COVID-19: Organisations and employees must collaborate

LBS Insight

COVID-19: Organisations and employees must collaborate

The novel Coronavirus, COVID-19 has spread to over 140 countries, with over 750,000 infections, and over 36,000 deaths worldwide. In Nigeria, authorities have announced 139 infections and two deaths (April 1, 2020). The virus has caused over 90% decline in oil price and wiped out a substantial amount of the value of the nation’s stock market. The decline in the oil price has a significant effect on Nigeria’s economy as oil is the primary source of our foreign reserves. The Naira exchange rate has gone up as well, and this has affected many organisations whose operations have high forex content. The Federal Government announced a 14-day total lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja; this action has effect on the operations and revenue of organisations, and will affect the work habit of employees. Organisations must go through this challenge and also prepare to take advantage of the expected business growth at the end of the hard time. The recommendations in this article are based on the premise that organisations and employees must collaborate to achieve a win-win solution to the challenges facing both parties. 

There are three things that organisations should know about surviving hard times. Firstly, in a lean environment, they do not have the leverage of influencing staff with the hard factors of motivation but can only use the soft factors that are based on relationships. Secondly, hard times help organisations to identify the employees who are mercenaries, and those who believe in their vision and identify with it. The former are in the organisation for the hard factors of motivation, while the latter are there because of the soft factors. Thirdly, organisations must be wary of decisions that will give short term relief but destroy their long term survival. 

Organisations face two major problems arising from this pandemic. The first is the increase in operational costs and a reduction in revenue due to the low purchasing power of customers. The second is the uncertainty surrounding the duration of the crisis. With dwindling revenue, it becomes questionable how long organisations can continue to carry employees’ bills. Some organisations have implemented remote and other creative work structures to sustain skeletal operations. 

Employees, on the other hand, also face three main challenges. The first is the health implication of the pandemic. People are afraid of contracting the coronavirus, especially with the poor level of health infrastructure in the nation. The second is that employees may have to adapt to a new structure of work as organisations adopt remote working structures. Working remotely has great implications such as new time management techniques for effectiveness, inability to integrate work and family responsibilities, and increased stress levels. The third is fear and uncertainty surrounding their jobs since dwindling organisational revenue means organisations may not be able to sustain their benefits.  

Thus, in handling the current challenges, organisations must make choices that guarantee and also prepare them to take advantage of the expected business growth when the pandemic is over. Actions which give temporary relief but harm future survival should be accepted only as a last resort. 

Here are strategies that organisations can employ in establishing collaboration with employees:

  1. Open & Transparent two-way Communication

Organisations should communicate openly and transparently about the situation and how it affects them. The communication must be two-way such that the organisation is frank about the challenges they are facing, and employees are truthful about how the situation is affecting them. This type of communication has a way of tapping into the tacit knowledge of employees which may be beneficial to the organisation. Organisations must avoid two extreme communication errors. The first is to be so pessimistic that employees do not see any future in the company. The other is to be so optimistic that the difficult situation and its consequences are masked. The communication must state the facts and also be inspiring, so employees see hope in the future of the organisation.

2. Show Empathy

The second is for the organisation and the employees to show empathy both ways. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy means recognising what someone is going through, knowing that something should be done, but not giving a helping hand or offering any solution, while empathy means entering into someone’s situation and being able to feel what the person is feeling. Empathy also involves being interested in helping the person find a solution to the extant feelings. Even though the situation endures for a while, empathy stays all the way until a solution is found. When an organisation and its employees demonstrate empathy, they both know what the other is going through. They know it is not business as usual, and they both want to ensure that each stays afloat for their future survival. For example, employees must know that the organisation may not be in a position to provide all their financial needs, and the organisation must also know that employees need some level of finance to take care of their personal and family responsibilities. How an organisation handles this will depend on its reality. However, sacrificing employees as the first option in any challenge does not show empathy on the part of the company.  

3. Build Trust

The third is to build trust to guarantee the desire of the organisation and employees to collaborate to resolve their challenges. Trust is the willingness of a person to make himself or herself vulnerable before another person. It arises from open and transparent communication and empathy. Trust builds positive interpersonal relationships and is central to how people interact. It is very important in periods of uncertainty in business environments. Trust generates common desire; the desire to work for the survival of the organisation and the employees. Trust is the foundation of sacrifice and tradeoffs needed to achieve the common desire. Trust cannot be legislated or demanded; it is earned. This is why if an organisation has been untrustworthy in the past, it becomes difficult to build trust in challenging times. It is the past trustworthiness of an organisation that provides the goodwill for trust in hard times.

4. An environment of Collaboration and Cooperation

Trust builds an environment of collaboration and cooperation, which is the fourth strategy. Collaboration is when organisations and employees work together to achieve the common desire established by trust. Collaboration creates a desire to find a win-win solution that is acceptable to both parties. Both the organisation and employees have the justification to work collaboratively to ensure that synergy is created. Each must recognise the challenges faced by the other, and work jointly to ensure they both find solutions. The solutions may not completely handle the challenges faced by each party, but in an atmosphere of trust, employees will be willing to make sacrifices, knowing that the organisation is not taking advantage of them. An example of where empathy gave rise to trust, which resulted in collaboration is the story of a CEO who had short term need for a cost cut amounting to $20 million. The CEO invited his direct reports to inform them of the company’s need. He sought their contributions on how to achieve this. His direct reports stated that reducing staff would give more than that. The CEO reasoned that this was a temporary issue and that reducing staff would expose the company to danger when things returned to normal. He decided to allow the more senior employees to take weeks of vacation without pay. The least paid employees were excluded. In a town hall meeting to explain the plan, the CEO stated that it was better for all to suffer than for few to suffer. The CEO got the cost reduction he wanted, but also trust and collaboration rose within the organisation because employees felt the CEO showed empathy by the way he handled the situation. 

A major error that organisations make in hard times is making laying-off of employees the first resort instead of the last. There are many alternatives that can be explored before implementing a layoff. The world has faced pandemics in the past, which were eventually controlled. Organisations must realise that the Coronavirus crisis will end even though the time is uncertain. They should therefore not destroy the foundation that will make bouncing back post-pandemic possible. Otherwise, they would have to build another foundation after the virus, while others who planned properly will take advantage of the ensuing favourable business environment. Organisations must avoid decisions that will compromise their agility after COVID-19. 

Dr Okechukwu Amah teaches Organisational Behaviour and Management Communication at Lagos Business School

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