Reopening Lessons from CEO Barra’s COVID-19 Playbook

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a new game in town. While COVID-19 may be a fierce opponent; there’s an even bigger combatant on the horizon, and its name is ear. With the pandemic in full swing, no employee wants to go back to an unsafe work environment much less back to work for someone who is willing to take risks with their health and the health of their families. So as states cautiously reopen, just how do small business owners safely bring employees back to work?

In the current crisis, it may be as simple as looking to other CEOs and their response to reopening that can provide insight. Leaders who stay visible, engaged and empathetic in response to a crisis are genuinely more effective. Any CEO, worthy of the title, knows that strong involvement sends the right message to both their employees and customers. Right now the CEO to watch would be General Motors CEO Mary Barra. Here are a few lessons we learned from Barra’s COVID-19 Reopening Playbook:

  1. Show empathy. Early in her career, Barra learned that to appeal to her teams as a leader, she had to innately discern what people cared about, what they aspired to and feared most. But it isn’t enough to lead with slogans. If a leader falters at humanely expressing empathy to their teams, the message they deliver can fall on deaf ears. Prior to the reopening GM plants, with a shift from manufacturing autos to manufacturing ventilators, she sent each employee a ‘back to work’ package with a letter she personally signed.
  2. Don’t just say it’s a new culture; back it up with the right behavior. It’s not enough to simply say this is the ‘new culture’ or ‘new normal’; you have to back your words with the right behavior. In other words, be sure your own actions as a leader emulates the behavior response you’re seeking in your employees. In the ‘back-to-work’ package from Barra were 5 medical-grade masks; enough for a family, and new return-to-work protocols. Including the N-95 masks in the package not only says the company cares about employee safety, but that they understand what their employees face in the workplace.
  3. Create a new playbook for the new normal. You can wax and wane about how things used to be and how bad things are now, but that’s a surefire way for your business to remain stagnant. Barra’s ‘back-to-work’ package included a 48-page playbook, which she co-authored with other team leaders. Its focus was protocols for distancing, disinfecting and new rules for shifts, breaks and lunches. Obviously, not every business owner is in manufacturing; however, creating a playbook tailored to your business can work whether you own a retail shop, restaurant or food truck.
  4. Be sure everyone has a copy of the playbook. It’s not enough to say a COVID-19 playbook exists. Everyone from the plant floor to the mailroom to the office will feel apprehensive about returning to work. Having team leaders, supervisors and managers know the playbook inside and out can ensure that if an employee has questions they will know who to turn to for answers.
  5. Give safety briefings. Share what’s different about the way work will be done moving forward. Address how to handle in-store, online and curbside customers. Explain what type of disinfecting procedures are being done and how often. Answer any questions about how your business plans to keep employees safe. Meet weekly or more to address concerns or receive feedback from anyone who may feel something isn’t working right or if they feel unsafe.
  6. Give employees control of their safety. Build time into allowing employees to clean their own space, wash hands or change any personal protective equipment, if needed. Have masks, hand sanitizer and protective eyewear available, and disinfecting sprays for community areas such as break rooms and entryways. Allowing employees permission to control their environment safely gives them confidence in the handling of the situation as well as reassurance that their health is a priority to the company.

There’s no doubt that unusual times call for unusual measures. Even if you don’t have access to medical grade masks at least show that you get it. Show that you see what your employees are going through. Stepping up as a leader shows that you are willing to do what it takes to safely protect them and their families during this pandemic crisis.


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