OPINION18 May 2020

Covid-19: a shared wound

Covid-19 Opinion UK

By putting their people at the top of the agenda and communicating honestly and openly, insights businesses can help staff stay as well as possible, writes Michael Brown.

woman typing on a laptop balanced on her lap

Rarely, if ever, are we all united in a shared experience. The tumultuous events of the last couple of months, however, have scrawled beneath us an ominous common denominator – coronavirus, a word that still seems oddly unfamiliar a thousand sightings later.

While the virus is the singular cause, its effects are many: it has brought a fog of uncertainty, worry and isolation. It has brought grief for those we have lost and fears for those we care for, caused life events to be postponed and put livelihoods at risk. Households with caring responsibilities have been immersed into even greater pressure. Each of us has been rendered vulnerable in a slightly different way – even our leaders.

Traditional management tends to focus on projecting positive, inspirational language designed to ensnare people into subscribing to a vision. Some techniques, like neurolinguistic programming (NLP), even specialise in the hocus pocus of controlling others’ behaviour and thoughts. These leadership messaging approaches seem outdated and problematic to me, in that they work against honesty and authenticity. After all, leaders are human, and to be human is to be vulnerable. 

Fortunately, the ideal of being able to ‘bring our whole selves to work’, or of creating working environments where people feel able to share their full set of identities, has become increasingly aspirational. With this new approach comes the need for open dialogue between leaders and employees, working together to identify and address barriers to inclusion and wellbeing. More often than not, equality agendas in businesses are driven from the grassroots, powered by employee resource groups.

Fundamental to the success of this model is the ability for colleagues to share their ‘labels’ and concerns – for example, to come out as gay or bisexual; talk proudly about their heritage; or share their mental health struggles. This requires open conversations, not ‘spun’ and contorted language or suppressed intentions. One of the most powerful ways to create such a sharing culture is through leaders leading by example and sharing their own labels and even struggles. 

Within the difficult environment we are all facing, there are ways in which businesses can help their employees stay as well as possible:

Place wellbeing at the top of the agenda: in internal communications, underline that colleagues’ health and wellbeing is the business’s priority, and make sure this is borne out in your decisions and actions. Trust and support people to make the right decisions in prioritising their commitments.

Open up: create a community atmosphere where sharing is encouraged. Ideally, this is a dual exchange, where business realities are shared, and where colleagues also feel able to share what’s on their mind. Leaders might consider setting the tone by sharing their own struggles.

Stay close: use meeting tools to replicate the energy and intimacy of company meetings. Our weekly Friday 30 agency meeting is an energising moment we all look forward to, where we celebrate everything from birthdays to campaign launches.         

Line managers must step up: equip line managers with practical advice on how to initiate open conversations with their teams. Empathy doesn’t come so naturally to everyone. Consider opening one-to-one meetings with ‘where’s your head at today from 0 – 10?’ or ‘how do you feel today in a word?’. To help, UM has produced a guide in partnership with Creative Equals.         

Client management: furloughing may have brought resource gaps and people may have to step away from work unexpectedly. Clients’ delivery expectations must be managed and met now more carefully than ever. Our clients are living the same hard reality as we are, so communication is key.

Give people space: the many pressures of this time will be weighing heavy on colleagues’ minds. Moods are fluctuating dramatically. We should have as much patience, compassion and leeway towards each other as we can.

Invest in wellbeing: this would be a good time to invest in training or tools to keep your people well. At UM, we have taken out a corporate subscription to Headspace, a mindfulness app, and organised a resilience workshop.         

Stay inclusive: the physical distance separating us has the potential to cause a step backwards in terms of equality. Stay vigilant and make sure all voices are being heard in meetings and that nobody is slipping ‘through the cracks’. Check up on people who have been off the radar.     

Avoid lazy language: over-used terms like the ubiquitous ‘new normal’ are only intensifying the sense of claustrophobia of these weeks. In any case, there is nothing normal about this time.

The word ‘vulnerability’ stems from the Latin word vulnus, or ‘wound’. I would invite us all to be aware of each other’s wounds right now and to connect on a basis of shared struggle. Leaders should not be afraid to share their own wounds; in the new world of business, empathy and emotional intelligence are precious commodities. There is strength to be found in vulnerability.

Much airtime has been given to what the eventual return to normality will look like; less so to what the emotional healing process will involve. Forward-thinking leaders will pay attention to the psychological aspects of the experience we’re living, as the road to recovery will be a long and uncertain one.

We might even look back on this painful chapter as a time that brought the consolation of a new era of a more honest and inclusive way of doing business. With these emboldened values, and our proven resilience, we’ll move forward on a healthier and stronger footing. 

Michael Brown is partner of insight and cross-culture at UM and chair of MRSpride