People cannot do their best work when they are worried. This is a lesson that the terrible events of September 11 are now bringing home to us in full force. Across the country and the world, people went back to work with the conviction that doing something positive and productive is in the end the best remedy against the destructiveness of terrorism. Yet it has proved difficult to recapture our sense of balance and normalcy in the workplace. Many employees are more distracted, stressed or nervous than before.
What should an entrepreneur do to help employees deal with these new stresses? A useful clue appeared in an interview with Brent Woodsworth, leader of IBM's Crisis Response Team, which is working to help the company's clients and their community around the Trade Center site right now. He pointed out that there are a lot of simple "peace of mind" things you can do.
Before September 11, I don't think I can recall people talking about managing employees' peace of mind, but now it is obviously a necessity in many workplaces. And, as Woodsworth astutely observed, there are, in fact, many simple things we can do to help people feel more safe and secure and to ease their anxieties so that they can focus on their work and not their worries.
For starters, in most workplaces, there are safety preparations and precautions that most employees don't know much about. When was the last time your employees got a thorough review of your fire safety plans and preparations, for example? Do they know where the fire alarms are and what they do when you ring them? Do they know what the options are for exiting the building? Can they quickly find a fire extinguisher or first aid kit if needed? Do they know what to do if there is a terrorist attack in the vicinity of their workplace? A lack of knowledge of such things makes the dangers more uncertain and scary. Spread clear information about them, and everyone will feel a little more secure.
And by the way, this advice goes against many managers' instincts. It is easy to believe that bad things are best not spoken of, but the opposite is generally true.
I am about to get on a plane (white knuckles and all) and go to Detroit to run a workshop for up-and-coming business leaders. Instead of teaching the same stuff I used to teach "before," I've decided to open the workshop with a new module on managing peace of mind in the workplace. Here's what I'll be teaching:
Peace of Mind Management Process
1. Identify fears and anxieties.
2. Match existing safeguards and resources to them.
3. Find ways to communicate these matches with problem/solution messages.
4. Identify any gaps in preparedness and work on them! (Include employees in this process; working on a problem increases peace of mind. Focus on availability, awareness, effectiveness of solutions.)
5. Brainstorm simple ways of adding to sense of readiness. (You can do this activity early and often--order not important!)
For example, some employees are now worrying about the safety of the buildings they work in. This means that to manage peace of mind, you need to help employees deal with the anxiety: "If the building collapses in an earthquake, bombing or fire and I'm trapped, how will I get out or be rescued?" Normally you might not spend any time thinking about such a question, but right now it would be a good investment of your leadership time to come up with some possible ideas that might help employees cope with this anxiety.
A brainstormed list of possible solutions from a recent session I ran looks like this: Cell phones, whistles, fire/evacuation drills, a daily record of who is in building, first aid kits and fire extinguishers available locally, mixers/social events to ensure that everyone knows who works in building, "buddy systems," emergency contacts phone list/tree, first aid training and an increased number of exits.
While not all of these options may be necessary in your workplace, the point is that it is not hard to come up with options and take action. And many of these ideas are relatively cheap, easy and low-tech. (How much would it cost to make a plastic whistle available to each employee, for example?)
The hard part of managing peace of mind is not thinking of things to do, but simply recognizing that you need to be thinking and talking about this issue in the first place. But one of the (many) things that's different now is that executives and business owners do need to take responsibility for managing peace of mind. And even if you are in technical compliance with safety regulations and requirements, you may well have a peace-of-mind problem in your workplace right now.
Alex Hiam is the founder and director of Alexander Hiam & Associates, a management consulting firm, and a publisher of tools for corporate trainers. He is the author ofStreetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books.