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Managing change during COVID-19

Managing change during COVID-19

"It's truly crisis fatigue," says Professor Anne Reilly. She offers management strategies for helping people stay focused and motivated at work.

Organizations – from for-profit businesses to nonprofits – have been operating in crisis management mode since the beginning of COVID-19. As the pandemic continues month after month, it can be easy for managers to lose sight of key strategies for retaining productive employees during a crisis.

"It's truly crisis fatigue," says Anne Reilly, professor of management at Loyola University Chicago's Quinlan School of Business. Reilly teaches in Loyola's healthcare management MBA and executive MBA (EMBA). "The pandemic has been crisis after crisis, change after change, and it can be hard for people to stay focused and motivated at work."

Below, Reilly offers change management strategies that managers can implement now.

Give your team space to grieve

"People are still grieving the way things were," says Reilly. "We can't pretend that everything is fine, when things are not." Giving a name to the feelings caused by the disruption of professional and personal lives helps people process their feelings. People understand that while there is no timeline for grieving, the feelings will eventually subside.

“Of course, as managers, we want to move along and move out of this grief, but it will take time," says Reilly. "People are processing a lot of change, and a lot is out of their control."

Address how decisions impact individuals

“With every decision, change, or announcement, everyone wants to know, 'What’s the impact on me?,'” says Reilly. "People don't say this out loud, but that question is always there." Managers need to acknowledge this (understandable) self-interest and not pretend that it is not happening. Organizations and managers should clearly address the impact on individual staff, as well as on the overall organization. This will affect how each staff member interprets the message and acts on it.

Prioritize internal and external communication

"In a crisis, people are using a lot of energy to distinguish among true, incomplete, and false information," says Reilly. "This information overload creates anxiety and chips away at staff resilience." Staff are stretched as they try to process information while also doing their everyday jobs. They need to be able to focus their energy on their work with clear guidance from their supervisors. However, organizations often focus instead on communicating mostly with external stakeholders, such as clients and shareholders.

This internal communication should be a two-way street. "Keep the door open for upward communication," says Reilly. "The frontline staff will tell you what's going on. In hospitals, grocery stores, or Amazon, decisions need to be informed by what the frontline staff is experiencing."

Reward your top performers – even if it's not with money

"Managers must look to the future and find creative ways to keep their top people," says Reilly. Many managers are not able to increase compensation right now due to salary and hiring freezes. However, they may be able to offer growth opportunities such as a special project or time for professional development. "If you help your most productive people develop their resume in a meaningful way, they are more likely to stay even during a pandemic," she says.

Treat laid off and furloughed staff with dignity

"How you treat people – especially during a crisis—sends a signal to current and former staff," says Reilly. "They will notice if an organization is treating its people with dignity, respect, and consideration." The perception of how people are treated impacts staff morale as well as organizational reputation.

Cultivate a positive attitude

"Managers forget the amount of influence they have over a team's and an organization's culture," says Reilly. "People are watching and modeling their behavior after yours." A key part of this behavior is attitude. A positive, but realistic, attitude will go a long way toward helping staff who are experiencing stress, burnout, and a range of emotions during COVID-19.