Sunny Monday, 16 March. We won’t forget the first day of total lockdown in Luxembourg. And likely, the first day of compulsory confinement of our lives.
There was buzz, to say the least, in the weeks leading up to that Monday. We knew what was coming but it still felt distant, like a reality taking place in some other latitude and time. With our smartphone, television or computer screens as safe shields, we observed and discussed the COVID-19 events as something worrying but over there, not yet here. When Italy began to fall, a communal sense of apprehension and anxiety began to mount and we realised that, by some incredible turn of events, it had insidiously crept right up to our doorsteps. By Friday 13th—superstitions set aside —we could all hear the approaching hooves.
Our leadership team had kept us up to date about the events around what, until that point, was qualified as an “outbreak”. We kept hearing news, receiving emails on the need to carry our laptops back with us just in case we were required to work from home. One could be called to “self-quarantine” at any moment.
But the adjective to qualify some became the norm to describe everyone. As a sort of necessary democratising act, we all started our work-from-home experience together.
At PwC, working from home or from any of our satellite offices near the Belgina, French and German borders, had thankfully been a part of our work culture for quite some time. But nothing could possibly prepare us for this. All technicalities aside, spending days, weeks inside, at a stretch, physically cut off from the rest of the world, managing work and, for many, children and family, was going to be anything but a cakewalk.
Understandably, experts around the world started giving hints, from day one, on how to cope with the challenges of working remotely. But the already Labelled pandemic had more challenges around the corner to add to people’s scrambled realities.
For leaders in both private organisations and public institutions, this crisis is the litmus test. An invisible collective hand is taking notes of their resilience and reactivity, their ability to steer people through this, and their humanity. As they say, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man (or the woman!)”. Well that hour is now.
Deconfinement, but will it really happen?
The phase for deconfinement has already started, as it was officially announced by the Luxembourg Government in a press conference on 15 April, another sunny day that this spring has blessed us with. But the “back-to-normal” looks more like a steep hill than a stroll along the beach.
The deconfinement is foreseen to happen gradually, with a series of milestones (dates), where certain economic and education activities will restart. In fact, the construction industry has already resumed work, and gardeners, plant nurseries and DIY stores too. Recently, the Government has announced a deconfinement strategy framed by health and research measures.
Might it turn out that we all have to go back to confinement if cases begin to rise again? Yes, that’s possible, taking into account what certain Asian countries have experienced.
So, how should a leader, responsible for a team or an organisation, behave and act in times of uncertainty, when there isn’t a ten-rule magic guide or a “Deconfinement for Dummies” book? We asked Youcef Damardji, PwC Luxembourg’s Head of Communications.
- How should leaders motivate their teams and alleviate any apprehensions during this time?
Remote working has proven to be effective, but it continues to be a challenge because either people feel a sense of isolation sometimes or they can’t actually get fully focused on what they do due to family responsibilities or even technical issues (internet speed, for instance).
Based on our experience, the least that leaders can do is to continue reaching out to team members. Yes, it can be tedious and it may seem less and less necessary, but it remains relevant even now that the deconfinement strategy is being deployed. Leaders, remain vigilant! Individual calls—to listen and help in more personal situations—and “team calls”, to maintain the team spirit and keep an eye on the business objectives are as important as they were weeks ago. The deconfinement process will be long and it calls for a serious act of coordination at both team and firm levels.
Spring is commonly the time for performance evaluation and to set clear goals for the next fiscal year. Have you already thought of how to go about this? Do the necessary to make this process as smooth as possible during this remote (or semi-remote) working period. And coach your team leaders to live up to the current circumstances.
Even more than usual, leaders should now strive to be true “chefs d’orchestre”, making sure the team plays in unison and not in a cacophony.
- In a previous article, you mentioned that caring is what employees needed the most from leaders. Is it still the case?
Absolutely. Caring,, I remark, starts with listening, and is still the keyword here. Paying attention to the personal dimension is important because each employee is a universe and the deconfinement is likely to be taken and assessed differently by each of us based on our personal and professional circumstances. We all want to keep our commitment with the organisation we work for and with the job we do. But we want to feel safe too.
Organisations need to plan the steps ahead carefully and remain alert for any potential call for a new confinement period. And transparency when communicating will mitigate the doubts or frustrations that people understandably feel.
I have shared before that employees want to have a personal understanding of the decisions taken and they want to know how these decisions apply to them and how they can be adjusted to their personal cases. For instance, we have created a Q&A section on our intranet that we update almost every day when new questions arise. And our internal hotline has been helping our people over this time and will continue doing so.
What’s the organisation’s take on the deconfinement and the next steps that Luxembourg, as a country, has decided to take? Like before, employees also need a short-term and a medium-term vision because that way they can foresee what the future looks like. Knowing what is going to happen or having, at least, some clues, is always reassuring. Yet, at this point in time we still haven’t come up with a crystal ball to make accurate predictions. This is where leaders need to be reassuring to reduce stress and anxiety, as much as possible.
- Transparency and communication have been the two most important pillars during this time. Any other key point that leaders should keep in mind?
To the spirit of solidarity and transparency when communicating I would add taking, more than ever, a client-centric approach. Organisations want to think of strengthening business relationships with employees, clients, and, broadly, all stakeholders. These are times to stick together, to support each other.
This is the time when a solid organisational culture stands out.
What we think
I wish I had access to the Southern Oracle to give you the one and definitive answer to what, for some, seems like a neverending story. But If there is something I’ve learnt from this one-of-its-kind crisis and other experiences in my life, it is that remaining united is a hard-to-destroy fortress that keeps us safe and helps us go forward. Make the walls strong enough to resist and light enough for the echoes of communication to reach every mind and every heart. Stay safe.
A “Part one” of this article was published in the online magazine RTL Today. This new article takes into account recent developments of the COVID-19 crisis.