The Pivot: Leading Your Mission and Your People Through COVID-19

It is a greater risk to the mission to not consider workplace flexibilities that keep employees working.

When I joined the Army about 20 years ago, we had a saying: Mission First, People Always. I’ve reflected upon this often in my career, and it has always served me well. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that already has significantly altered life and work as we know it, the maxim still resonates. 

The visual that comes to mind is a balance scale, with mission on one side and people on the other. 

Most days in our workplaces, the mission side weighs a little heavier. After all, it’s why the people—employees—are there in the first place. Even thoughtful organizational policies and practices that “take care of people” are primarily there to enhance organizational performance. When we ramp up for major projects, the mission side gets a little heavier. During most organizational crises, it gets a lot heavier. And generally, it’s at a proportionate expense to people: We work harder, longer hours, carry stress home, miss a child’s baseball game or two, put our dinner dates on hold. And we accept that it’s part of the job.

But during this COVID-19 outbreak, it makes sense to give the people side of that equation a little more weight. In fact, it’s the only thing to do if you care about the mission bouncing back. 

Making the Pivot

This past week I facilitated a 90-person, cross-functional planning event that, until six days prior, would have brought us together from several locations across the United States to Houston, Texas. We waited dutifully for an OPM-directed telework order or suggestion to curtail non-essential travel, as we’ve become accustomed to doing. 

When that didn’t happen, our organization’s senior leader made a call that seemed risky at the time but right to all of us—to shift the balance of concern to our people and cancel the in-person event.  

Instead, we decided to host it virtually.

The Importance of Being Seen

Over a week of small group breakouts and large group sessions, we significantly increased our use of and skills in our virtual collaboration technology. While most of our workforce teleworks 1-3 days per week, the default for most groups had been to use the telephone bridge and almost never the webcam. 

Many of us would strive for a weekly telework day to catch up on solo tasks and not have to interact with anyone. However, throughout the week of virtual planning we stretched ourselves to test and use every corner of our virtual technology, including webcams. Slowly, we started to change as a group, and it actually brought us closer.

Leading Through Uncertainty

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 situation was evolving by the hour. The World Health Organization publicly declared a pandemic on March 11. Universities began sending students home to finish the semester online. Large companies canceled major conferences and events.

By Thursday of last week, our senior leader leaned forward a little further and encouraged all members of the organization to go to full telework. We had already assessed through our continuity and pandemic planning that all of our mission essential functions could be performed via telework and had begun to identify any specific steady-state tasks that could only be performed in person. We were fortunate in that the risk to our mission was low, but our leaders had the fortitude to know that the value to our people would far outweigh any risks. At the same time, many other federal organizations had just begun telling people to “wash their hands.” 

We were ahead of the curve. 

Acknowledging a New Reality

On Friday morning, March 13, the final day of our virtual week, schools across the United States began announcing closures and toilet paper became the hottest commodity in the country. Recognizing that most employees were more focused on the pandemic than the mission at hand, I quickly scrambled to modify our agenda. During our check-in activity, I asked the participants to write in the chat what was top of mind for them regarding COVID-19. 

Their powerful responses are what compelled me to write this article. 

One person wrote: “How will folks deal with the isolation of long term telework on top of social isolation?” Another’s top concern: “My parents, who are both really high risk, and some of my employees and their families that are high risk. I'm concerned about them getting sick, and also the need for me to stay healthy in case I need to help them out.” 

Those sentiments were echoed by several others: “Being isolated and cut off from others (coworkers and others). Plus focusing on work and day to day responsibilities while being concerned about health and safety of myself and friends/family.” 

Many noted the unprecedented challenge of lengthy school cancelations: “What to do with my kids now that school and sports are cancelled.” “Expectations of continuing to meet work responsibilities when you have to take care of family at home.” 

Others noted the confusing situation and its national consequences: “Uncertainty and not knowing who or what to believe. Also not panicking and further damaging the stock market and the economy.” “Local businesses and restaurant/hospitality staff with everyone staying in.” “Also, supporting family members financially through this time... I know many who will be doing that.”  

Empathy and support were recurring themes: “Keeping loved ones safe. Making sure my team feels supported. Trying to not go crazy from isolation.” “Also everyone's mental health - this is all taking a toll on folks.” 

People First, Mission After

After our chat room check-in, our senior leader turned on her webcam. She updated the group with what we knew, what we didn’t know, and what we were doing about it. She then asked for questions. Many said they appreciated how much she had already done to relieve some of their stress, especially as quickly as she did. 

She answered every question in the chat room. We paused to make sure no additional questions would come in. And only then, we turned to the mission part of our meeting.

As civil servants, our mission is personal. Serving our country is a core value. It can be terrifying to think about compromising the full performance of our mission, especially during times when our country needs us most. However, absenteeism rates are likely to rise at an alarming rate for illness, quarantine, child- or eldercare, and impacts to public transportation among other things.

It is a greater risk to the mission to not consider workplace flexibilities that keep our people working versus current policies that would keep them from working.

Controlling Your Response, Not Uncertainty 

Don’t forget that we have plans for times like these. We identify mission essential functions as part of our continuity planning that give us our final fallback position from steady state operations and there is probably a lot of space in between. Our capacity for mission work will move back and forth between them throughout this potentially prolonged event. 

So, review your plans. Assess your current workload and determine if anything else needs to be prioritized (or deemed mission essential) given the pandemic. And then start to determine what you can let go of, if and when you need to. 

There has never been a better or more important time to add more weights to the people side of the scale. Whether COVID-19 anxiety is warranted or not, that anxiety is real. Our minds are elsewhere at work. We’re going to be sharing kitchen tables with spouses and kids who are also working and learning remotely. 

Those who perform classified work or other onsite-only tasks will be searching for safer ways to commute and maintain social distance from colleagues in the office (all the while figuring out how to homeschool their kids). Contracted staff will wonder if their contracts will be modified to give them some of the same consideration as their federal colleagues. When distracted, productivity is hampered. Yet, we want to—we need to—work. Not only for the mission and our salary but also for our sanity. 

The best thing leaders can do is lean in to those concerns, and pivot. Ask your people what’s top of mind for them right now and really listen. Take a shift for workers who can’t telework or take time off. Say thank you in a meaningful way to those who still have to report to your facilities and especially to those who otherwise may go unappreciated. Push the limits of your telework policy and find ways to expand it. Pilot that maxi-flex policy you’ve been waiting for the right time to try. Get virtual with your meetings. 

And if you can—when you can—turn on that webcam. The benefit to your people and to your mission will far outlast COVID-19.

Jacquelyn Phillips leads strategy, enterprise risk management, and employee engagement for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Inspector General. In addition to being an Army Reservist, she has also directed leadership development, learning, continuity and emergency management in the federal government. The views expressed here are her own.