About the series
John Bremen is a guest contributor for Forbes.com, writing on topics including the future of work, leadership strategy, compensation and benefits, and sustainable strategies that support productivity and business success.
The spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 has demonstrated that business leaders will need to continue to live with the risks of the virus despite advances in controlling it. In order to find new ways to thrive amid COVID-19 for an extended period, future-seeking leaders challenge assumptions, acknowledge that characteristics and circumstances of the virus are subject to change, and work to fulfill their complex responsibility to protect their people, customers and communities – and do it all while continuing to grow and be profitable.
The highly contagious variant is causing infections and hospitalizations to rise again in many developed countries, especially communities with low vaccination rates. With modest global vaccination rates, new variants likely will develop that could be even more threatening. As the virus evolves, employers have simultaneously evolved their strategies to manage risks while driving performance. By continuing to be flexible, adaptive and creative in their approaches, they can contain the threat now and handle future outbreaks as they arise.
With special thanks to Doctors Jeff Levin-Scherz and Patricia Toro for their considerable effort monitoring COVID-19 trends for businesses, four sets of actions differentiate future-focused leaders with a common theme around adapting to the constancy of change:
Vaccination remains the most proven way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization or death from COVID-19. Employers initially made it easy for their employees to get vaccinated by communicating the importance of vaccinations, providing information on how and where to obtain them, and offering time off and modest financial incentives. Whereas most employers previously stopped short of mandates, more are now reconsidering policies given what is now known about the risks of the Delta variant. While few (9%) employers responding to a Willis Towers Watson survey in May (COVID-19 Vaccination and Reopening the Workplace Survey) reported requiring employees be vaccinated, prominent companies such as Google, Facebook, Walmart, and Disney, as well as many healthcare and education employers and others, have since adopted vaccine mandates. Physicians expect this trend to build with additional vaccine availability and data around their effectiveness.
Future-focused leaders stay current on the effectiveness of various interventions in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Actions that have proven effective include vaccines, testing, mask wearing, handwashing, social distancing, ventilation, and decreasing employee density through remote work or staggering work schedules in areas with high transmission rates and cases. Less useful measures include frequent temperature testing and deep cleaning. Yet 60% of the businesses in the May survey reported that they were conducting temperature screenings when employees entered the workplace. As virus knowledge and experience evolves, leaders create more bandwidth for effective pandemic or other business initiatives by eliminating those which minimally increase safety.
Future-focused leaders recognize that healthy, resilient employees drive healthy, resilient organizations. During the pandemic, research shows a decline in physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing. For example, more than 55% of employees reported moderate to high levels of anxiety in 2020; younger employees were three times more likely to suffer from stress, anxiety or depression than other groups. 2020 also saw the largest number of drug overdose deaths ever. Employees reported feeling disconnected and the deterioration of workplace social connections created productivity and stress challenges that hampered performance. Financial wellbeing decreased for many colleagues due to economic challenges. Physical wellbeing also was reduced due to COVID-19 and to a precipitous decrease in preventive care across the board, with decreases in screening for colon and breast cancer, and regular follow-up for chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. Many parents found childcare arrangements difficult, especially with school closings. Future-focused leaders encourage return to regular wellbeing care. They also focus on efforts to drive resiliency through consideration of workload, time off, counseling, behavioral and mental health and caregiving assistance, financial wellbeing support, as well as continuous skilling and development.
Leadership strategies and expectations changed materially in 2020 and likely will never return to what once was called “normal.” As employers reopen workplaces amid the Delta variant, frequent, accurate and culturally appropriate communication helps employees feel confident that their employer genuinely cares about safety and wellbeing. It also prevents undue fear of returning to workplaces. Future-seeking leaders promote psychological safety in a number of ways, including clearly laying out the efforts they are making to keep the workplace safe and articulating how and why they decided it was the right time to reopen worksites. They also explain why they are modifying policies (such as around vaccinations or testing) or sunsetting previous approaches (such as discontinuing temperature scanning or deep disinfection). They engage in the practices of “net talent gainers,” leading with practicality, compassion, and transparency in concert with long-term vision, emphasizing dignity at, in, and from work, and making work culture safe, inclusive and equitable.
For many years, leaders talked about agility, sometimes as an engrained strategy and sometimes as a soundbite. Future-focused leaders know that agility, resilience, and sustainability are essential for competitive advantage and produce positive impact on business outcomes.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on August 11, 2021.