The Risk Of A Pandemic Isn’t Going Away. What Has Your Board Learned?

The Covid outbreak forced companies to address employee health and safety like never before. Now boards have to ensure management is embedding those protocols, so we're ready for the next one.

As the Covid-19 pandemic remains a crisis, corporate leaders have had to balance the health and safety of their employees against business continuity and customer satisfaction. These decisions have proven to be very difficult—even gut-wrenching—when the public discourse surrounding vaccines and CDC guidance is fraught with confusion, distrust, misinformation and political overtones. Nevertheless, boards and business leaders have had to resolve issues ranging from return-to-office policies to vaccine mandates to how much business travel is necessary. This pandemic has been a game changer because it has forcing boards and leaders to consider the outcome of their actions in real time.

As you read this you might be thinking: We’ve made our decisions. Why are we still talking about this? But I would suggest that the business community needs to consider how boards and companies can capitalize on this moment to ensure they are prepared for a future occurrence of a similar highly contagious virus. How will we prevent the massive disruption resulting from a pandemic and take the same posture regarding the health and safety of employees, business continuity and customer satisfaction in a world that will be impacted by airborne viruses from time to time?

1. Establish tone at the top.

I spent most of my career in the oil and gas industry. I don’t need to tell you that daily we needed to make sure that at any given moment, we had a safe work environment and had taken steps to mitigate loss of life or a major business disruption. When I became a CEO, I adopted the health and safety mantra “Every Day Everybody Goes Home Alive and Well.” This was the tone at the top helping everyone around the business understand the care and discipline that I expected them to apply to health and safety in the workplace. This tone had sufficient detail to help the organization understand the time to focus (Every Day), who was involved (Everybody), and the condition expected at the end of the day (Alive and Well). In a short period of time, this message provided clarity for both the people who worked in and around the company and the communities where we operated.

True, a professional services firm or a bank probably doesn’t need that safety mantra. But the Covid-19 pandemic put the health and safety of employees of every business on the agenda of the board and executive team in a significant way. It was as though everyone finally realized during the pandemic that if there are no people, then no work gets done.  Though we are seemingly no longer at the height of the crisis, companies are still wrestling with the steps they need to take to ensure employees are safe at work while maintaining business continuity and customer satisfaction.

This lasting turmoil could be because the firm never really decided what the tone would be regarding health and safety as an ongoing matter. It could be because the company was overwhelmed with the crisis and did not have time to come up for air. It might be because the public guidance has been inconsistent, because the entire subject has been fraught with distrust and misinformation.

My point here is that regardless of the decisions made—mandatory vaccinations or not, hybrid working or not, return to work or not—if those decisions are rooted in the health and safety of employees as the top priority, that tone can last through the ups and downs of variants and other viruses that may impact the workplace of the future. Just like a business strategy, efforts to mitigate the risk of Covid need to be part of a holistic and long-term approach to health and safety in the workplace.

With this in mind, the board should be asking the CEO and management team:

• What is the tone at the top regarding the health and safety of employees?

• Will this message stand the test of time or is it the “flavor of the month” because of the pandemic?

• Was the tone abandoned when it seemed as though the challenges of the pandemic had significantly reduced, and things were returning to normal?

Like it or not, a tone is being set by the actions leaders take.  If management does not deliver a message about something, employees will make one up on their own. That is why a clear, consistent message from the top on any matter, especially this one, helps eliminate ambiguity and provides guidance and certainty to the workplace.

2. Align critical decisions with the tone.

Aligning decisions with the tone is Leadership 101, correct?  If it is, I ask that boards and leaders consider whether the decisions they have made surrounding the pandemic were aligned with the health and safety tone that has been set at the top.  If they were, did the company communications reflect that?

If I go back to my “Alive and Well” tone, it was easy for people no matter where they were in the organization to make decisions that were aligned with that message. The easiest example is stop work authority, where anyone, regardless of title, was able to stop a work activity if they felt it was unsafe. Remember, there are thousands of decisions that people make in the organization daily that support the tone set at the top. The issue here is alignment. If the board has a role in ensuring that risks are properly mitigated, then they should ask for proof that the organization is aligned around the health and safety tone just as they would ask if the organization is aligned around the strategy or other critical objectives that the company is taking on.

An example of misalignment would be if the company issued a mask mandate and some supervisors decided not to enforce it. This would suggest that either the tone or the importance of alignment was not clear. Either way it could lead to confusion in the workplace—the last thing the company would want. Further, it would be virtually impossible for the company to have a long term “never again” mentality if, down in the organization, employees were not clear about the tone and expectations from the top.

The way to drive alignment in the company is to have the same tone and message about the importance of health and safety from the board down, and to have that message reinforced in every decision made along the way. That includes the messaging around hybrid working, vaccines, testing, office space….everything. That way, when supervisors are confronted with decisions on a daily basis, they are equipped and confident that they are aligned with the tone and message set at the top.

3. Embed what was learned.

I’m sure many have heard the phrase “never waste a crisis.” Well, this time around, it is not about wasting the crisis, but learning from it. Again, this pandemic put the health and safety of team members front and center for the board and the company. Why, then, should companies go back to their old ways of thinking and not keep employee health and safety as a priority?

I realize this is not natural for companies that don’t have manufacturing. Yet, the mindset shifts and actions taken for the pandemic, including travel policy changes, sanitizing stations, masking, social distancing and vaccine mandates, were all done with employee health and safety in mind.

Embedding this mindset and these practices into the organization going forward will not only be beneficial to the health and safety of team members but will also drive a more efficient and safe way of working. This will help organizations remain resilient during flu season, or in the face of another airborne virus challenge.

The business challenges presented by Covid-19 are here to stay. As such, the mitigation efforts that companies have made to reduce the health and safety risk and to bolster the accompanying business continuity and customer satisfaction results need to become part of the fabric of the organization. The way to do that is for the board and management team to be aligned on the health and safety tone at the top, to make all the decisions in that context and to embed the learning points from the last 18 months.

This approach is as basic as executing strategy or any other critical initiative in the company. In doing so, the company has a solid foundation to deal with the ups and downs of this pandemic, and any other one that might come along.

Gaurdie E Banister Jr. is the founder and CEO of Different Points of View, a private firm that provides advisory services in the areas of leadership and safety. He is the former President and CEO of Aera Energy LLC, one of California’s largest Oil and Gas companies. He is currently on the board of Tyson Foods,is the Lead Director at Russell Reynolds Associates and is a member of the board of trustees at American University. He has served on the boards of Marathon Oil and the Bristow Group. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of Mr. Banister and, except where stated, are not necessarily reflective of his experiences at any company where he has served on its board.