Achieve resilient, sustainable operations while navigating an unprecedented global pandemic and addressing complex disruptions.
How does one lead operations during a pandemic? How does one navigate through operational challenges while acknowledging the needs of staff and clients? We had to figure it out quickly, albeit not perfectly.
As the COO of a global environmental planning and sustainability consulting firm, I work collaboratively across all ADEC Innovations’ business units, namely FCS International and ADEC ESG Solutions, to successfully deliver services and products to our clients worldwide. March 2020 arrived and with it came an incredible amount of teamwork, hard work, and learning. The health and safety of our employees was priority No. 1 right at the onset of the pandemic. While we anticipated the potential for this in February and began to prepare, we had no idea what it would become.
Addressing operational challenges and tough decisions. The first 60 days were a blur. Adrenaline driven, unsure about the complexity of this level of disruption on the business, on our teams, on their families, the situation necessitated leadership and rapid response. The uncertainty and rapid escalation of the pandemic inspired tremendous efforts across our company – where the energy put forth by our teams was simply amazing. Faced with an evolving crisis that seemed to change on a daily basis, the pandemic significantly impacted our operations from top to bottom.
- Transitioning to a 100 percent remote staff. Within 48 hours, we had our staff of more than 100 working from their homes throughout the U.S. Our IT team continues to work diligently with each individual employee to ensure an effective and seamless home office configuration.
- Ensuring staff safety, engagement, productivity, and well-being. Communication was vital as we monitored local and national guidance alongside global reactions in real-time to keep our team informed frequently as the situation evolved. We surveyed our staff on three separate occasions to see what their mind-state was. We also asked how things were for them in their new “work from home” environments and what we, the company, could do to help. Whether it was improving our communications or providing leadership tools and strategies for remote work, we sought to humanize the situation and promote a work-life balance.
- Finding opportunities in sustainable cost reductions and budgeting. We have proactively announced that we do not see our employees returning to our offices before the end of 2021. We believe it is important to maintain transparency, and we wanted to give a realistic guideline for employees to prepare for mentally and physically. With that, we also reduced overhead where we could, and reinvested those savings and resources to help our staff with making their home offices more comfortable, more conducive to a long-term situation, and more productive.
- Implementing new safety protocols and procedures for staff conducting fieldwork. We remain dedicated to the safety of our staff, clients, and community first. Much of the work FCS does involves fieldwork and monitoring cultural resources, biological resources, traffic studies, and air quality. We implemented a series of new guidance and policies for our staff that work in the field and when asked to attend a client meeting in person. Additionally, we developed a cross-department task force to track the constantly changing guidance and recommendations.
- Retaining clients and prospective clients. An important element to business continuity during a major disruption is how we are able to best support our clients, which we often talk about. In addition to modifying budgets, we went the extra mile for them through communication and transparency. By actively listening to our clients and being responsive, we did our best to address their concerns and needs. Continuing to ensure the high quality of our work product gave our clients confidence, and we have become more selective about the work we pursue.
The human aspect. The Black Lives Matter movement came to the forefront on the country’s stage in the beginning of June. We communicated openly and listened to our staff. In response, we developed an employee-facilitated committee to explore race, culture, and diversity within our organization, and our impact outside the organization.
In September, we all seemed to hit a wall. Fuses were short, emotions were high, and no one could quite figure out what was happening or pinpoint the cause. The business was doing fine. Fundamentals were good. In fact, we found utilization was increasing with people working from their homes full-time. And yet, there was something happening. A timely article began circulating around the company that explained how six months into a crisis, any crisis, it is entirely human and normal to simply get exhausted by it and experience fatigue. From there, we talked about individuals as teams and as a company. Acknowledging our humanity was liberating. We are scared for ourselves and our loved ones. The macro- and micro-economic uncertainty adds to our anxiety. Things have improved since, and much still needs to be done.
When schools started virtually reopening, our employees suddenly found themselves as teachers and Zoom monitors – all while managing locked down households and their professional careers. It was unsustainable. It is unsustainable. Again, we talk about it. We listen and we learn. After hearing the staggering number of working parents who have had to change their employment situation, reduce their hours, or leave the workforce altogether, we proactively made significant changes to our long-standing company policies to help our employees navigate the life-work balancing act. We want to support and encourage our team’s careers and position our staff for growth, rather than watch them make seemingly impossible choices. This is an ongoing conversation that will evolve as the pandemic does.
Vital lessons learned. To think that we are done with addressing issues and pivoting our business model with so much still uncertain would be naive. While my job description would talk about maintaining business continuity and resiliency, that would be impossible without a safe and healthy team. Throughout the unknown, there are fundamental takeaways that will help us confront and mitigate the challenges we still have to face.
- Communicate. Often, frequently, and with compassion and understanding.
- Listen. Ask questions, encourage dialogue, and share openly.
- Collaborate. Create opportunities to have fun, to be healthy, and to do our work.
- Engage. Acknowledge the human toll. Be vulnerable. Admit when we do not have the answers. Be authentic.
- Act. Swiftly, and with creativity and boldness. And then, do it again. And again.
Businesses across the globe have been faced with complex challenges. Leadership teams across all industries have had to rethink traditional approaches and business models. We are in this for the long-haul and will get through it together. Better. Stronger. And our team, our clients, and their projects will be all the better for it.
Patrick Schultz is COO of FirstCarbon Solutions. Connect with him on LinkedIn.