Two Years Later - Principles of Crisis Management

Two years ago last week, my company entered “crisis mode” in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. We had no idea at the time that we would still be dealing with this pandemic 2 years later, let alone that we would face social unrest, economic upheaval, security threats, and the personal and collective anxiety that we still feel today. I’m extremely proud of my organization and my colleagues for the way we have managed through this period – we certainly didn’t do everything perfectly, but we showed our employees, our customers, and the communities where we do business that we cared. Despite (or because of) the incredible challenges we faced, today we are more empathetic people, more agile leaders, and a more resilient organization.

As I thought about what we went through and how we handled it, I identified some principles that helped us manage effectively; some we applied consciously, others by instinct. Regardless, these principles can be relevant in other complex crisis situations, so I thought I would share them here.

  • Agility – We had no choice but to make quick decisions, often based on limited information, and then adapt and evolve as we learned more. We also realized that different parts of our business were affected differently depending on geography, type of work being done, tools available, etc. For this crisis, we quickly set up a “threat level” matrix that allowed us to rapidly increase or decrease the intensity of our safety protocols at each site based on local conditions.
  • Collaboration – Success, especially early on, relied on teamwork across all areas of the business. There were huge contributions made by Health & Safety, Communications, IT, Legal, Finance, Operations, HR, and the senior leadership teams. And the focus was not on “what is my department responsible for?” but rather “how can I help?”. Department boundaries were not a factor; skill, expertise and commitment were. We set up a cross-functional task force to help guide the efforts and ensure alignment across our organization.
  • Clear Priorities – Our #1 unequivocal, unwavering and ongoing priority throughout this entire period was the health and wellbeing of our employees; every decision we made started with that premise. Our second priority was to ensure ongoing uninterrupted service to our clients, customers, and communities who relied on us, since we are an essential service industry (public water, wastewater and solid waste). Everything else came after these two.
  • Fact-Based Decisions – We decided early on to use facts, science, and the best expertise we could access (internal and external) to guide our decision making. Even though the science evolved rapidly, this approach gave us a solid and objective grounding for our strategy. We consciously set aside politics, emotions, and personal perspectives.
  • Metrics/Data – Related to the principle above, we needed information in order to respond effectively and make good decisions. We diligently tracked local community case counts, employee exposure rates, site specific operational risk levels, remote work status by employee, personal protective equipment (PPE) inventories, employee engagement levels, usage (anonymous) of medical, mental health, and PTO benefits, etc. We developed a comprehensive dashboard updated every few days, so we could have the latest information at our fingertips.
  • Clear, Continuous, Multi-Channel, Multi-Directional Communication – We engaged with our employees in a multitude of ways and much more frequently than we had in the past, to keep them informed and assured. This included a weekly CEO video update, frequent email communications, daily team huddles at all levels (many of them virtual), numerous educational sessions, pulse surveys, focus groups, etc.
  • Employee Support – This combination of crises (public health, social unrest, economic turmoil, mental health, etc) brought out the true diversity of needs that our employees and communities faced, based on different backgrounds, stages of life, family obligations, and financial situations. We tried to provide a variety of resources to help address this broad array of needs and keep our employees engaged and supported, including: enhanced access to healthcare benefits at reduced cost, flexible use of PTO beyond our normal policy, flexible work arrangements (hours, location), educational resources (stress mgmt., working remotely, using technology, mindfulness, COVID/vaccine education), community groups to help employees connect on non-work topics, deliberate 1x1 check-ins, frequent team huddles and chat sessions, and focus groups.

I doubt any of us would choose to go through this dynamic period again, but having managed through it, we now have guidelines to help us be more effective at facing the next (inevitable) challenge.

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