During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted a 4-part webinar series, Reconstructing Retail. For those of you that were able to participate with us, thank you. We know that although many are working from home, there are a lot of competing activities and other webinars. We appreciate your interest and your time.

It goes without saying that we recognize and support our healthcare and first responder professionals serving the country tirelessly, as well as our essential retail colleagues working hard to keep grocery, pharmacy, and other shelves stocked and flowing. Let’s all keep them in our thoughts and continue to do what we can to make their lives easier.

We’re here to help, and we want to emphasize that. This series is about helping our clients and friends in the industry. We’ll be sharing our pragmatic and meaningful thoughts and perspectives, but this is surely not a commercial for Parker Avery services. For most or all of us, this is the transformation of a generation or even our lifetime. With so much on hold for many retailers and brands, our webinar series is allowing us to look forward. Reconstructing Retail means at least catching back up to where we were before, or perhaps even getting ahead. Innovation opportunities are abundant.

Our most recent session focused on the people part of the equation: the impact COVID-19 has had on you personally and your team. Change leader, Kathi Toll, along with Marty Anderson and Deanna Emsley from Parker Avery, and long-time RIS News editor Joe Skorupa, collaboratively provided concrete actions to not only mobilize your own organization coming out of this pandemic—but moreover, make it resilient and sustainable.

To ground the conversation, consider what we know and what we don’t know about the upcoming days and weeks. We don’t know when ‘Day One’ will be for most of us, we don’t know what ‘Day One’ will look like; further, we don’t know how our workplaces will change—whether it’s a corporate office, a distribution center, or a store.

But there are certainly some things we do know: we know we will leave our homes, we will return to work, and we will begin to integrate all that’s happened. We also know we weathered an epic storm, and our path back forward will not be a straight one. Consider the past several weeks we’ve all been through—each one of us has been through a traumatic experience; not a little frustration or inconvenience, but true upheaval.

Our path forward will depict the change curve in the purest sense of its description—two steps forward and one step back. The complexity of the situation intensifies when we consider how quickly our personal and professional lives collided into one. As we contemplated the webinar and this post, our goal was to provide concrete tools and techniques leaders and team members could use in the upcoming weeks. We introduced three “R’s”.

Let’s begin with Reflecting
Trauma happened and trauma lingers for weeks and months after it occurs. Typical change management models view transition through the lens of an organization or a collective, however these models overlook the individual’s response to the disruption. As we return to the workplace, it is normal and expected to feel:

  • Disorientated
  • Overloaded by stimuli
  • Hypersensitive
  • Angry
  • Anxious

Although we went through an extraordinary experience “together,” we all interpreted and digested it differently. As a leader, you may be exhausted by the long days and intensity of the decisions you needed to make. On the flip side, you may be an employee who was furloughed, and now will be asked to return. That’s a veritable emotional landmine waiting to be stepped on.

As a leader you may be asking yourself, what can I do?

  • Address the elephant in the room. A theme we weaved throughout the webinar was communicate, communicate, and communicate. Consider developing a communication plan with your leadership team, so that even before employees return, they know what is being done to keep them safe. Day One, you must acknowledge the experience with your team and let them know you don’t have all the answers. Ask them what they need, never assume you know want they want or how they are feeling.
  • Meet people where they are. Some people may require a lot of attention and handholding in the early weeks back and others may prefer to work more independently. Be prepared to calibrate your leadership style for each person’s needs. And, as a leader be aware your energy will be zapped in the first weeks back, so give yourself a break.
  • Create psychological and physical safety. We know a characteristic of high-performing teams is psychological safety—ensuring people are comfortable to voice an opinion, take a risk, or make a mistake. But now more than ever, your team also needs to know how you are protecting them physically. Tell people what you are doing to keep them safe (e.g., deep cleanings, hand sanitizer stations, limited meetings, social distancing guidelines) Consider creating a team “rules of road” for the short-term and post it, so everyone knows their needs are heard and respected.
  • Understand cognitive responses to stress. Cognitively, we perform “less than” when under sustained stress. Our executive functions blow up—we’re unable to concentrate as deeply, regulate our emotions, or make objective decisions (to name a few things) as well. As a leader, manage your expectations: your team, and perhaps even your top performers will not be firing on all “eight cylinders” their first days and weeks back.

