discussions with their team members about what they COULD contribute in light of their circumstances.

It required meaningful connections with individual team members.  With a human connection to truly know the individual. Knowing the person well enough, and caring enough to be compassionate around their personal circumstances, but have a conversation around what the person felt they COULD contribute in the face of difficult circumstances.  Ironically, we found that the last thing people wanted, when they felt the world was going mad, was to feel that they couldn’t be useful.  They still wanted to contribute.  Surrendering to the fear and stress of the pandemic was an even worse outcome for each of them.

We had to signal at a systemic level that the blunt metric was going to be converted. From the anonymous impersonal target, into a true demonstration of care and empowerment.

Unexpected Results

The quality of the engagements and conversations that happened was fascinating.  While the interface of online meetings was, and remains, somewhat clumsy, we all got into a rhythm of meeting with all team members in online conversations regularly.  Teams had check-ins at a personal level with greater authenticity than before.  This lowered the waterline and created a greater tone of respect and trust.  A culture of care was tangible.

And the result has been amazing.  In a difficult year, despite difficult circumstances, the teams delivered against the plan.  But even more than the original pan! The team engaged and resolute and adapted the plan. In addition, they delivered in risk areas that really needed focus in the time of crisis.

So, caring in the time of a crisis is not about abandoning the principles of holding people accountable.    It becomes an opportunity for human engagement. Caring for people is enough to give them opportunities to grow, and then holding them accountable for the outcome. In other words – an opportunity for demonstrating leadership.

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