Begin with the Knowns and Unknowns

The world feels like it’s turned on its head right now. People are anxious, with good right to be. There’s so much we can’t predict about the weeks and months ahead. When planning your response, begin with what you know and what you don’t know.

What we know:

We’re in a pandemic, and social distancing can flatten the curve, meaning slow the rate by which the illness spreads. And, at this point, we can probably say this pandemic will be linked to an economic recession.

Start by responding to what we know. If you’re a business owner or in another position of influence, this begins with supporting social distancing efforts and following guidance from the CDC. For many, this means finding creative ways to keep your employees engaged and working so you can keep paying them for as long as possible.

Whether you’re shoring up remote work operations, or innovating your business model, remember your employees are anxious. Many of them are trying to balance work and childcare. Others are alone and will be feeling the isolation more keenly.

Now is the time to practice compassionate leadership. You can’t really know how much this situation is affecting each employee – who has vulnerable family members, who is most economically at-risk, and who has underlying mental health issues that will make this situation more difficult to bear.

Prioritize social connection as part of your workday. Plan virtual coffee meetings or happy hours via conference call. Managers, make it a point to check in on employees. Find out how people are doing, and not just in terms of work and technology. Ask how they’re feeling. Find out how the separation from the office is affecting them and what else is raising their anxiety.

Communicate. Rumors fly in uncertain times. Give your employees clear, reliable information. If you don’t know what your plan is yet, it’s okay to say that. Employees need to hear from you, and even those “we’re still considering our options” messages can head off misinformation.

What we don’t know:

The unknowns are many. We don’t know how long this situation will last. We don’t know the depth of the economic impact. So how do we respond in uncertain times?

Madison, Wisconsin based futurist Rebecca Ryan recommends scenario planning. Map out your worst fears, your highest aspirations, and your reasonable expectations (what feels most plausible over the next 18 months).

Do this together with your leadership team. Part of the value, as Ryan explains it, is stating your assumptions to the group. Which possibilities are you putting in the plausible zone, rather than the best- and worst-case scenario boxes?

Any scenario is possible, so spend time on each. Try to imagine how your business will respond to each possible future. A few weeks or months from now, you will have more information and can revisit your scenarios again.

If you tend toward pessimism, this kind of scenario planning may help lift you up out of fear by forcing you to imagine positive outcomes. That slight lift, that shift in perspective, can be extremely beneficial in times of stress.

But more than that, scenario planning helps you make thoughtful decisions in uncertain times – times when informed decisions aren’t always possible.