Coronavirus (COVID-19): A Supervisor's Guide to Leading Through the Pandemic

Author: Mary Gormandy White

Leading employees in times of change can be challenging in the best of circumstances. As a supervisor faced with guiding your employees through change due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is only natural to feel like you are navigating uncharted territory. In many ways, you are doing just that. However, while the circumstances surrounding the current public health crisis are very different from most work-related change, the principles of effective leadership and change management remain the same.

Understanding Employee Needs in Uncertain Times

When things are uncertain, people want immediate answers from their leaders. That instinct is only natural, but the fact is that sometimes answers just are not available when things are changing rapidly. The role of a leader involves providing employees with what they need, and so it is important to recognize the difference between what employees need and what they want.

  • Employees may want to know what is coming next - but when it comes to the current public health crisis, the reality is that no one knows what is coming next.
  • Employees need to know that they can trust their supervisors and other organizational leaders to have their best interests in mind.
  • Employees also need to feel that their concerns are being heard, listened to and acted upon.

Communicate Proactively and Empathetically

It can be stressful to be the boss when you know your employees are fearful and wishing for answers that you just can't provide. Even so, during times of crisis and change it is critical for managers to be proactive in communicating with employees. This includes asking for their input and feedback and relating to them on a human level.

  • Don't isolate yourself from your team in times of crisis. If you do, employees will come to feel that you are hiding from them and that you - and the company - don't care about them or their concerns.
  • Realize that it is not a sign of weakness to let employees see that you are fearful and concerned as well. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with team members can build trust and illustrate that everyone is dealing with uncertainty related to change and crisis.
  • Continually use "we"-oriented language when interacting with team members to reinforce that you and your employees are a team facing this difficult situation together.
  • Provide a simple way for employees to share concerns or questions with management, such as a dedicated email address just for this purpose.
  • With social distancing in mind, implement tools to help maintain team communication and facilitate remote collaboration (such as Zoom or Slack).

Dealing With Unanswerable Concerns

Whatever you do, don't make promises to employees that it may not be possible to keep. If you speculate about or promise options that may not be possible, employees are likely to end up feeling that you lied to them - even though you had good intentions. You'll do irreparable damage to your relationship with your direct reports, damaging the trust that you've worked hard to build.

  • Saying "I don't know" or that "information isn't available at this time" is better than providing information that might not hold true as the situation unfolds. 
  • Employees may want immediate answers, but what they need is assurance that supervisors and company leaders are doing everything within their power to do what is best for employees.

Crisis Communication Best Practices

Adopt phrases that help keep employees appropriately informed as circumstances unfold, but don't overstep what should be said in rapidly changing circumstances. Phrases to use include:

  • Here's what we know right now … 
  • What I am able to share at this time is …
  • The steps that have been taken at this time are …
  • When solid information is available, I will share it with you via …
  • I am not aware of …

Minimize Negative Impact of Rumors

The rumor mill tends to be more active than usual in times of change - no matter what you do, that is likely to happen. However, supervisors do need to be careful to avoid doing things that feed unfounded rumors and cause additional stress and negative impacts.

  • Share confirmed information to employees as it becomes available and is appropriate to do so, but don't engage in speculation with team members.
  • Coordinate with other supervisors to ensure appropriate timing of message delivery and consistency of information.

Remember: No communication with employees is "off the record." Anything you say to employees could very well end up feeding rumors.

Reset Your Expectations to Realistic

Productivity is inevitably impacted to some degree any time employees are facing work-related change. In the current situation, where workplace changes are tied to a public health crisis with significant human and economic impacts, supervisors need to realize that ordinary expectations for productivity and performance may not be applicable or appropriate in the short term.

  • Chances are that you've gone from leading a team motivated by factors associated with esteem and self-actualization to a world where people are uncertain about whether their basic survival or safety needs will continue to be met.
  • While you do need to focus on performance, you may also need to relax expectations sufficiently to allow for the very real crisis that many on your team are facing. Now is the time to put all your people-management skills and tools to work.
  • Be a coach, be a mentor, provide feedback, express appreciation and listen to what your employees are saying - both through their words and their actions. Supervisors should always do these things, but they're even more important now.
  • No matter how cohesive your team was before the coronavirus crisis, chances are that it will be impacted significantly. Your actions now can determine how strong the team comes out on the other side, or how much damage is done.

Stay Focused on Vision

Even in uncertain times characterized by crisis and change, your organization's vision is its true north. An organization's vision is the aspirational future state around which members of the team can become unified, under the guidance of effective leadership. Don't lose sight of your organization's vision as you rise to the occasion of supervising through change during a crisis. The path forward may look uncertain or, at the very least, different now than it did pre-pandemic. By staying focused on the organization's vision and communicating honestly and openly with team members as the situation unfolds, you can do your part to help your team navigate the current crisis and come out even stronger on the other side.