Trust & Difficult Messages During COVID-19 Time (and beyond?) by Bar Schwartz

Trust is the foundation of any relationship. Also, professional relationships. During those difficult times of physical isolation, sudden remote work, and over a million people sick worldwide, trust in our leadership became even more critical. The confidence that they will care for us as humans, employees, and financial providers for our families and ourselves.

As uncertainty rises of how long this situation is going to last, many questions arise around how the world would look like after COVID-19? What would be the financial impact of this situation? Some companies had to shut down their business, let many great people go, and reduce salaries, working hours, and expectations of productivity. As with any type of organizational change, the anxiety is rising faster than leaders communicate.

In the last weeks, I watched All-Hands meetings of multiple companies. Those were remote video meetings that included everyone in the company. The size varied. Also, some companies repeated the same session across different time zones. Regardless of the tool they used and the number of people on the line, certain aspects made very similar messages to sound very different. Here are my 2cents on the topic:

 

Tip 1: So many people on the line, should we stream? Video? Record?

Most of you are familiar by now with the difficulty to maintain an online call with more than a handful amount of people. While the fear of people jumping in and disturbing the session is there and is clear, the value of having a live video session is unthinkable. Yes, even if it means running multiple live sessions to groups in different time zones. People give different attention when the session is live or recorded. Also, it feels different if someone speaks non-stop and ends the session or if people can ask questions live during a pre-defined timebox. After all, we want to feel that we are important.

While I understand that it is not always possible to have a live session with thousands of people and allow time for live Q&A, if it is essential for you that people feel important and heard, I would recommend the following:

  • If you can, the best option is to have a live chat on camera with everyone else being on camera. Define clear rules for engagement, so people mute themselves and do not speak outside of a pre-defined timebox. Have a strong facilitator to support you.
  • If you have too many people and you are concerned about having everyone on the line, the second-best is asking for 2-3 panelists that would be on the live session. The questions can be picked live using a chat or sent in advance. My preference is always to have it live.
  • If you feel uncomfortable to bring 2-3 people onboard or you lack time to coordinate multiple people, the third-best is streaming live. One person speaks on camera and answers pre-defined questions.
  • The minimum is to send a recorded video and provide a channel to ask questions. Ensure to share the frequently asked questions with everyone via every possible channel. The risk of recorded sessions is that people won't pay attention or won't watch it.

 

Tip 2: Team leads? Department lead? COO? CEO?!

Who should communicate what? While it is expected that the team leads will communicate regularly with their team, it feels very different if all communication comes from the team lead. Those are difficult uncertain times. We ask people to trust us, remain calm, and try to be as productive as they can. Nothing says I care about you than the CEO investing their time to communicate with everyone. If possible, all C-Level can record a message together. However, it is sufficient to have the CEO or COO (if the CEO is not available for some reason). After all, difficult messages and decisions during this time come from the top and should be communicated by the top. It gives the message a whole new flare.

That said, you might not be the CEO of your company as still want to help. Start where you are. Be the CEO of your team :) and maybe ping your boss to do the same.

 

Tip 3: Start human...

Listening through multiple meetings, I was positively surprised when the CEO of one of my previous employers didn't start their message with the state of the company. I know. We are all on the line to talk about the state of the company. However, what is a company without its people?

The best meetings I heard and watched started with the CEO mentioning if there are any infected people in the company. He first said what the company is doing to support people before he explained how everyone could support the company. I get it that I might be idealistic here. I also get it that it is a very stressful time for leadership teams across the globe. When the numbers go down, it is scary. It can kill the company and the livelihood of everyone. However, when you care about people, they care about you. And, people can't guess that you care about them unless you tell them and show them...

It is not obvious so I am going to write this explicitly: Not many people go to work excited to make money to their C-Level even if they get a share of the revenue. Yes, even then. Many people go to work excited to meet their colleagues, work together with them on exciting problems, and advance a cause they believe in. Hence, when the CEO didn't jump right away to how we should care for the company, people felt comfortable to offer how they can support each other in solving a lot of the issues people were facing. Surprisingly, it helps the company much more.

 

Tip 4: Be honest and transparent

We want to know the truth. Well, I know I want to. During these difficult times, it is vital to be honest about the known and unknown impact on the company. Does it mean we are going to grow less than we predicted, or does it mean we are going to shut down? How many people are expected to be let go? Can we support somehow to ensure people don't lose their jobs? How do we decide what to do?

The common approach of many leadership teams is to have those conversations in closed doors. We don't want to talk about having to let people go. We don't want to talk about having to cut the finances. We don't want to tell people the company has enough cash for X number of months. We don't want to tell that we have a deal with our investors, and we will be in trouble if we don't meet a particular growth goal... But what if we just share that information instead? Let people decide rather than be decided for. What if everyone agrees to take a pay cut so we don't have to let certain people go? What if we all find new innovative ways to corporate with our suppliers and partners to generate new revenue streams? When we tell people the facts after everything is decided, we say that we know better than them how to keep the company alive. What if we don't? Something to think about.

Nevertheless, being honest and transparent about what you know, don't know, think about, worry about, and optimistic about is key to keep people's trust. There is nothing that breaks trust more than discovering you knew vital information about them and let them be surprised by it.

 

To summarize, COVID-19 brought much uncertainty to organizations. While the impact on organizations varies, maintaining and building trust with your employees remains important. Primarily around the difficult messages such as having to cut expenses and let people go. If you skip the whole article and just take the key points out of this: remember to be present for your people, ensure the most senior people communicate constantly and continuously, be human, tell and show people that you care, and lastly, be honest.

 

Stay safe, sane, and healthy.

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Bar Schwartz is the Head of Engineering Excellence at Signavio and an executive coach and founder of Lead2Coach.

With over a decade's experience in delivering software products in continuously changing environments, Bar challenges leaders to focus on the human side of every transformation.