Perspectives

From #AloneTogether To #CopeTogether

Editor’s note: The following was originally published on the Forbes CMO Network.

While the specifics around timing and best practices remain fluid at best, state and local officials are beginning to contemplate and plan for a phased reopening of the physical economy in coming weeks and months. As Eric McNulty and Leonard Marcus of the Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard noted in a recent crisis management article for HBR, leading during this critical time involves guiding people to arrive at the best possible outcome over time.

For leadership at companies large and small, the first step is to contemplate and plan around the space “in-between” – the period between how we used to work, today’s new normal and the near future’s “business as unusual.”

At our agency, we are starting to frame a back-to-work module that helps to humanly and practically guide us in this unprecedented journey. The system won’t be perfect and will likely change many times as we face new situations and questions each day. I call it C.O.P.E. – a brass tacks framework for sensible advice for leaders and managers on navigating communications and processes during the “in-between.”

CHECK. First and foremost, leaders need to check in on the emotional well-being of their employees. As outlined in COVID-19 remote work guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, we are all navigating unchartered waters with this virus – many are teleworking full-time for the first time, and our daily routines are disrupted. Tricks for maintining mental health and wellness such as keeping a regular schedule, exercising, and getting fresh air remain critical.

As reopening begins, your team may need time to mentally recover and transition away from these past few months. People in your company may have traveled thousands of miles from your office to shelter-in-place with family, and it is up to you to appreciate and understand why they chose to do so and when they feel safe returning to the office. It’s going to require even more flexibility than usual – perhaps considering a rolling reentry rather than mandating a hard return-to-work date.

In addition to having one-on-one converations, another way to “check” is to launch a simple internal survey and ask questions that probe your employee’s mental state of readiness.

Logistically, it is also critical to check local and state laws governing rules, restrictions and guidelines associated with returning to work. Also be sure to check that your building and management are ready to receive a returning workforce, and that your technology tools and infrastructure remain robust enough to maintain those who continue to work remotely.

Mentally and culturally prepare for the fact that you WILL HAVE A HYBRID workforce for months, or possibly longer.

You should also harden your own monitoring systems to stay ahead of developing news, trends and best practices.

ORGANIZE. We started—and by “we” I mean HR—a list of all the things we need to think about to maintain a safe and healthy office: Do we have enough PPE – masks, sanitizers and gloves? How will we reorganize our physical office layout in case we need to stay more distant than usual? Can we still provide free breakfast on Mondays? What’s our health and safety protocol for how we greet clients and visitors?

The other component of organization is thinking about how you divide your leadership team into two distinct but overlapping units: individuals dealing with the current crisis and people focused on serving the business at hand and planning for the future.

It will be vital to have a plan in place for a “slow roll” of returning to work as well as bracing for the prospect of going all the way back to square one – pure social distancing.

PLAN. The next step is to put the actual plan together—one that is prescriptive yet agile enough to accommodate individual and organizational needs alongside ever-changing regulations and guidance. The plan needs to be transparent, communicated effectively and often and crowd sourced in that you should constantly be soliciting feedback from key stakeholders. Do your research and recognize that the plan must be conceptualized through an operational, legal and ethical lens.

Like a good scientist, conceive and test various your hypothesis through scenario planning – worst to best cases. Communicate your plan to key stakeholders, run through software systems, and bring a “beta” employee population to test this next phase.

As you finalize your plan, write up an internal Q&A that contemplates every potential question your team and others could ask—even if you don’t have all the answers yet—and share that with them in advance of the return. Be mindful of establishing new work-from-home ground rules in the interim and be consistent in your response to those who ask about it.

EXECUTE. You’ve done all your prep and planning, and if you’ve done it correctly you should be able to execute the plan somewhat seamlessly. The key is humility: admit when things aren’t working, do all you can to make fixes and pivot. Understand the need for daily and weekly forecasting as opposed to monthly or quarterly. Keep an eye on the future while remaining agile to address present challenges and opportunities.

We’re going to be #AloneTogether for at least another four to six weeks, and during that time it’s up to you to check in on your team, get organized and plan for the future. Remember to continue to find ways to maintain company culture and morale and uplift your team’s spirits by being honest, offering kudos, and giving everyone the space to do what they need to stay healthy and have some fun. Our office has a pretty resounding game of “Guess That Baby” in one of our Slack channels — feel free to use it if you’d like.

As Chicago-based personal trainer K. Aleisha Fetters notes in an article for Everyday Health, movement and physical activity are also important pieces of improving health and reducing stress – so it may help your team to find ways to keep moving. Leaning into opportunities to give back can be tremendously rewarding as well, and there are a multitude of ways to do so in areas specific to individual passions and priorities.

This situation is difficult and unprecedented. Just because we may be together again soon doesn’t mean it won’t continue to drag on. Hope is not a strategy. But learning and planning to COPE will help you harden your team for what comes next.

Follow Aaron on the Forbes CMO Network.

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