This article is authored by Peter Stavropoulos
Having worked in downtown New York on September 11, 2001 and living in New York during the COVID-19 epidemic has afforded me a unique vantage point between the two crises. In 2001, the death and destruction came quickly and violently. I remember seeing people jumping from the twin towers. I remember the ground shaking when the towers fell. I remember the long walk through the dust and debris as I made my way from the Battery to the Upper East Side. I remember pushing my son’s stroller on Madison Avenue the next day; you could see in people’s eyes who had witnessed it first-hand and who had not. Fast forward two decades, and my son is now in college, staying at home with us, taking on-line classes. We are all working from home, trying to stay healthy.
The Death is Not Visible, But Far More Extensive
The death is not visible in our current crisis, but it is far more extensive. The streets are empty, similar to September 12, 2001, but now, they have been empty for over a month. There is no smell of smoke in the streets as there was twenty years ago, but people are again wearing masks. Death has spread to every state in the US and around the planet, while the last crisis was localized to New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I am more affected by this crisis than I was by the prior crisis. I have friends who have died in both instances. I have friends who have been sickened by both events.
Changes in Corporate Management and Technology Since 9/11
What is interesting is how corporate management has changed and how technology has changed. When 9/11 happened, employees by and large were not fearful of losing their jobs. Over the last two decades, there has been as shift in the corporate management paradigm that has incorrectly valued short-term profits above all else. Many retail level employees and service employees have lost their jobs. White collar workers are all extremely fearful of losing their incomes. Two decades ago, few of us were afraid of losing our jobs. Corporate management did everything it could to promote an environment of stability. Many companies resorted to working from home for months following the attacks. Today the entire country is working from home, but employees nationwide are fearful of losing their main sources of income. Some companies that had advanced knowledge started layoffs in February in anticipation of the disaster.
Technology has grown exponentially in the two decades. On September 12, 2001, I sent my cousin an email from my palm pilot that was tethered to my cell phone telling her I was still alive as I sat in line waiting to put my missing friends’ names on the lists at the New York City Morgue. Today, I am behind the curve sporting a slightly out of date iPhone. Meetings are now held via Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and Citrix. Video conference capabilities were virtually nonexistent two decades ago.
Today companies have to focus on good management practices more than ever. Companies have to prioritize the following laundry list of items:
- Ensure that companies are working for all their stakeholders. This includes shareholders, employees, suppliers, customers, and the surrounding community.
- Exhibit true leadership and make sure that employees feel secure. Employees will work more effectively when they are not worried about their physical, emotional, or financial well-being. Yes, this means adequate personal protection equipment where necessary, but it also means that there must be a fear or worry-free environment, wherever and whatever those worries may be.
- Management must foster a relationship of trust with workers. The model of clocking in at 9 AM and clocking out at 5 PM does not apply in the 21st Increased mobility and productivity make it impossible or at the very least impracticable to constantly monitor employees. Companies are not paying an employee for their time. Companies are paying an employee to complete a task. Over-burdensome oversight will only impede productivity.
- With employees working from home, there is no separation as before. Many employees, particularly those in global roles, are on duty and working 24/7. This can lead to burnout. Managers must be cognizant of the ability to create a 24 hour workday and must refrain from interacting whenever the mood strikes. Emails at 11:00 PM on a Saturday night should cease. Management should be asking what they can do to help employees be as effective as possible without causing burnout. Do managers really know when and how much subordinates are working? Do managers realize that subordinates are afraid of losing their jobs and thus working more hours than before out of fear?
- Communication is key. Communicate appropriately and only during business hours. However, communicate regularly and frequently. The message must be consistent, and the speaker must be cognizant of how the message will be perceived. Perception has always been a critical element of communication, and in trying times more so. Team connectedness and integration is more important than ever. This not only applies to employees but to customers, suppliers, contractors, and any other entity in the corporate ecosystem. Utilize corporate communications professionals externally and internally to ensure consistent messaging.
Having survived 9/11 and several other major disruptions, I have no doubt that we will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger, healthier, and more resilient. Recovering from this crisis depends on two factors: the ability of the healthcare system to find treatments and vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the ability of corporations and businesses to effectively manage their own recoveries.