Leaders’ Advice on How to Navigate a Pandemic

COVID-19 has created a tidal wave of uncertainty and fear around the globe. Businesses are shutting down, people’s work lives are changing, and we are now living with more ambiguity than ever before. There’s no handbook on how to live through a pandemic but we, at The Professional Centre, decided to reach out to leaders and experts to give us guidance on how to more easily navigate these difficult times.

We reached out to Tara Hunt who is the CEO of Truly Inc, a marketing firm dedicated to helping businesses create long-term strategies that connect with their audience and customers. Tara gave us insight into what steps businesses can take in order to create a brand that can survive crisis and on how to help maintain work-culture.

We also spoke to Kevin M. Smith, the Chief Story Architect of the marketing firm, The Story Architect. Among the many services that they provide, his company helps guide businesses through creating lasting branding, messaging, and communication plans. Kevin spoke to us about the challenges he has seen arise in the past few months and how leaders can effectively guide their teams through the foreseeable future.

Finally, we talked to Duncan Stewart, the Director of Research, Technology, Media, and Telecommunications at Deloitte. Duncan gave us insight into the history of pandemics and left us with comforting words around his predictions for a post-pandemic world.


Business Longevity in a Pandemic:

Tara Hunt gave us her best advice on creating a long-term brand with our current world feeling so ambiguous:

“Any brand that has survived long-term has been adaptable. They’ve been willing to ‘disrupt’ themselves before anyone else. Consistency can turn into complacency, which is nice for a board meeting but doesn’t work in the real world. At the end of the day, you can’t plan for every scenario, so you need to build a company that is incredibly agile and embraces change. That’s not easy and it means that you’ll probably give up some short-term gains (for example, you may stop selling a popular product in order to focus on building something that will be popular in the future), but that short-term sacrifice could mean incredible longevity. You have to be prepared to throw out everything you know and start again over and over and over. Sounds exhausting, right? Well, those are the brands that are sailing through this while others are watching their worlds crumble.” 

Kevin had similar thoughts on how companies can navigate the next 6-12 months. Businesses have needed to be very cautious during the initial stages of the pandemic. Though they moved quickly to shift their teams to remote work, understanding how to move forward took a back seat until the public had more information. Moving forward, Kevin states that “companies are going to basically rework everything that they’ve done. There are huge shifts in demand profiles, customer behavior, and employee behavior. [Businesses] have got real challenges to their balance sheets and their bottom line. So, some companies are going to take this opportunity to restructure everything they’re doing.” 

These insights suggest that, as businesses, we should not fear reorganizing our structure, but rather lean into it when change is needed.


The Effects so Far:

All of the leaders we spoke to discussed how the ‘new normal’ now involves most of the virtual communication technology that we’ve become accustomed to over the last few months. Platforms like Zoom, Google Drive, Slack, and project management apps are in frequent use across the board. In discussing this new technology, Kevin spoke to us about what challenges have come with current times and how we can navigate them. 

“The hard thing about [virtual meetings] is obviously seeing into people’s lives. It’s interesting. For some people it’s a good thing, [they’ve] got [a] dedicated workspace, you can see a little bit of [their] personality, and you can create a talking point, but some people don’t have that luxury. They’re in a cramped home space with their kids and they don’t have a comfortable spot to work. That can be very challenging and stressful for some people… So, there’s some technical acumen that comes to dealing with this, but I think there’s also some emotional acumen of just understanding the different situations that people are in and having a bit more patience with people.” 

We also asked Kevin how the pandemic has, in his opinion, affected work-culture so far. “I see [work-culture] as: what’s the day-to-day interaction between people in a workspace? Right now, it’s impacted negatively because you don’t get that hallway conversation, that water cooler moment, or the lunchroom discussion…There’s [normally] that social camaraderie, you get that exchange of ideas, and that’s where some of the best ideas come from. So, I don’t see a lot of the social interaction and I think this is going to be challenging for people… Companies have to figure out how to manufacture those cultural moments that you don’t have in a physical office. Even if we shift back into a return to work scenario, not everybody is going to want to come back to the office yet.”

