Top 10 “people” strategies that should be part of your COVID-19 recovery plan

by Burl Stamp

Health care organizations are formulating recovery plans from the coronavirus crisis, and how to ramp up volume is understandably a top priority. But this unprecedented crisis has taken a toll on more than just the income statement and balance sheet. The very fabric of organizational culture has been stretched — and in some cases torn — by the emotional, physical and financial burden inflicted by COVID-19 and the tsunami effect it has had on the industry.

Paying attention to organizational culture is essential for a successful, comprehensive comeback. Here’s our Top 10 list of strategies to help the people in your organization — not just the bottom line — recover successfully.

10. Cascade leadership check-ins.

As the shutdown and crisis has worn on longer than many expected, everyone’s emotional resilience has been tested. People are exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally. Leaders, who feel they must stay strong, are especially vulnerable because they are often reluctant to ask for support. Making leader check-ins standard practice is smart, especially when these therapeutic conversations are cascaded down to frontline supervisors. It’s simple: the CEO checks in with the VPs; VPs check in with directors; directors with managers, etc. Check-ins don’t need to be complicated or drawn out. The following questions, when asked sincerely and consistently, are powerful:
• How are you doing … personally?
• What are you hearing from your staff?
• What else can we be doing to support you and your team?

9. Support your colleagues. And let them support you.

One characteristic of strong, high performing organizational cultures is the ability and willingness of peers to lean on one another for advice and support. This borne out by one of the questions from the well-known Gallup Q12 engagement survey: “Do you have a best friend at work?” Having that best friend, whether you are a frontline nurse, physician or a C-Suite executive, can be especially important right now.

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8. Step up leadership rounding.

During times of uncertainty, the power and impact of leadership staying connected to the front line rises above all other communication strategies. While regular written updates during the COVID-19 crisis have become commonplace in most health care organizations, they certainly can’t replace face-to-face, two-way communication with leaders, either in person (wearing appropriate PPE if required) or virtually.

7. Draw energy and inspiration from your staff.

Many managers see the role of team support running in only one direction — toward frontline staff. But the best leaders recognize that when open, transparent, mentoring relationships are nurtured with employees, support can be mutually beneficial.

During the new facility planning, opening and a major post-opening crisis at Phoenix Children’s Hospital while I was CEO, I often needed a boost of energy and inspiration during challenging times. To recharge, I’d get out of my office and spend time rounding with staff. Seeing their dedication to patients and their support for me as the CEO was humbling and encouraging. Now, in this war against the pandemic, that support is more important than ever.

6. Individualize expressions of gratitude.

Thanking employees with banners, newsletters, video segments and email blasts is great. But in our work with frontline staff, we’ve learned that it is not enough. While working with Environmental Services teams as part of a major project with Compass One Healthcare/Crothall a few years ago, several employees admitted to me that it was nice when managers told them as a group that they were doing a good job. But it meant so much more when they were recognized individually for a specific contribution they had made to the team and/or to patients. Mass expressions of gratitude can sometimes be seen as the expedient, easy thing to do. Nothing beats looking an employee in the eye and sincerely saying, “Thank you for the difference you made for that patient.”

5. Hold Town Halls virtually.

With the availability and low cost of video calling platforms, organizations of any size should be leveraging this technology. Seeing leadership “live,” with the capability for staff to ask questions and offer comments, can make this option almost as effective as in-person meetings. And it can definitely expand access and convenience to leadership open forums even after the lockdown is over.

4. Be as transparent as possible, emphasizing the why in decisions.

As “furlough” becomes an increasingly common term, staff need and deserve some level of understanding behind why and how difficult decisions are being made. How much has average daily revenue declined on a percentage basis? What help are we seeking from the federal government? How will we dig out of this mess? Answers to all of these questions, though sobering, help staff put decisions into perspective and begin to deal with whatever their realities might be. Use the expertise of your communications team to develop clear, concise, consistent and timely messages that can be shared with managers and employees.

3. Are we really all in this together?

A significant number of high-profile executives at major health systems and companies in other industries have announced that their salaries will be reduced during the crisis. While individual organizations’ situations vary and there may or may not be a good reason to follow suit, frontline staff whose hours are being cut back will always be thinking, “Are we really all in this together?”

The best organizational cultures nurture shared celebration and sacrifice. On April 16, Steve Edwards, president/CEO of Cox Health in Springfield, MO, tweeted this message:

“Without me, several of our leaders devised a plan to cut their compensation by 10% and donate it to our heroes fund for frontline employees in crisis. Then the entire team voted unanimously to do the same. This despite many of them not having a true day off in over a month.”

2. Check the pulse of your team often.

Consistent leadership rounding is the best way to qualitatively gauge how employees are doing and what they need most. Now is a good time to complement these efforts with brief pulse surveys to get a broader, quantitative read on the temperature of your workforce. While these short questionnaires don’t replicate the rigor of a full-blown employee engagement survey, they have the advantage of being fielded quickly and more frequently so that issues can be surfaced real-time and trended during your recovery.

1. Take care of yourself.

To say this is a tough time for everyone is an understatement. Leaders take on the additional burden of making tough, often agonizing decisions while keeping chin-up and providing hope for the organization going forward. These responsibilities and associated stress can take their toll on both physical and emotional health. Again, drawing on my experience as the CEO of Phoenix Children’s Hospital during a very difficult crisis, my wife and a physician leader who became a dear friend separately pulled me aside to say, “I’m worried about you.” That wake-up call made me pay more attention to my own physical and mental health, which ultimately was beneficial for both me personally and for the organization.

Successful recovery plans must be comprehensive to be effective and sustainable. Especially during the emotionally draining COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown, paying attention to the people issues is the right, ethical thing to do and will help your entire team embrace and promote all other growth and operational recovery strategies.