13 November 2020

Lead with Humanity

By Angela Day


In April this year, Doug Sundheim issued an article in Harvard Business Review titled “When Crisis Strikes, Lead with Humanity”. My initial response to this, as someone who has been involved in real business continuity crises, was, that seems obvious to me. In managing a crisis, ‘people first’ is the first rule, but then I reflected on this and considered how long this current crisis has been going on and how easy it would have been for businesses, considering it’s into its nineth month, to become complacent and forget about the impact of COVID-19 on people. 

This pandemic has been life changing for everyone. Some have lost loved ones or livelihoods. Many have felt the emotional toil of the lockdown restrictions. For others, it has encouraged creativity and innovation and the achievement of things never thought possible – the speed in which a vaccine has been developed being just one example. 

I believe that this pandemic has driven positive change for those organisations who have been willing and prepared to adapt. Many have focused on wellbeing and employee engagement and now more than ever businesses are turning to their HR colleagues to look for guidance. 

It is no secret to anyone who has worked with me, that all the time I have worked in HR I have been a vocal and passionate advocate to the importance of employee wellbeing and inclusion. Working with leadership teams to create inclusive cultures that create an environment for people to be themselves, to be open and honest and thrive has been my mission.  I have worked hard (and at times just got on and done stuff) to convince business leaders that a people centric culture makes good business sense. Engaged employees make decisions that are right for the customer. Win-win! 

Some leaders need less convincing and the journey that we have gone through at MOSL over the last nine months, I believe, is a great example of how we have ‘led with humanity’. 

Taking Doug Sunheim’s three ways to lead with humanity I would like to share the work that we have done in the hope that if a couple of readers take away one idea then it may make a small difference to their organisations and its people. 

Putting People First 

There have been great examples of organisations who have had to make difficult decisions about reducing their workforce, have put people first. At MOSL we have not been in this difficult position, but our approach has been one of ensuring we listen to our people and actively seek feedback. We have encouraged and invited openness from our colleagues from day one to enable us to support them with any adjustments that they needed to make, to balance what was a very sudden collision between work and home life. 

We also discovered, anecdotally and through our employee survey data, that working remotely had its advantages to both colleagues and the business. We set up a ‘Building Back Better’ team, representing all colleague groups (local, long distance, with kids, home alone etc.) to give thought to, and implement, not just what a Covid-19-safe work place would look like, but to think about how a future work place might look like on the basis of colleagues most likely not being in the office Monday to Friday. While this work has currently paused until we get more certainty, the team did a great job in preparing an office that was safe for colleagues to work in briefly during September when the government encouraged us to return to our workplaces. 

Be Upfront and Vulnerable 

This is about authentic leadership. We talk about bringing our whole selves to work and leaders need to lead on this. Showing vulnerabilities, sharing experiences, being honest about how they are feeling. Our CEO, Sarah McMath, is open and authentic. This goes a long way in giving people permission, if those are the right words, to feel that they too can have good days and bad days and that is OK to keep your camera off if you don’t feel great that day or if the kids join the start of the video calls because they want to see who mummy is talking to. Sundheim says ‘good leaders get emotional’. Good news for me! 

Support and Connect 

One thing the pandemic has reinforced is that social connection is a basic human need. Everyone will be experiencing the pandemic through their own eyes and the importance for managers to stay connected – to know and support their people - has never been more important.  

Encouraging openness so solutions can be found to problems, providing flexibility when needed and ensuring that people have clarity. At MOSL, we have weekly all-team calls to keep colleagues connected with business news and to provide an opportunity for two-way communication. Colleagues also have ‘virtual tea breaks’ (via Teams) in their diaries to encourage people to drop in and out if they want a chat, as they would if they were grabbing a coffee at work. And the work of our Mental Health First Aiders has been amazing. Not just in being there for people but in the mental health awareness and support sessions that they have run periodically during lockdown. Not to mention the weekly blogs from colleagues and the monthly virtual social events arranged by our social team after work. 

And here is the thing, none of this costs money. So, you might have people spending a bit more time focusing on employee communication or engagement, you might devote a little more time to connecting formally or informally, but there is not a big price tag attached. It is a leadership mindset, a behaviour and a practice. In fact, in the longer term it should save organisations money with less employee turnover and more engaged people.  

Employees will not forget how their employer treated them during this pandemic. 

Maybe at MOSL we have been fortunate. We have not had to furlough anyone and we have recruited more people in line with our business plan, but these three ways can still apply in organisations facing big challenges and you could argue that they become even more important. I was saddened to learn of a furloughed friend whose manager had only made contact via email once during a three-month period. How hard, and how much time does it take to pick the phone up once in a while to say ‘I have no news, but I wanted to check that you were OK. Is there anything I can do for you?’ 

So, thank you Doug Sundheim for shining a light on what I have always believed to be true (in or out of a crisis) and that is we must lead with humanity. 

To find our more about MOSL's COVID-19 response visit our dedicated COVID-19 response webpage.

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