AN ORGANIZATION'S RESPONSE TO COVID-19
Written by: Leslie Hobbs
As the Senior Vice President and Director of Operations, Leslie Hobbs is the Integrator at Colliers | Columbus, meaning she partners with the CEO to test viability of vision and executes upon his ideas. She also oversees the leadership team and each department to create focus and traction of long and short term goals - holding each director accountable for the success of their team and service line. Working with every leader throughout the organization, Leslie drives results and is responsible for setting priorities in the company’s overall strategy. Keep reading to get Leslie’s take on how our organization responded and adapted to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
When was the initial communication plan put together for employees?
Maybe a week before the shutdown I started to recognize that something was probably about to go down in a pretty major way. I spent a day or two the week before the shutdown coming up with a plan for the leadership team. So, this was more of “What happens if we have to completely shut down? What happens if we only partially shut down? What do we do with the mail?” That’s all I did for two days because I was feeling paranoid about what was going to happen. But in the back of my head I was thinking “this is going to be something that I do and it's going to feel stupid because there's no way that they're just going to shut everything down.” I presented it to the rest of the leadership team, and I think four days later everything shut down. It was a good piece of foundational work. I was glad that I had sat and thought to prepare all of it. Both the communications and the overall plan had to be really fluid because things were changing all the time. You have to do what's in the best interest of the associates but also the clients and we were legitimately changing courses daily. I was just reading, watching and observing what was happening and then responding, responding, responding.
What was communication like with our leadership team throughout the different phases of the pandemic?
Very early on we recognized that we were going to have to be tripling and quadrupling our communication internally as a leadership team. Rich (our CEO) and I were pretty much in communication 24/7. I can remember our first COVID incident in a building where there was a potential open case and the high intensity that it was. It felt like there was a huge amount of pressure on the leadership team and on the property management and maintenance teams. We spent tons of time on the phone with the Department of Health and reading CDC documents because, at first, we had no idea what we were supposed to be doing. I was leading the charge on most of that and then disseminating that to the leadership team. It was a barrage of information that was coming in. It was things as crazy and as small as “what's the CDC’s guidance on changing out air filters and air conditioning units? How should our HVAC teams be suited up to take out a filter and to be able to replace it and remove it?” You can't take those things lightly because people are doing these jobs and we want them to be safe doing them.
The communication between the leadership team at that time was all-encompassing. We were trying to be the voice of reason and the voice of calm for the rest of the company, but the reality is in the leadership team, it was very much escalated. On our end there was a high level of anxiety because we wanted to make sure we were doing everything the right way. We wanted people to understand if we had to course correct. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before and it still feels a little bit surreal actually. I don't look back at it with many regrets of how we handled things, but at the time I lived in fear that I was missing something all the time. I didn’t want to miss something that was going to put our team, tenants or clients in danger.
How did you ensure that our employees were safe/protected and that the company was not liable for a spread?
That is something that we’re always trying to balance out. The safety of our team and of everyone else is always going to be number one. So, we have been erring on the side of caution, especially because the information out there is scant sometimes. There is no central place for information and that has been making it really tough. We as a company knew that we had to give everybody whatever they needed in order to feel safe. And, of course, minimize our liability at the same time. I would sit in legal meetings once a week, listening to lawyers talk about all of the potential liability that was out there because of COVID. But, it's like anything else that we do which is we try not to overly focus on the negative. If you really are doing the right things and you honestly care about your team and their safety, then you don’t worry that much about that piece of it because you’re inherently going to do the right things. We can’t control what people do in their personal lives. We're giving everyone the benefit of the doubt that they are doing what is in their best interests and in the best interest of the company. You have to just believe in your team. There’s no other way to do that and have a healthy culture. Our stance has always been to treat everyone’s individual situation like an individual situation as opposed to us creating broadsided intentions for everyone. We have the ability to do that because we are a small enough organization.
How did you prepare for and deal with our maintenance team having to be out in the field?
Most of the maintenance team recognized that they did have a different type of role. Looking back on it now, it was probably pretty safe for our maintenance team because most of the buildings they were working in were empty. At the time though, it certainly felt riskier. We tried to put things in place that would help ease their minds, like investing in a lot of PPE and safety protocol. We did have people that ended up taking leaves of absence out of an abundance of caution, and we handled that and made sure that those people were taken care of and our clients were taken care of. So, we tried to give options where we could.
From a morale standpoint, it was tough. We really tried to help boost morale for that team. We did a lot of things separately for them so that they knew that they weren't alone. The management team and I called at least 5-10 maintenance techs every day just to check in and make sure they were okay and supported. I think things like that helped people at the time feel less isolated. The leadership team really tried to stay in front of them as best we could during that time.
Since this started in March, what other new efforts have you put in place for the company and office?
Of course, flexibility. It does showcase that we can be pretty flexible and that there's no reason not to be flexible. I think if anything it has shown a lot of people that we can do our jobs remotely, but when I say do our jobs, I mean complete tasks. We’re very efficient at completing tasks when we're at home. The thing that I think a lot of people have started to see is that there are a lot of intangibles about work that are really hard to do remotely. But, the pandemic has proven to us that you can be pretty flexible with people and not lose too much productivity and help with work-life balance.
There’s other little things that I think that we, as a society, were a little bit more relaxed about before, like personal space and cleanliness. For example, last year I started putting plans in place for sustainability initiatives in the office but now I’m second-guessing some of those things because of COVID. I wanted to get rid of all single-use paper and plastic in the kitchen, but now with COVID nobody really wants to be reusing other people’s dishes, so I don’t know if that is an option anymore. We've also done more cleaning in the last six months than we probably ever have, and that is something that we're going to see become more of a norm. There are these HVAC systems that filter out air better – these are going to be the kinds of amenities that become more and more important to our clients and to us. It’s interesting the way that this will most likely have a ripple effect for decades.
Today’s COVID looks really different than March’s COVID. I don't think that it’s done, but I think it's going to continue to evolve. I don't know what it's going to look like in six months, but we're going to continue to evolve and be very nimble and flexible. Overall looking back at the response, I do feel like we lived our core values. We really try to continue to support our clients and to keep our team safe and motivated.