Tara shared similar feelings when discussing what technology needs to come out of the pandemic and how to navigate having a distributed team. “I know what I’d like to see…more [technology made] for us to ambiently work together while apart. I think what I most miss are the little ideas and conversations that happen in the moment because of the proximity to one another. It’s hard to be spontaneous when you have to stop what you’re doing, open up an app, and type something to make an observation. I have so many fleeting ideas now that I think, ‘Oh…I need to bring that up with so-and-so,’ but then forget because I’d have to stop what I’m doing to write it down.”

Understandably so, every company is feeling the loss of socialization that also comes with work and some people are feeling the loss of routine as well. Tara and Kevin both illustrate how important it is to find a new way to create workplace culture and keep everyone feeling like they are a part of something. Creating new space for employees to feel connected will help maintain a sense of teamwork and solidarity. Keeping up morale with distributed teams is essential in navigating the next few months.


Advice Going Forward:

We went on to discuss being a leader during a global crisis. What are the crucial aspects to leadership right now? “Being able to communicate,” says Kevin. “I think what people crave is some kind of certainty in uncertain times. It doesn’t mean faking certainty and it doesn’t mean saying things that you think are true. It’s just being authentic with people and saying: ‘here’s the situation [and] here’s what we know.’” He goes on to say, “one of the best lessons that I ever learnt was [to] communicate what you know, to the people who you are leading, and let them know when you don’t know information. I think being able to communicate, let people talk back at you, listen to them, and address concerns together is a critical skill right now. Sometimes even communicating that you’re uncertain is okay.”

Tara also spoke about her experience in being a leader and gave us insight into the challenges that lie ahead. She says, “The most important thing I can do as a leader right now is to create a safe space for my team to adjust to the current way of working while also providing them the support, tools, and encouragement to adapt as quickly as possible. It’s a fine line to walk. On one hand, I want to be aware and empathetic of mental and emotional health needs, but at some point, I need to give every team member a little nudge to help them get back on track. I’m still running a business and we still need to service our clients. Every team member adapts at a different rate, too, so leaders need to be aware of this and avoid painting broad strokes. All of this needs to happen in the context of uncertainty as a leader. I have my own days of dread and depression where I need to ‘put my own mask on first’ in order to be a better leader tomorrow.” 


Data on Pandemics:

We talked to Duncan about the tech trends circulating pandemics and what previous data regarding pandemics suggests about our future. “We have data on pandemics. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 had a profound effect. It significantly altered human lifespan, as they estimate as many as 50 million may have died [during it]. It was a massive thing [and] I did a historical analysis of the tech trends that were going on prior to 1918”. Duncan continues, “I looked at the adoption trends and, in each case, during the pandemic, adoption of things like phones, electricity, and cars slowed down during the pandemic just a little bit. After the pandemic, they went back to the previous trend line – across a number of different things (advertising, spending, etc.) – the same pattern was persistent.”

Duncan goes on to discuss what this research suggests. “By and large, pandemics are in and of themselves not tipping points. They don’t even particularly accelerate what went on before. They may interrupt it, they may speed it up temporarily, but over a few decades the trends that existed before the pandemic tend to persist at about the same rate following the pandemic. So, my predictions are [that] I think, [as an example], we were using the cloud before and it was growing. I expect us to continue using the cloud after and I continue to expect it to grow. We were consuming less traditional media before – that’s been interrupted by work from home – [but] I expect that to go back to the previous trend of slow but steady decline.”


Final Thoughts:

Finally, Duncan leaves us with his advice to businesses everywhere. “There will be exceptions, but my advice to businesses is to plan, think, endure, survive, and come out of this pandemic with the expectation that things after the pandemic are likely to look an awful lot like they did before. It is not a whole new world, it is not ‘everything changes’, it will be in fact – probably quicker than most people think – a return to normal.”

These comforting words were the conclusion to our interview, and we were left breathing a sigh of relief. Being reminded that we have survived previous pandemics and continued to grow and thrive as a society is a comforting notion. With the advice of these three helpful leaders, we can plan for our businesses to continue to survive during such uncertain times. We shall have patience, fluidity, open communication, new ways to connect, and best of all, hope. 


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