Photo by M.T ElGassier

True leadership in a crisis is about ensuring that the people around you feel protected, informed and most of all, trusted. As more and more South Africans turn towards business entities for answers to solve societal issues, expectations on business leaders to manage change effectively are growing – and yes, this can be daunting.

Managing change once had a focus on internal business challenges, the issues that directly affect a company (such as altering systems, improving technology, smoothing out merger processes), but as we’ve seen throughout the global pandemic, external factors are becoming impossible to ignore. Agents of change within businesses are also having to deal with the uncontrollable challenges in the daily lives of those they work with, finding forward-thinking solutions to avert panic.

For many South Africans, the last year and a half has been fraught with uncertainty, as health concerns and new ways of working were forced upon us. This sense of fear has been exacerbated in recent weeks as we witnessed civil unrest that resulted in the loss of more than 300 lives and an estimated R7 billion in  property damage.

Building trust regardless of circumstance

Yet even during a crisis, there are opportunities for leaders to effect healthy, positive change through empathy, credible information dissemination and agility. Sometimes this means putting long-held plans on hold, such as in the case of one of our clients who recently put a stop to a major development in their company to focus on internal crisis management with their employees to keep them safe, secure, and emotionally stable.

Rather than a change in systems, we concurred that focusing on the protection of their staff during the recent protests was paramount. This meant both ensuring they were enabled to safely work from home and providing emotional support through an effective communications strategy.

Those outside of our sector may not always realise it, but guidance, listening, understanding, and acting is part of what change management is really about. As we move away from the most immediate crisis, we must not lose this core of compassion, because – especially in the South African context – we are going to be dealing with major change for quite some time.

Working from home, not sleeping at the office

A major hiccup in the work-from-home model that is becoming increasingly well-documented is the blurring of work/life boundaries. These boundaries are vital to avoiding burnout and lowering stress – meaning managers must respect that their colleagues are not always on-call. But regardless of one’s position, we all have a responsibility to find ways of separating from our work lives. Creating geographical separations, such as designated workspaces in our homes, are helpful, psychological reminders that our homes are still places of leisure.  

It will be up to organisational leaders and change managers in an organisation to help others adjust to their new work-lives, but this is only possible through a unified vision of how working will happen in the future. The current work climate is unlikely to return to ‘normal’ any time soon. Therefore, organisations must solidify their crisis strategies and realise that connection and communication will be central to overcoming the anxiety that comes with change.