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Leading into the Post-Covid Recovery - HBR

When governments relax restrictions and begin stimulating economic growth, the recovery phase of the Covid-19 crisis starts unfolding for businesses. Below the surface, however, there is still turmoil. Even among leaders who have weathered the crisis well, the absence of relief is the rule rather than the exception.

Facing the New Reality

The unexpected high points brought on by the crisis are waning.

Many teams experienced and wanted to sustain new ways of working brought on by the crisis : stimulating rush - profound feelings of community - quick decision-making - efficiency of meetings - honest, concise, and frequent communications - freedom to organize your day and work from home - informal and authentic team interactions.

But any good intentions slipped through their fingers as 9-to-5 back-to-back meeting days have made a surprisingly quick comeback. The “new normal” is not so new after all — and that feels like a lost opportunity.

The burden of the work ahead. It’s dawning on leaders and teams that the lockdown phase was in fact just the acute part of the crisis. Now they need to engage with more profound and adaptive challenges in their businesses and the way they lead.

The paradox is that during the emergency, the sense of purpose seemed crystal clear: Act now. Safeguard the business. As the recovery unfolds, more fundamental and nagging questions arise: What comes after? What parts of our business and organization will even be relevant in the future? What must we do to prepare for a second or third wave? What is the new big picture?

How Can Leaders Tackle the Recovery Phase?

The absence of relief is a telltale sign that you have vast psychological work to do as part of the recovery phase, too.  As a leader, you need to be aware of what is going on in your team and on the front line in the recovery phase and adapt your leadership accordingly.

First, the recovery marks the onset of a broader challenge, not the end of the crisis. One of the hard things about the Covid-19 crisis is that there is no liberation day when it’s gone and done with. It’s not gone and done with in most places, and the aftermath can be longer and harder than turmoil of the first response. Leading with this aftermath in mind is key and you need to confront yourself and your team with this somewhat harsh reality.

How? Don’t think of recovery as just going back to work and adopting your old habits. Create new meaning. Ask questions: “What was the point of this crisis? What will we do if this happens again? What did we learn from this case? How can we move faster next time?” Find a realistic sense of optimism — “What should we change?” Priorities need to be reset, plans must be adjusted, and resources must be redirected. That’s the essence of recovery leadership.

Second, recalibrate your team. A crisis often reorders the informal hierarchy of a team, both because what’s urgent and who’s important changes, and because new heroes emerge and new relationships are forged. While the formal structure may be unchanged, the informal structure has been disrupted under the surface and needs to be realigned or rethought.

Think of the recovery phase as an inflection point for the way your team cooperates, not as a U-turn that leads back to familiar routines. The crisis had been costly from both a business and personal perspective, but the crisis revealed many hidden talents and unseen qualities.

All teams can benefit from conducting a targeted search for the positive outcomes of the crisis and reflecting on how their relationships with each other and their work has changed. Carving out time for this kind of debriefing can both be therapeutic for the team and propel the forward motion you need.

Third, reopen with attention to the small stuff. Many leaders are realizing that reopening is harder than shutting down. Coming back to the office is trickier and requires more finely grained choices and decisions than asking people to work from home. Why? The issues related to reopening are about practical and everyday stuff, a radical change of scenery for many leaders. It feels like having to tidy your room after having fought a major battle.

Even though the “how to reopen the office” discussion can feel like a chore rather than a challenge, you should take the small stuff seriously and be clear about the details: Respect ground rules for social distancing in the office - Make clear commitments, and keep up your online presence when working from home - Make sure that you continue easing into the new digital routines that your partners, coworkers, or customers have found useful - Try to find joy in routines again and invest in the informal settings.

People need places and spaces and opportunities to reconnect, share experiences, and have all those little conversations that rekindles social life at work. The “back to the office” move should feel like a process as if you were onboarding new members to the team with similar attention to (re)introducing the company culture and stimulating professional social life. In some sense it’s a unique chance to get to do the first 90 days all over again.

Getting Through the Recovery Phase

Crisis leadership is a double-edged sword: The same skills and reaction patterns that allow you to perform well in an emergency may become destructive when you try to return to (something resembling) normal. The unequivocal determination that made you effective at first can develop into uncompromising micro-management. Constant watchfulness can generate tension and even hyper-vigilance. A prolonged productivity boost can slide into to uncurbed impulsivity. It’s crucial to know when enough is enough.

At the same time, leaders cannot follow the natural impulse to withdraw, lean back, and just assume that the team will reset itself smoothly when the sea starts calming down. There is a need for continued visibility, purposeful reorientation, and sustained attention to detail.

As a crisis evolves, your leadership approach needs to change. In the emergency phase, leaders must move to the frontline and fight the fires. In the regression phase, leaders need to step back and contain the emotional turmoil of their teams. In the recovery phase, leaders must strike a new balance between guiding a smooth return to normal while keeping up the pressure to renew and rethink the future.

That’s why you are not feeling relieved: Your work as a crisis leader is not done yet.

To read the full HBR article from M. Wedell-Wedellsborg, please click here.


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