Learning to lead in times of crisis.

September 17, 2020

Photo: UNDP India | Deepak Malik

Day two into the lockdown, a WhatsApp message from our social media guru popped up on my phone as I was about to start my dinner: “Shoko, can you take a video of you playing the piano, then say ‘stay at home’ and a few more words. Keep it within 45 seconds. We need to upload it tonight on TikTok”. I barely knew what TikTok was. I had not practiced piano for years. Eventually, this short video with an introduction of Chopin’s Nocturne was posted next to Amitabh Bachchan and other Bollywood celebrities in TikTok to kick start the #GharBaithoIndia campaign (stay home India). The page showed 49 billion views.

While in the video I said with the best possible smile, “let’s stay at home”, inside myself, I was rather anxious. When are we returning to office in full strength? How can I manage the team of 500 plus colleagues all working from home? How can we quickly formulate UNDP’s Covid response framework? Being the only child, I was also worried about my elderly parents living by themselves in Japan—especially at a time when the Covid caseload was increasing there and international flights were all suspended.

All communications from our headquarters in New York was suddenly only about Covid—as flurry of Zoom meetings were set up. Numerous online meetings, time difference between Delhi and New York along with the need to pivot our programmes to meet the challenges brought about by Covid has been demanding.

The past few months have passed like a bullet train. Covid has been an unprecedented crisis for everyone, including leaders and managers like me. No leadership assessment test could prepare one for this kind of a scenario. Nor any articles on management can teach leaders on handling a crisis of this magnitude. The journey with Covid has been full of learning, trials and tribulations.

In the new virtual office, diversity and differences in style, personality and circumstances have become more amplified. There are extroverts and introverts; male and female colleagues with different responsibilities at home; IT savvy and less digitally literate generations; and, colleagues living with and without family. Working from home affects these colleagues differently. They got into different working habits, too. Some started unhealthy night shifts. A few others showed an early sign of burnout. As I tried to reach to everyone to ensure the health and well-being of my colleagues, many living by themselves told me about insomnia, lack of routines and human contacts.

My priority was to keep them integrated, healthy and motivated as they adapted to a new reality to deliver development assistance and impact to the people of India. In this virtual operating space, empathy and listening have become even more essential.

In order to understand colleagues’ issues and feedback, we conducted regular online surveys. The results showed that women faced additional burden of housework. Many felt that there were too many virtual meetings. We therefore introduced a meeting-free time slot between noon and 14:00. We also organise on-line yoga classes, interactions with doctors and mental health experts and set up hobby clubs. Step by step, we are co-creating a new enabling sense of normalcy, as best as we can, as a team.

Looking at the Zoom interface, I realised that technology can be quite empowering, giving each of the participant the same size of square to be visible and heard.  Even though there is office hierarchy for functional purposes, I saw many colleagues felt more comfortable expressing themselves. This also threw a spotlight on those who were producing quality results and those who weren’t. As managers and leaders, it is our responsibility to support those who are struggling to adapt to this new reality. No doubt, this will take some getting used to for many people.

In these uncertain and difficult times leaders and their leadership styles can play a significant role in managing crisis and rebuilding teams. All leaders, irrespective of the hierarchy or organisation, need to bring forward their empathetic, compassionate, and collaborative style and invest in building and sustaining trust in and among teams.

Covid-19 has emerged as an unprecedented health, humanitarian and development crisis. The TikTok campaign has hopefully helped raise awareness about a more preventive behaviour, a critical step to minimize exposure and limit the infections, but that is the first step in this long arduous journey towards recovery and recreating. It requires us all to keep doing our best.

There are good and bad days. Every night I go to bed with a mixed sense of commitment and pressure. Is UNDP helping the lives of the affected population? Are we meeting expectations of the government and other development partners? Is everybody staying well? Then I wake up in the morning and remind myself to be optimistic: let’s start a new day.

This article was originially published on Business Economics.

Shoko Noda is the Resident Representative at UNDP India