Everyone will rebound at their own pace because everyone’s resilience is different. Not surprisingly, in a recent survey we conducted, overwhelmingly the top characteristic called out as being paramount to survival was adaptability; it goes without saying that an organization that wants to adapt quickly needs to be comprised of individuals who are resilient and adaptable. Resilience is not a gift bestowed on a chosen few—it is a skill that can be developed and improved over time. And, adversity is our best teacher.

Which leads us to Rebuilding
As we begin rebuilding our lives, we’ll need energy, and a lot of it. The good news is we have several types of energy – physical, mental, and emotional. The bad news? Our energy types overlap and ultimately fill (and drain) from the same reservoir. Change can be divided into three components:

  • Personal. The more personal a change is, the more energy it takes to adapt.
  • Organizational. This type of change is less disruptive than a personal one, unless you are personally being impacted by the changes.
  • Societal. Societal changes tend to take less energy due to their diffusion over a broader group of people.

However, the real paradox of our current environment is that the impacts of COVID-19 are hitting on all three types of change at once. Stress is at an all-time high and energies may be at an all-time low as people struggle with the societal implications of changing their way of life, and the organizational changes affecting their employees through pay cuts and furloughs. They are also experiencing tremendous personal impacts through shelter at home orders and isolation or maybe even personal or family illness and/or death. It will be important to acknowledge these impacts and how and why they may slow down initial productivity as workers start to go back to work and begin their journey forward.

Resilience, as noted earlier is a skill that can be learned. Be aware of the resilience characteristics and note how you as a leader and a team member can strengthen them.

  • Focused is about establishing the most important tasks/strategies to accomplish first, second, and so on. So many things may have gone untended during the quarantine/furlough period that it will be important to establish new short-term and long-term expectations to successfully pick up the reins again and achieve full productivity.
  • The flexible characteristic also has two sides. There is the “flexible self” which really is about the capacity to generate lots of different ideas and think out of the box when needed. “Flexible social” is the other type which is about openness to others’ ideas and the ability to create strong collaborative teams that build ideas and solutions together. Leaders need to really utilize this characteristic as they bring back their workforce and decide on the short-term focus. The best leaders are strong listeners.
  • Organized is about establishing productive systems and discipline to help reduce stress and improve the consistency of results. One of the main causes of adversity in change is the lack of control or predictability that ensues. Things may feel chaotic on week one but don’t be afraid to try new structures even if they are only temporary. Try daily stand-up meetings to gauge the climate and determine what is working. This gives you the opportunity to recalibrate and communicate quickly until the dust begins to settle and people feel back in control.
  • Proactive is all about comfort with experimental actions to discover the best path quickly. While somewhat counter-intuitive to organized, don’t be afraid to utilize your network and team to source ideas, create a quick feedback loop to gain insight, and start trying things. It’s OK if your first idea isn’t perfect. Just revise and keep open communication lines.
  • Positive actually has two implications. There is “positive world view” and “positive self.” Positive world view is related to the ability to find the silver lining in difficult situations. This will be incredibly important as leaders look to review lessons learned and maybe even adopt some new positive outcomes like remote working and video conferencing. The positive self has to do with your personal self confidence and trust that you can be successful. While most leaders are probably fairly self-confident, it is important to understand that some of your team members may not be feeling this way right now, especially if they were chosen for furlough. It will be critical to rebuild trust as associates rejoin the company full time.

We closed with Repurposing
While it’s certainly true that most of this situation has been stressful and disruptive, it hasn’t been all bad. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and retailers across the globe have invented some very exciting approaches to serving their customers, teams, and communities throughout these past several weeks. On the customer front, just a few examples of ways that retailers are adapting how they provide service include:

  • Several brands are piloting 1:1 digital “stylist” appointments with their best customers, to fill the gap in the customer experience that cannot be accomplished (for now) with a visit to the store.
  • Distribution centers which were previously handling shipments to both stores and customers have been rapidly re-configured to handle unprecedented direct-to-customer demand.
  • Some retailers are conducting social media “Live” events, using store staff to showcase items in the stores and offering a variety of purchase and fulfillment options. This approach also appears to be deepening relationships between customers and the in-store teams in an unexpected way because of the highly-personal, engaging nature of these events.

