Leading with Service During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Manager taking coronavirus precautions in masks

The coronavirus brings new and unique challenges to organizations in every industry in all parts of the world. People are working in a time of tremendous uncertainty and stress.

If you’re a leader in this unfolding drama, there is no clear view of the direction or duration of the crisis. The health of people near you may be threatened. Government restrictions and actions shift daily. The future of your workforce is unpredictable. Staff are increasingly working from home. And customers are asking for new flexibility or demanding service you are not able to offer.

It’s hard to imagine a time requiring stronger leadership than now. We watch as other government and corporate leaders grapple with how to put structure around their response, make decisions from behind the curve, and communicate to inspire and control.

This calls for a unique blend of service and care for others. We must keep the enterprise afloat while digging deep into our own humanity. Care for our families, friends and loved ones is first and foremost. But we also must provide new types of service for our colleagues, partners and customers.

The concept of leadership as service is not new. The current situation calls it forth with urgency. Pandemics naturally pull people apart. Fear can overwhelm our best intentions. “Social distancing” is necessary but potentially isolating. Author David Brooks writes: “dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.”

The Seven Rules of Service Leadership is a guide for leaders driving service culture change. However, you can use it equally effectively during this crisis, as a guide for responding to the culture changing around you.

1. Declare Service a Top Priority

A declaration is more than a communication. It is a clear and unwavering commitment, strongly articulated. Now is the time to declare care and service for your people and your customers as the top priority. Sustaining business during this pandemic is important, but the long-term welfare of people is most critical.

As an example, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai sent a company-wide memo titled “Taking Care of Each Other.

He stated: “It’s important that we contribute to fulfill our mission and be helpful to people in these uncertain times…Google has an important role to play right now…You’ve heard me talk about helpfulness in the context of moments big and small, this is one of those big moments.”

2. Be a Great Role Model

How leaders role model in times of crisis has enormous impact on the trust and behavior of the people they lead. What you do and say makes a difference. Demonstrating confidence, compassion, clarity and concern can keep a team productive and emotionally secure.

Watch the Prime Minister of Singapore role model care and calm in this message to the country here.

3. Promote a Common Service Language

Having a consistent language about the service you extend during times of unexpected change or crisis helps people understand your direction, feel safe and trust your priorities.

Your service language may need to change in two ways. One is shifting from the language of your business to adopting a more compassionate language focused on the care and well-being of people.

Football manager Jurgen Klopp’s message to disappointed fans read: “Today football matches really aren’t important at all…we don’t want games suspended, but if doing so helps one individual stay healthy, we do it no questions asked…If it’s a choice between football and the good of society, it’s no contest.”

Your language of service may also need to adjust to what customers suddenly value most. Airlines have shifted from the language of inspirational experience — promoting pampered luxury — to a service language of education about enhanced cleaning and disinfection measures used for your protection.

Likewise, a local brew pub shifted their social media photos of happy customers drinking beer, eating ribs and playing games to a photo of a sparkling clean taproom with the caption: “we pride ourselves on keeping our brewery pristine” and offering new take out options.

4. Measure What Really Matters

While standard business measures may continue, temporary measures to ensure focus on declared priorities are needed while weathering the virus.

A major bank announced temporarily waiving monthly payments for customers facing financial distress due to the virus, trading short-term profit for long-term loyalty.

A sales organization adjusted internal targets considering the changing economy to keep staff motivated and focused.

And in a past crisis, one organization measured and recognized the number of new ideas generated by staff to help them emerge from the crisis successfully.

5. Enable and Empower Your Team

High control tactics may be necessary when responding to emergency situations. But where can you empower teams now to help you innovate and succeed?

One social club’s security team quickly worked to change the entry process, eliminating the need for members and staff to pass membership and towel cards back and forth by hand, which spreads germs.

And the training teams from many organizations are rapidly innovating to convert standard in-person events to online formats, testing new platforms and content design along the way.

6. Remove the Roadblocks to Service

Quick action may be needed to remove barriers to service now required. Systems and policies can be reviewed to find changes to meet the new concerns of clients and staff.

For example, many airlines have waived fees for travellers making last minute changes. Hotel chains are loosening cancellation policies and retaining points or membership status that otherwise may have expired.

Early on, some companies relaxed work-at-home policies, providing flexibility to stay healthy and care for families. (This has now become mandatory for many workers.)

7. Sustain Focus and Enthusiasm (and Resilience)

Leaders must maintain the energy of teams. This may be combating fatigue as teams contend with a much higher volume of customer issues. Or it may be boosting morale for staff who suddenly have few customers, little work or are isolated at home.

One leader went from huddling with her team once per week to twice a day. She holds a 9am and a 5pm virtual meeting to update status, brainstorm solutions, recognize efforts and bolster spirits. This small change has big payback in team motivation.

Leading with service now is challenging

But keeping these rules in mind as you plan and respond each day will help you succeed.

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