How best practices from first responders can help you work through COVID-19 disruption

Release Date: March 31, 2020

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Natalie Simpson.
“In business, efficiency and control are the stars we steer by under normal conditions. Disruption throws us into a different hemisphere, where those stars aren’t helpful, or even present in the sky above us. ”
Natalie Simpson, Associate Professor and Chair of Operations Management and Strategy
UB School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Stay-at-home orders and social distancing have disrupted day-to-day life as the world works to mitigate the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic. Work teams have quickly shifted to telecommuting, swapping face-to-face meetings with videoconferencing, and moving from defined offices to makeshift workspaces at home—with the lines of work and leisure time blurring.

The situation has presented an array of challenges for both supervisors and employees. Natalie Simpson, associate professor and chair of operations management and strategy in the University at Buffalo School of Management, says her years of experience in fire departments taught her invaluable lessons about how to succeed despite emergencies.

“In business, efficiency and control are the stars we steer by under normal conditions,” says Simpson. “Disruption throws us into a different hemisphere, where those stars aren’t helpful, or even present in the sky above us.”

She says the key to accomplishing something when everything around you has changed is to realize you must navigate differently now.

“Unless you have experience with emergencies, the rules for working in this new world will seem unfamiliar and even uncomfortable at first,” says Simpson. “The good news is that you only need to follow these rules during the emergency—you can go back to your usual way of working when everything around returns to normal.”

5 actions to help work through turbulent situations

First, she says you can’t map out answers completely when your usual operations are disrupted, so don’t stress yourself by trying.

“Decide what to do next, do it—and then decide what to do from there,” she says. “This is known as iterative planning. You will know you’re finished when you see everything go back to normal.”

Her second lesson is “do no further harm.”

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing, so you don’t add yourself to a worsening situation,” says Simpson. “For many people, nothing is often the hardest thing to do, so don’t be surprised by that challenge.”

Thirdly, Simpson says to cultivate your options. There are usually two or more ways to do something, but under normal conditions, we only use the fastest, most efficient way.

“Efficiency doesn’t mean anything during disruption, so all other ways are back on the table, perfectly credible and ready to be part of your solution,” she says. “Also, those options include people in your social network, whom you normally never work with. Think about these folks—they may be able to contribute to your solution now.”

It’s also critical to keep an open channel of communication with your co-workers, and keep it clear. Simpson says your team needs one clear channel, a forum where only the team communicates, and everyone on the team monitors that channel, regardless of whether the last message was addressed to them or not.

“Email fails in this role, because there is a deafening amount of outside chatter mixing in with your team’s internal communication,” she says. “Consider group texts (text the entire team even when you ask one teammate a specific question) or setting up a space with a team productivity host like Slack or Microsoft Teams. If you were a fire department, this would be your radio, and the rest of the city doesn’t get to talk on your radio while you use it to fight your fires.”

Finally, Simpson says to be cheerful and polite.

“Pilots, emergency service workers and movie crews are all examples of professionals who often find themselves working with and dependent on somebody they’ve never met before,” she says. “One tip you can carry away from their world is ‘ritual politeness.’ Make extra effort to speak in a calm and cheerful manner, and take care to address your co-workers in a manner that signals your respect for them as people. This helps create a condition called ‘swift trust,’ the glue that holds temporary, fast-moving teams together.”

Natalie Simpson is an internationally recognized expert in emergency response operations and successful management in disorganized and even dangerous environments. With regard to the coronavirus pandemic, she can discuss at-risk supply lines, the logistics of shelter-in-place, and the power of temporary organizations. 

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit mgt.buffalo.edu.

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School of Management
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kjmanne@buffalo.edu