We have witnessed really uplifting examples of organizations stepping up to help their teams in unexpected ways, such as:

  • Rapidly scaling ship-from-store capabilities to unlock the value of the inventory sitting in closed stores, but also to avoid furloughing an entire store team.
  • Enabling employees to not only work from home, but also encouraging them to leverage tuition reimbursement benefits to pursue continuing education opportunities during their time away from the office.

Perhaps the most incredible examples of innovation have been those retailers who have turned their extensive capabilities toward aiding their communities, such as:

  • One retailer’s “returns refurbishment” team developed a way to re-purpose their second quality returns into face masks for health care professionals, leveraging the same equipment they already had for repairing returned goods.
  • One home improvement retailer made the decision to donate their entire supply of N95 masks to hospitals, health care workers, and first responders.

Across all of these examples, the most valuable lesson being learned is: “What became true now that had not been true before?” For most teams, the answer will be about constraints previously thought to be required for success: under these conditions were only barriers to success. Shame on us – as individuals, teams and organizations – if we miss this opportunity to carefully examine how we made things work in new ways throughout this pandemic. Those lessons are the silver lining in all of this.

Key Takeaways
We wrapped up our session with some closing thoughts:

  • Reflect on how this impacted you as a person and as a leader. Do not forgot how destabilizing it was for you, your organization, and your employees to have change thrust upon us – this is often what organizational “transformation” feels like to your teams. It’s uncomfortable and anxiety provoking.
  • Engage your team early and often to establish priorities, source ideas, and create a positive feedback loop. Support your people as they strive to build more resilient characteristics.
  • Embrace the new capabilities you have uncovered so those lessons learned become embedded in our days and weeks ahead. Things will never be what they were and that may be OK.

Q&A from the Webinar
The following is a compilation of questions asked by the webinar participants, a few which we were able to answer during the webinar:

Q1: In the realm of change management, what is your advice for planning/managing for the “second wave” we might encounter?
A: At the risk of being dramatic, assume a second wave of COVID-19 (or something else) will occur. Every single organization needs a crisis communization strategy and plan, so if you have not already done so, get your COVID-19 task force together to document lessons learned—soon, before they are forgotten. Bring in all levels of the organization so you gather a full understanding of what people need during and after a crisis. Use your learnings to develop a playbook for the next community, state, or national emergency. Then, actively communicate it and make sure your teams know there are contingency plans in place to protect them and they know what to do in case the plans are activated. Learn your lessons well.

Q2: Do you think working remote will become more accepted in the future?
A: Absolutely. We’re delighted to see this particular barrier broken down. Especially for more established teams where there is really no need to sit side-by-side every single day. Sometimes the in-person environment impedes concentration and productivity. We do believe for newer teams the remote or virtual environment may be harder to (in the beginning) to build a shared identify and establish goals. But, there is a lot to be said for the magic of a computer camera and a glimpse into people’s “real lives” to break down barriers, establish commonalities, and deepen relationships. Be creative.

Q3: Open concept seating in some offices has become a new way of business, there is no social distancing. How do you express concern to your employer regarding seating and not seem negative?
A: We believe you may be pleasantly surprised by employers and employees who will require “six-foot rule” or social distancing practices be implemented before they return to the workplace. If that’s not the case for you, then book a few minutes with your supervisor to explain your concern and present a few solutions to them. “I would feel more comfortable and be more productive if I could maintain some social distance for the short term. Are you OK with me shifting to the empty desk near the supply closet?” Bottom line, you will not be the only person feeling this way, so take the precautions you need to stay healthy and productive.

Q4: On the topic of “safety,” what are your thoughts regarding employers trying to secure virus tests, check people’s temperatures, etc. to ensure they are “OK” to come back to work? Does this help, or just create more psychological stress?
A: We need to default to the “consultant’s” answer…it depends. Some people may feel deeply reassured by these efforts and appreciative of them, and others may be stressed by the extreme tactics, or feel they are intrusive. During the webinar we equated it to the security line at the airport—it certainly is inconvenient and can be stress-provoking, but it’s for the greater good (so to speak) of all of us, so we learned to adapt to it. A caveat to this—if at any point you feel individuals or groups are being targeted for the more extreme measures or testing, than that is not OK. Again, we all have to go through the airport security checkpoints—it’s not a random selection. Your employer must ensure they are fair and equitable for how they choose to enact any safety measures.

Cover image by Pexels from Pixabay