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Why Covid has taught leaders to value people over profits

21 Apr 2021 By Lynne Hardman

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of maintaining employees’ trust rather than just protecting shareholders’ bank balances, says Lynne Hardman

We have now been living with Covid-19 for more than a year. Around the globe, managers, leaders and business owners are continually going through spreadsheets, creating reforecasts, analysing cash flow and doing their very best to predict and minimise the ongoing business impact. 

Here in the UK, despite the positive news of the vaccine rollout, for some, the challenge of keeping their business going may eventually prove too difficult, with heartbreaking results. For others, in sectors where business closure was mandatory, the options around how they might support their people are considerably limited. Conversely, those fortunate businesses with strong cash reserves and a profitable trading record face the dilemma of how much they should spend to support people at this highly unusual time versus protecting shareholder returns.

This crisis feels highly personal; it has the capacity to affect us all. People are obviously looking to the government to show leadership, but they are also looking to their employer to support them. How many companies will care enough to ensure that the right support is in place if job losses are inevitable? How can leaders show those returning from furlough that they are still valued? What can be done to help employees who have felt stretched and under pressure for months at work? How can employers ensure that people’s career goals and aspirations don’t fall by the wayside as career paths and businesses needs undergo dramatic change? How can support for good mental health be meaningful and practical?

We are all in an uncertain situation and no one knows how long the impact will last, but whatever people decisions we consider to be essential, it must be communicated with transparency and implemented in a way that makes people feel that they were treated fairly, reasonably and as individuals, not just as a number on the balance sheet. 

When this is all over, trusted, productive employees will find it hard to forget the additional pressures caused by what they perceive as an employer’s lack of short-term support during what is a global crisis. 

Employees will accept salary reductions and furloughs for now – after all, what choice do they have? Depending on how decisions were communicated and implemented, the ongoing impact on the ‘psychological contract’, however, may be deep and enduring. 

In the worst cases, some will feel let down enough to leave as soon as practicable; others who remain will subtly, almost unconsciously, withdraw their loyalty and discretionary effort. All those daily extra little things they do at work, which add up to a big difference, will cease. Mishandled approaches may mean that positive workplace cultures, which may have been carefully nurtured over many years, will be destroyed.

These are testing times. Some leaders will feel that their tough people decisions are justified and in normal times they may have been. These are not normal times though, so however difficult it is, even when it goes against our usual commercial instincts, leaders must try to do what they know to be right for their people, for as long as they realistically can. However difficult it feels right now, it will end. When it does, it’s vital that leaders have retained the trust – the essence of leadership – of their people, irrespective of what difficult decisions may have been made. 

In the famous words of Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Never has there been a more important time to make your people feel that, when it mattered most, you demonstrated how much you valued them. Those leaders who are able to make any decisions, however small, that minimise the massive impact and long-term damage job loss may have on the lives of individuals, will be the first to see the benefits from employee engagement and productivity when this is over. 

When we look back on this turbulent period we will recognise that the speed and success of the climb back to business growth and increased profits depended equally on the commercial and the people actions we are taking right now. It’s not about people or profit – doing the best you can for people now, however little that may be, is the foundation on which future profits will be built.

Lynne Hardman is CEO of Working Transitions

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