Navigating Early Days of Pandemic: In Business and Personal Life

Vikas Joshi
March 25, 2020

Just like many other parts of the world, India is now completely locked down. Businesses are either paused or in work-from-home mode. Individuals and business leaders are scrambling for frameworks to wrap their heads around this constantly changing situation. COVID-19 is a crisis of uncertain magnitude, uncertain duration, and global scale. The costs it imposes are humanitarian, medical, economic, and psychological.

At Harbinger Group (where I serve as CEO), we are learning on the fly how to cope with this change. I’m sharing a few ideas we have implemented so far. Personally, too, I am trying some new things. Just thought of sharing those with you. Hope you share yours, and together we learn.

Online social for all employees

Right from Day 1 of working from home, every day at 4 PM we have an online company social that lasts about 30 minutes. I usually open with some light conversation and sentiment polls. Based on the polls, I address a topic such as beating isolation, positive thinking, discovering opportunities, and so forth. Sometimes another member of the exec team shares updates and their thoughts. Sometimes we do a little talent show – an employee might, for instance, sing a song. Then there is an open Q&A, and online chat, sharing of jokes, inspirational quotes, and so on.

The goal of the daily online company social is twofold: First, letting people realize that Harbinger is not just a company, it is their community. Second, creating a few minutes of Harbinger culture right inside their home offices, so they come out feeling lighter and more positive. How far have we met these goals? Too early to say. The online attendance has grown from a dozen to a few hundreds, which is a fraction of the workforce.

Critical Incident Management Team

Harbinger has set up a critical incident management team that includes me, our COO, CFO, and a Line-of-Business President. We meet daily, and our HR head facilitates the meeting. We’ve signed off on our key priorities (conserve cash, protect key customer base, keep employees psychologically safe, stay ready for a rebound). Each day, we collect information, review the situation, and evaluate our options to make decisions as we go. We stay open to re-evaluating those decisions as new information comes up. This is in line with agile crisis management principles outlined by Dutch Leonard and Bob Kaplan of HBS.

There is a backup critical incident management team that broadly mirrors the knowledge and experience of the main team. In case any member of the critical incident management team is unable to serve for a period, a backup is already in place.

Reorganization of business structure

Due to the changing situation, online learning investments will skyrocket. So will online employee engagement. These being Harbinger’s core areas, we must prepare ourselves to get in front of these markets more vigorously. Our company is organized by clear lines of business, but some of these new opportunities are cross-divisional: they need competencies from multiple businesses.

In view of this, we have constituted a special task force for evolving opportunities. This task force has leaders from all businesses. Our goal is to be agile and to move quickly. Already, inquiries have come along from clients who are scrambling to enhance their online training and employee engagement.

Personal Wellness

Nobody is immune to the negative emotions generated by a tragedy of the scale we are witnessing. It is heart-wrenching to open Whatsapp and learn from friends whose families are already affected. It is no more a general phenomenon that people discuss abstractly. It becomes personal when you see it at the doorstep. It hits you like a bag of bricks, and provokes fear, anxiety, loneliness, and even anger.

I have so far used the following ways to keep these afflictions at bay.

First, I know I enjoy learning. Ten days back I decided to learn a new language (a new script, really). And now, I can read Urdu language right to left. This is great fun, because I already followed the language and its poetry, now I can read it right to left in Urdu too!  As my next learning experience, I have enrolled in a Harvard course on crisis management in COVID-19 times. It is great to go back to the b-school experience after several years. It was fun to run into former classmates in the chat window.

Second, I’ve been reading (and listening to) Yongey Mingeur Rinpoche, a Tibetan master of meditation, dubbed world’s happiest man based on fMRI brain scans. On the few occasions that I tried meditating (for a few minutes), I found that to be a very effective calming experience. The metaphor Rinpoche uses is simple: If you can see the river, you are not drowning in it. All the negative emotions we experience are like clouds that pass through the sky of awareness. Meditation puts you in touch with the sky and teaches you not to get overwhelmed by the clouds.

Finally, friends and loved ones. All of us are in the same boat, and we only have each other. So online socials, reunions, chats, and check-in calls are on the rise. Some people are wondering if I have changed. I try to explain to them that everything has changed. Why should I not?

Thanks for reading, and curious to know what is working for your business and for you personally.