A seven-point checklist to help navigate the next phase

By Jane Sparrow

We’ve all just experienced a ‘false dawn’ – the huge swell of hope, relief and expectation that the vaccine brought us has been roundly squashed by the reality that is January. Dwelling, for a moment, on the negatives – we are seeing case numbers hit all time highs and countries around the globe imposing strict measures to control the spread of COVID19. It feels (for half the world) that the cold grey mornings of January offer little in the way of hope as, sadly, short-term worries always trump long-term positives. 

But this isn’t March 2020. We’ve learnt so much in the last ten months, and now is the time to apply that. We have the gift of hindsight, we have the wins and the failures to emulate and avoid. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and estimate that we have written, as a professional community, more about the last year than any other year. The snowball of commentary, advice and observation for 2020 is incredible. Lessons have been learnt and things have been accomplished that would not have seemed possible. So, as dark and depressing as January 2021 seems, let’s not forget we are entering it with a whole new skill-set.

We know how to cope. We’ve gone from handling a crisis to understanding how to sustainably tackle what we are facing – the essence of resilience (an area we constantly deliver workshops on, helping teams to build it). Above this, we’ve seen a whole new focus on communication, and an understanding of what it truly means – connecting and involving people to ensure they feel valued and included. As we hit what will likely be the bleakest point of the pandemic, it’s critical to remember that what’s needed is ‘more of the same’. There’s no new solution, it’s going to come down to consistency and determination to do the right things that keep us together and focused.

Throughout 2020 we’ve shared the most critical, repeatable actions that have made the biggest impact. As with the global response, these have matured and adapted as things change. But, right now, we feel there are seven things that we would suggest you put on your ‘checklist’ of preparedness for the next phase of your response. They are the starting point for your planning and will hopefully give you the building blocks for a not only surviving, but thriving strategy that will see you into the Spring.

1. Maintaining social connection. In a world where social distancing is being encouraged, it’s so, so critical to ensure people are still linked to one another. This is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a critical factor. All the data we studied and sourced pointed to this being the number one factor. In one client, it was the most negative factor for more than 50 percent of the workforce. Emotional wellbeing should be seen as a group challenge, with ‘no-one left behind’. Our online content for this area was the most heavily subscribed during the height of things last year.

Humans are social, group animals. Interaction with others is essential – ensuring we feel valued, included and worthy. Therefore, as part of your approach going forwards, taking the time to create interactions that are meaningful will be paramount. This is more than a scheduled call or a ‘how are you’, it’s a sustained commitment to connecting whenever possible, for reasons that are not just to move work forwards. It’s one to one conversations that are ad-hoc and two way. It’s shared reasons to be cheerful like something arriving on everyone’s doorstep that unites them in some way. It’s being honest about how you are feeling, to encourage others to do the same. It’s making others your number one priority.

2. Keep up the communication. Of course, good, clear communication will be key – sharing updates, information and success stories. But, as any good Internal Communications person will tell you, it goes beyond that. We are engaging people and we are including people. 

Questions, discussion, debate and support all fall under this category. Good communication is two-way, good communication is about helping people to be more productive, good communication is about drawing people in, rather than pushing them away. 

Remember, the pinnacle of communication is making people feel something. Aim for that to be ‘cherished’.

3. Using your muscle memory. This is a short one, but also a very clear one. Take the time to review what you did, and didn’t do during 2020 to thrive during the toughest points. We all found ways of coping, and found habits and tools that helped us be effective. Think about how you can drop back into the positive groove that you established last summer, and flex those new ‘muscles’ again. We spoke to many people in July who had built a new, temporary lifestyle and professional approach around themselves that was proving effective. Find it again.

4. Keep moving (forwards). This one is both literal and figurative. In 2020 we spoke to teams that were running daily exercise classes, having walking challenges, standing meetings… We saw a wide and inventive variety of solutions to keeping people active. 

Physical movement became one of the top things that people focused on – the ‘Joe Wicks phenomenon’ was just the tip of the iceberg. We dished out tips to anyone who’d listen about the need to build in regular breaks and frequent activity – heck, we even wrote a book on it. 

But movement in our terms is also about moving yourself forward – learning, growing, keeping your mind active and nourishing your soul. People spent last year trying new languages, new past-times, cookery, podcasts, books. It wasn’t wholly driven by boredom. One of the stated factors for wellbeing is the ability to learn – stop doing it and you diminish.

As you prepare yourself for the rest of winter and early spring, we’d urge you to do two things for this area. Firstly, be mindful about your movement and exercise regime. Don’t make it impossible, and make it fit around the rest of your life, but equally, don’t leave it to chance. As we joked way back in April – exercise isn’t a walk to the fridge every hour. And, secondly, plan your learning. It doesn’t have to be epic, or time consuming, but it should feed your brain. 

5. Be the most human you can be. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a reminder. Last year we ran a resilience workshop with a senior executive team. They were tired, emotional… burnt out. They were also typical of every other exec team across the globe. At one point, a participant imploringly asked: “What more is it that people want? I’m doing SO much right now.” The answer was simple – they just want you to be human. We don’t need heroes right now, we need listeners, and people full of compassion for what we are going through. 

Reviewing a lot of the literature that’s covering pandemic leadership, this is the theme that we are seeing the most (and are talking to people about developing). Yes, we need a plan to navigate the situation, but we need it from leaders that we feel connected to, and we feel care, are genuine and honest.

‘Non alpha’ leaders are emerging as the most successful right now, and it’s a lesson for us all. Tough isn’t the way to go, being human is. So, as part of your strategy for interacting with others, for planning activity, for delivering work, think about how you will do it in ways that show you are listening, that you are responsive to others and that you are humble. Saying ‘I’m not OK’ is far more likely to win you trust than saying ‘I’m fine’.

6. Use your purpose as a driver. Keep talking about the ‘why’. One of my favorite stories is about the world’s deepest hand-dug well. It took four years, and was deeper than the height of the Empire State Building. Imagine, every day for three years and 364 days, facing the same unchanging vista – a floor of rock and earth that needed digging away. Determination kept them going, and the shared belief that ‘we will find water that will help end poverty’ drove them on. And, on the last day, the water didn’t trickle out of the floor, it exploded. An exciting way to fulfill your purpose!

You and your team may need to update your purpose (or, excitingly, as many teams have been – define a whole new one). But what a great way to start 2021 – agreeing what will give us the passion and commitment to ‘get through it’.

7. Do all of this together. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. He was half right – he missed half the population in this statement, but did nail the point that we are only successful together. 

Building on point five, being more human, use the power of those around you. Good teams and good organisations have a shared purpose – both big and small – which is your rallying point for bringing people together to work out how to continue achieving that (perhaps adapted) purpose in a tough environment. 

As you work through this checklist, talk about it with others, get their input, share your conclusions and challenges and, critically, link your success to that of others. Create joint actions that help you support each other, set metrics that everyone wants to hit and identify actions that add value to all.

So, that’s our starting seven (take one a day for the next seven days). Doubtless there are many others that could be added in – and we would encourage you to ‘find your eighth point’ as a way of making this personal to you. But, to borrow from my story, every well dug must start with the first spade of earth.

Let’s ensure that 2021 is the year that we ‘fix’ the world, and we start this by coming out of this phase of the pandemic stronger in our habits and approaches, and having moved on and moved forwards, together.