July 13, 2020

Leadership in a Pandemic. Leadership Lessons Learned.

By Stephanie Calhoun, CIC

As I worked on my planning for 2020, I never anticipated that we would have to lead the team through a pandemic. As the Operations Manager of our Customer Service teams, I planned 2020 as usual; push process initiatives forward, develop and promote employees, lead, mentor and coach towards growth. But on March 16th those plans changed. We had a new set of challenges to lead through; with many lessons learned.

Lesson 1: Act Quickly

On March 16th, we decided to send everyone home to work remotely. We made the decision quickly and without regret. We had the capability and we moved as fast to get people home and safe. Over the course of two weeks, we had workstations set up at home for all our customer service teams. It is something that we are proud of.

It wasn’t perfect, but we got it done.

Lesson 2: Fear of Change is Real!

After a few weeks in a work from home model, doubt and fear started to set in. In the early stages of the pandemic, we were 100% sure that in a few months, we would have everyone return to the office. It was a no brainer. We wanted to return to “normal” as soon as we could open back up. Nature had other plans…

We quickly realized that was not going to happen. We were bombarded with information on phases, distance learning, shelter in place, cleaning protocols, social distancing and many others. Our heads were spinning with the constant varying information and things we had to consider that we never could have imagined.

As we started to realize that we were in this for the long haul, questions started to come up in our meetings that we never had to consider before. Can our people effectively work from home long term? We want people back, but is it safe? Are they productive with the distractions of home life? How will they manage work and distance learning for their children? What is the morale and culture of our office? How do we translate that into a remote setting?

Things that we took for granted before the pandemic now needed to be solved for.

Lesson 3: Get Creative & Reinvent

We were at first paralyzed in the fear of the unknown and our strong desire to return to “normal.”  If it was working before, why wouldn’t we simply go back to that? We spent many meetings discussing on how to move forward in a pandemic, keep our productivity up, respond to our clients needs and be aware of our employee’s needs.

And then a video provided me with a new perspective and ignited an alternative thought.

It was a YouTube video that our Company President sent to us, “Have an Infinite Mindset,” by Simon Sinek. What I took away was that we had an opportunity to be creative; an opportunity to look at our old model, move to reinvention mode, leave behind the old and thrive in a new and creative way.

One thing Simon said in his video that influenced me to push against the old model and to ultimately suggest a work from home model was that before COVID “we had the luxury of being lazy.” I interpreted that sentence as a positive thing. It was not laziness in a bad sense, but that we were comfortable. Things were easy before COVID. Our model worked. Why change? My question to our management team was why not change? I saw COVID as an opportunity to challenge our thinking and to truly look at how we can operate in a new way.   

Lesson 4: Get Feedback

To uncover the information we needed to consider we began with questions. We surveyed our team. We specifically asked: Do you want to work from home? And equally important, Why?

We challenged our team to look at the big picture and get their feedback on questions like: With fewer people in the office, we lose the social interaction, camaraderie, teamwork and aspects of our culture. How will you be committed to building relationships or contribute to the agency culture? How do you propose communication would/should change if we move to a work from home model? How would you communicate with your team, coworkers and manager in a new way? How will you stay on top of new information and continue your training and/or professional development? 

What we found was that their answers were THE answer.

Lesson 5: Find the Balance

Ultimately, that answer was flexibility and accommodation. When I read our team’s responses, there was no clear pattern. I could not say that this team should come back, and this job description could work from home. The reinvention was an individualistic approach not a global solution. But I could only get there by pushing away the fears I had in relation to my own leadership and management style. I enjoy being a part of an employee’s development and I am the most skilled in the one on one/face to face model. But in our industry, our work can be done with a computer and a phone and ultimately the flexibility and accommodations made a big enough deposit in the morale bank to push forward a new model. This was my own personal opportunity to reinvent, leave behind my old leadership style and the comfort I had and thrive in a new and creative way.

We are not inventing a new way to process insurance (I would like to!), but for us, working from home is reinvention. We will have 50% of our people working from home. This group found the most value in this model; more time with their family, money and time saved with no commute, and surprisingly less distractions.  

The other 50% will return to the office. That group are early in their career or need the social interaction. It made sense that this group would get the most value from one on one interaction and training.

Lesson 5: Change is Ongoing

Will we have to change how we interact, how we train, and how we succeed? Of course! What is exciting is that we have an opportunity to decide what that is and what it will look like into the future. Many of my coaches and mentors have asked me to find the win in the challenge. I believe that our decision to push through our fears and provide a solution based on flexibility will contribute to long term loyalty and employee retention. That alone is a substantial win.

But long term, when we look back, our willingness to reinvent despite our initial fear of change will be the major win.