The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally upended so many aspects of everyday life, including work life, that it’s hard to put together a complete list of the impacts employees and their organizations have faced. Some of the most obvious impacts include the widespread shift to remote work and the need to juggle work and parenting for virtually schooled children for many employees. In addition, disrupted supply chains, forced business closures, and the cost of new government regulations for many businesses have had significant impacts across the country and, indeed, around the world.
The Importance of Being Prepared
Despite years of warnings from some epidemiologists and public health experts, it’s understandable that few outside of those fields were prepared for these widespread disruptions. And while the world has learned some valuable lessons for any future pandemic that might emerge, pandemics are certainly not the only kinds of unexpected events that can fundamentally disrupt business. Political unrest, environmental disasters, armed conflict, and cyberattacks are just a few examples of relatively uncommon but highly disruptive events that pose risks to businesses.
Even in the absence of these seemingly once-in-a-lifetime events, unexpected changes of a less dramatic nature are a fact of life for businesses in any industry. These can include the emergence of new competitors, changes in market preferences, and disruptive new technologies, to name a few.
Companies, teams, and individual employees who can quickly adapt to, survive, and even thrive in a rapidly changing environment are thought of as resilient. Developing employees’ resilience is the focus of this feature. Here, we discuss some strategies for preparing teams to weather any storm that might come their way.
The Importance of Expecting—and Accepting—Uncertainty
The first step in building a resilient team is to accept the fact that the world, including the business world, is an uncertain place. Teams that assume their work and the world around them will continue to function more or less as they do today indefinitely are going to be caught completely off guard and flat-footed when those inevitable changes come. This means not only a longer time to recover from new events but also heightened levels of stress and anxiety for staff.
Managers should regularly remind teams that change happens all the time and that they may be called upon at some point to adapt to sudden change. These reminders can include examples of major changes faced by other companies in the same industry or even more broadly. Such examples can be useful discussion points to get teams thinking about change and how other companies succeeded or struggled when facing challenges.
Identifying and Elevating Cool-Headed, Agile Leaders
Some people simply do better under pressure than others. Managers and companies should always be on the lookout for these cool-headed, agile leaders within their teams and leverage their deportment in the event of a crisis situation. These individuals might not necessarily be the same leaders who help run the team day to day, like an assistant manager or a team lead, as the skill sets of the crisis leader and the day-to-day leader don’t always exist within the same team members.
Instead, think of these cool-headed, agile leaders as potential project managers for crisis situations. These crisis situations could last a few hours, or they could last months or even years, meaning that crisis managers may end up moving into a long-term leadership role, or they may simply work with the day-to-day leaders to transition the team as seamlessly as possible into the new normal.
The Importance of Planning and Drills
Many companies conduct regular disaster recovery drills to prepare key staff for certain specific scenarios, like the sudden loss of a data center, a massive cyberattack, or significant supply chain disruption. The teams involved will typically run through a hypothetical scenario and brainstorm how the team and the company should react, including specific steps and who or which job role would be responsible for executing those steps. The exercise should be documented to update any associated disaster recovery plans.
It isn’t possible to drill for every conceivable threat to a business’s operations, and it wouldn’t be productive or efficient to do so. Instead, companies should focus on the incidents that are most relevant to their core business. For example, a software-as-a-service provider should drill for cyberattacks and the loss of data centers, while a shipping company might instead focus on severe weather or social and political unrest with the potential to inhibit transportation.
This planning and drilling is never a finished activity. Teams should be regularly revisiting and revising their plans in an iterative process, and they should always have a backup, as few things go as planned in a crisis.
Cross-training refers to training staff to perform some of the job functions of other team members. For example, a truck driver might be trained on how to process orders before shipping, or an administrative assistant might be trained on how to process invoices typically managed by the finance or accounting teams. Cross-training allows for team members to fill in for their coworkers if they are unable to perform their responsibilities, such as if a coworker becomes ill during a pandemic or is unable to make it to work due to a severe storm.
In the long term, cross-training can help quickly transition staff to roles that are suddenly more critical. If the business from a specific customer increases significantly virtually overnight, staff members who are cross-trained on that customer account can quickly pitch, and the manager won’t have to spend valuable time training them after the need has already arisen.
Ensuring Clear and Open Communication
Crises are chaotic by nature, and communication among team members is essential to ensure everyone is on the same page with rapidly changing situations and new directions from superiors. Lines of communication, including secondary and even tertiary methods of contact, should be well-established in any team.
Once a crisis event has arisen, managers and team members all need to be consciously aware of the need to be as transparent as possible with changing situations. We say consciously aware because with all of the chaos surrounding a crisis, it might not be top of mind for individuals who have key information to ensure that information gets shared effectively because those individuals may be consumed with putting out fires.
It may be difficult, if not impossible, to predict the next COVID-level disruption to the business world. But managers and companies don’t need to be able to predict the next major disruption to understand that at some point, such a major disruption almost certainly will happen. Disaster recovery drills can be tailored to account for the most likely scenarios, but training a team to be generally resilient, as well, helps ensure they will be best-positioned to withstand any disruption.
The skills and strategies used for building resilient teams are broadly applicable and help strengthen the overall agility of the broader organization.