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Don't Pump the Brakes on Social Distancing

Don't Pump the Brakes on Social Distancing

by Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Persuading your employees to continue social distancing may be tricky
  • You cannot overcommunicate during this crisis
  • Your company purpose has persuasive power

A Gallup Panel survey conducted April 6-9 found that 84% of U.S. adults say they're avoiding small gatherings of people, up from 23% in mid-March. Seventy-eight percent are avoiding public places like stores, and 89% are staying away from public transportation such as planes, buses, subways or trains. It's fair to say that Americans are taking social distancing seriously.

But they may not be taking it happily. No surprise -- humans are social creatures, and we crave companionship. As Kaitlyn Tiffany put it in her recent piece in The Atlantic, "I would have paid money to look up close at a face other than my own."

Nonetheless, leaders have a moral obligation to keep employees safe -- and until COVID-19 tests and vaccines are widely available, social distancing is the way to do it. Gallup statistical models indicate that over 11 million Americans are at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying if 100% of the U.S. population were to become infected with COVID-19. And "if 10% of the adult population becomes infected -- about 25 million people -- then deaths in excess of 1 million would be possible," wrote Dan Witters and Sangeeta Agrawal in a March 27 Gallup article.

How long will people maintain social distancing?

That's why so many leaders recreated their organizations as remote operations almost overnight. Someday, we'll look back at that as a business miracle -- but right now, it's a basic necessity. Social distancing is so important to combating the pandemic that Gallup scientists included the question, "Over the past 24 hours, how often have you been practicing social distancing?" in their five-question COVID-19 Leadership Audit.

The audit, based on a Gallup analysis of nearly every major crisis of the past eight decades, is available at no cost for leaders to gauge their organization's response to COVID-19. The odds are high that your audit will show (unless you're in an essential-services sector) a substantial percentage of your employees are practicing social distancing. Most people are, as the Gallup Panel research indicates.

The question is, how long can that last? As said, humans are social creatures. You can communicate new expectations, you can lock up your facilities, you can email everybody the data from Gallup analysts, but some people are going to stop sheltering in place long before they should -- and you can't make them stay home.

But you can make them want to.

Lead with purpose, trust, stability, compassion and hope.

In a study of 10,000 employees a few years ago, Gallup discovered the four fundamental needs of all followers: trust, compassion, stability and hope. Fulfill those needs and your people will be more engaged, enthusiastic and motivated to achieve the objectives you set. The same is true of organizations that define their purpose so well that it guides employees' behaviors and values.

So, to get people to shelter in place as long as they should, put your purpose and your followers' needs together in one tightly woven -- and constantly communicated -- leadership message.

Say, for example, that you run a bank with the defined purpose of "enabling financial wellbeing and prosperity in the communities we serve." Explain that social distancing keeps employees and customers well. It creates stability that enables customers to prosper in the long run. Large groups make people -- employees, customers and whole communities -- unsafe. Putting people at risk is the antithesis of your bank's purpose, while social distancing serves it.

Put your purpose and your followers' needs together in one tightly woven -- and constantly communicated -- leadership message.

The purpose piece is specific to each company, of course, but the needs of followers are universal. Meeting them requires ongoing effort, and Gallup advises leaders to build trust through honesty, create stability through strategy, share compassion by listening, and inspire hope by showing a clear path to the future. Hold your direct reports accountable for conflating purpose with safety and fulfilling the four fundamental needs of their own followers. And pay scrupulously close attention to employee engagement. During the Great Recession, Gallup scientists reported that the foundational elements of engagement were the most urgent to employees -- because there's a connection between engagement, feeling cared for and optimism.

Soon that effort will create energy of its own that can cascade through the company. But don't let up: Employees need consistent messaging to internalize your objective and make it their own. When they do, maintaining social distancing will feel like the only right thing to do. And it is.

It's also temporary. Remind your employees of that too. This pandemic will end. It will end faster, with more of our friends, family and coworkers in good health, if we keep our distance now.

Get data, get advice, and get through COVID-19 disruptions:

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