COVID-19: 5 Leadership Lessons

March 29, 2020

Over the last two months, I have learnt and been reminded of some simple leadership practices while dealing with the impact of COVID-19 here in Singapore.

Below are 5 leadership lessons based on real examples. I hope these can help others during these challenging times.

1. Lead by example

Singapore was one of the first countries with cases of COVID-19.

Quickly, we decided to implement actions to reduce the risk to our employees, one of which was wearing surgical masks in the office. (There are different views on wearing masks when you are healthy, but this was the decision we made).

Personally, I found wearing masks unpleasant and a bit annoying, especially when speaking. By the end of the first day, I had already stopped wearing it in the office 🤦. 

Within a week, the percentage of employees wearing masks went from 70% to 10%. 

But things seemed to be under control. That is, until another wave of COVID-19 cases hit Singapore.

As a response to the increase in new cases, the management team decided to re-enforce wearing masks at work. This time, we were serious!

I, with the rest of the management team, committed to wearing them whether we liked it or not.

And what do you know? Within a day and after a few reminders, the entire office was wearing masks, with no exceptions!

LESSON: You cannot expect people to change or be disciplined if you as a leader are not willing to do it yourself.

2. Make Decisions Quickly

As a precautionary measure to stop the virus from spreading, Malaysia essentially closed its borders last week. This impacted us and many other companies in Singapore, many employees commute to and from Singapore every day.

With a 24-hour notice before the borders closed, we had very little time to figure out how best to support our teams so they could keep working and support our operations.

We had tons of questions:

  • How long will this last? 
  • Are people willing to stay away from their families? 
  • How much will hotel rooms cost? 
  • Will the government provide financial support?

We never had all the answers to these questions, but decisions had to be made. (Note, one week later and we still don’t have all the answers.)

If we hadn’t made decisions quickly, hotels would have been booked out, people wouldn’t have had enough time to head back home and say bye to their families, and worst of all, our teams would have been left waiting with no clear direction. 

A delayed decision would have been put the operations and their jobs at risk.

LESSON: During a crisis you will never have the complete information. But as a leader you must act fast and decisively because your team is counting on you.

3. Working from home is more efficient.

Singapore was one of the first affected countries outside of China. Because of that we have already been working from home whenever possible for the last 2 months.

What have I have learnt while working from home:

  • I’m more productive at home as there are fewer interruptions. This allows me to focus on one task at a time, rather than multitasking, which often occurs in the office.
  • Meetings via Skype can actually be more efficient, as people tend to only say things if they really add value or are asked to contribute.
  • Large Skype meetings have had more participation than when we do them in the office. I am still trying to figure this one out. Maybe people feel more comfortable speaking up via Skype than in a big meeting room?
  • You have more time to take care of yourself, whether this is sleep, family time or a hobby. Just the reduction of a daily commute gives you an extra 0.5-1 hour a day. This self care in return helps you be more energised and productive when you are working.

LESSON: Don’t underestimate the positive impact working from home will have on you team’s performance. If done right, you will see a huge improvement in your team’s results.

4. Listen to your team.

Nearly two months ago, we started working from home whenever possible.

Our layout engineering team was impacted the most as they work on desktop computers. Because their work requires maximum processing power, it seemed sensible to provide them with desktop computers. This long-standing decision seemed normal, until COVID-19 stuck.

As we introduced new work-from-home policies, the idea that layout engineers had to work on desktop computers was challenged.

When the head of the layout department suggested ordering high-spec laptops in case the situation dragged out for longer, I was at first a bit sceptical. I was hesitant because I thought we would return to working from the office before long, and was also concerned about the cost impact of the new laptops.

After thinking about this for a day, I decided that I should listen to the team, as they were the experts on how I can help them.

It has been 8 weeks since then and things have gotten worse. Luckily, I listened to the team and new laptops should arrive next week, allowing everybody to work from home.

Had I not taken the team’s advise, we would be in a very different situation now.

LESSON: Listen to your team. The decisions you make with their input will be far better than ones you make alone. You will improve your team’s engagement.

5. Say thank you.

The last two weeks in Singapore have been tough, with borders closing and new measures coming into play on a daily basis. This has been particularly tough on our teams out in the field as they do everything they can to keep operations running as smoothly as possible.

With this additional pressure we need to make an extra effort to say thank you more regularly.

Social distancing doesn’t have to prevent saying thank you virtually, through short video messages, phone calls, emails, WhatsApp, and even social media.

On that note, I would like to say a big THANK YOU to all our technicians, supervisors, and engineers who are out in the field every day making sure that our customers are WOWed by our service.

And also, a big THANK YOU to their families for supporting them during these challenging times.

LESSON: You can never thank people enough for their dedication and commitment during a crisis. We are all in this together.

These are simple lessons, but also key leadership principles that can and should be put into action during the good times and the bad.

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