Leadership In The Face Of Covid-19

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Stephanie Good, People & Organisation Consulting, PwC Ireland, discusses both the immediate and longer-term actions that leaders in the construction industry should take to emerge in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.


The current crisis is a real test of leadership, as employees look to management at all levels for a sense of direction and a calm steer. As one of the earliest sectors to restart activities, construction leaders face a complex range of challenges, with little precedent to draw from when making fast and difficult decisions.

However, there are clear priorities that should be kept in mind.

Immediate And Long-Term Leadership Priorities

Manage the Current Situation

– Provide direction in a time of high uncertainty

– Ensure employees are settling into new ways of working and maintaining productivity (for those continuing to work) while they face personal concerns

– Communicate and engage with employees in a variety of situations (eg, on site, working remotely, or unable to work)

– Protect employee health and wellbeing (mental and physical)

– Manage people-related costs (eg, temporary lay-offs, redundancies, pay cuts).

– Plan for the future

– Evaluate when and how to bring employees back to the workplace

– Plan for different return-to-work scenarios, including identifying the key skills and working patterns required in the short-, medium- and long-term

– Refresh workforce strategy

– Embed revised safety protocols and ways of working to meet Covid-19 guidelines

– Manage the immediate and longer term impact of the pandemic on organisational culture and behaviours.

Create Clarity

As we emerge from the initial crisis response phases, workers will be seeking clarity from leaders on the medium- to long-term plan. How leaders ‘show up’ will be critical to sustaining engagement and productivity.

To respond effectively, the essential skills leaders (and organisations) need are: strategic thinking; planning and risk management; empathy; adaptability; agility; and resilience. Leaders can draw confidence from the industry’s track record of resilience in the face of crisis. Although demands on their time are high, leaders should reflect on the lessons learned from the financial crisis and how they might be relevant now.

It seems likely that we will be living and working alongside the virus for some time. What are the specific actions that leaders should take?

Develop A Forward-Thinking Mindset

An early action for leaders will be to develop a plan to get to the other side of the crisis. This means considering multiple timescales and scenarios simultaneously, pivoting between strategic and operational concerns. Leaders are likely to feel the strain in the short term, so they should keep a watchful eye on their own resilience to ensure sustainable working.

Time should be spent planning in detail how to create a workplace where construction occurs safely alongside Covid-19 for an extended period.

This may involve assemble a multi-functional Return to Work Taskforce to plan for a number of scenarios to understand what a staggered return to site may look like based on; i) Different levels of demand, and, ii) Different levels of restrictions. Planning should assess an organisation’s ability to work safely and productively in each scenario (eg, Will social distancing be possible within specific tasks?).

Scenario planning can also:

– Identify the critical, minimum viable roles within projects

– Clarify the impact of revised ways of working on productivity and project deadlines

– Identify the preferred sequence and pace of ramp-up

– Determine the cost to appropriately bring people back to work

– Indicate how much capacity the organisation will have to meet a potential surge in demand.

– The Return to Work Taskforce should develop guiding principles and a transition plan which they will then oversee.

Communicate And Engage

Regular, responsive and empathetic communication should be a leadership priority for the foreseeable future, particularly with those offsite. The need to communicate will vary over time, but it will be particularly important as major changes happen (eg, returning to site). We advise creating a simple communication strategy with a clear narrative and key messages that are communicated consistently.

Leaders should:

– Communicate frequently and authentically, being open about what they know and don’t know, and clarifying the reasons for decisions;

– Clarify where workers can direct questions and concerns;

– Establish a regular rhythm of communications with those working remotely, using video conferencing, if possible, to maintain a sense of connection;

– Use toolbox talks, where appropriate and possible, to highlight specific hazards in the workplace and to raise awareness of control measures in place;

– Provide training, coaching and guidance on safety to workers as early as possible;

– Ensure that subcontractors and any necessary visitors to site are aware of all safety briefings and control measures;

– Acknowledge the significant stress, anxiety, worry and fear that people may be experiencing (including those who may have experienced bereavements);

– Encourage workers to avail of the mental health support available. The importance of employee welfare protocols and supports cannot be underestimated at this time. The collaboration between CIF and Laya Healthcare in delivering a mental health and wellbeing support package to the sector is an invaluable resource;

– Take some time to reflect on how the recent changes are affecting workers’ lives. Being mindful of their responses to change/crisis is critical to supporting workers right now.

Manage And Protect Employee Welfare And Safety

Protecting the workforce and minimising the risk of the spread of Covid-19 will be paramount until the pandemic has passed. There is an established culture of safety in the industry, which is a strength. Leaders should identify what has worked well in the past when introducing new health and safety measures to determine what could work now.

Leaders should communicate as soon as possible about the new measures that will be in place, allowing time for individuals to understand them fully and to ask questions. Some workers will be concerned about returning to work so leaders will need to communicate empathetically and consider if those who are uncomfortable can continue to work from home. The focus on safety will likely be highest as sites reopen, but it will be important for leaders to communicate regularly to maintain vigilance.

The following practical steps can be actioned by sites that are continuing to operate, and be put in place for those that are preparing for a phased return to activity:

– Leverage the guidance set out in the ‘Construction Sector Covid-19 Pandemic Standard Operating Procedures’ (SOPs) to ensure the application of best practice in complying with HSE guidelines

– Train, coach and guide workers on Covid-19-related safety so that they understand the requirements and are equipped to self-assess workplace safety

– Leaders at all levels should be explicit about the safety behaviours they want to see from workers and role model them at all times.

Utilise The Intellectual Power Of The Workforce

Leaders need to remember that they are not alone. In times of crisis, the creativity, knowledge and experience of their people is an asset that can be harnessed.

Leaders can take the following actions:

– Appoint a member of the leadership team as the Covid-19 Compliance Officer, whose role will be to monitor site activities and ensure social distancing and hygiene rules are being observed. Ensure that they have (or are given) the authority to make decisions quickly and effectively;

– Establish a rhythm of continuous scenario planning to enable a quick response to changing circumstances (eg, if restrictions are reintroduced);

– Elevate the most empathetic members of the leadership team for communications. Workers will remember the faces and voices who led the charge during this time; be sure those voices are not only wise but compassionate and caring.

What Lies Ahead

This crisis has produced challenges that the industry has never before encountered and a sense of uncertainty that requires resilient leadership.

But times of uncertainty can also be times of opportunity, transforming your business in ways you may not expect. Previous barriers will be broken, new ways of working developed, and new leaders (formal and informal) will emerge. This crisis will pass, and although we may have a ‘new normal’, in the future, construction will continue to play an important role.

If leaders live their values in the workforce decisions they make in the short term, while preparing for the longer term, their organisations can emerge from this crisis in the best possible shape.

If you would like more information, contact Stephanie Good, PwC Ireland, on Tel: 086 031 0224, Email: stephanie.good@pwc.com or visit www.pwc.ie

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