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As leaders respond to COVID-19, many lessons can be learned

June 18, 2020
By Tom Teahen

Photo: len44ik/Adobe Stock

COVID-19 came as a jolt to most organizations, mine included.

With 14 locations across Ontario and almost 4,000 staff, our experience at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) offers many lessons that, as leaders, we would do well to learn from.

Here are my top three lessons learned.

The plan won’t be perfect. Act quickly

We have done our fair share of emergency simulation drills. We have analyzed the results. We have updated our business continuity plans. We have audited our plans and developed the plan to improve those plans.


However, we had not contemplated a situation where every single office would be closed to every employee at once.

Separately, our efforts to progress to a work-from-home-friendly organization were not progressing quickly. While the desire amongst our staff was strong, the list of “what-ifs” from our leaders and planners was long.

Then COVID-19 happened. We had two priorities in mind framed in our values: the health and safety of our employees, and the continuity of service for people who rely on us after a work-related injury or illness.

With those priorities exclusively driving every decision, we transformed within days from tepidly dipping our toe in the “future of work” water to being an exclusively work-from-home organization. That meant equipping our employees to work at home with minimal disruption to them and to the people who depend on us.

On March 13, we advised all employees who had laptops to take them home. That was a Friday.

By that Sunday we advised all employees who had laptops to stay home, and by Monday we asked anyone not performing critical services to stay home whether they had laptops or not.

Tom Teahen is president and CEO of the WSIB in Toronto. (Submitted)

We immediately began to secure laptops for those who were using desktop computers but quickly determined we would not receive that supply fast enough. By the end of the week, we were packing up people’s desktop computers and sending them home, in some cases loading up a minivan for managers to make direct home deliveries.

In those hectic days, I saw an organization pull together with a singular focus, pitch in and make the impossible happen.

Within one week, our offices were closed and we were all working from home.

Keep talking, and keep listening

Like virtually every other organization in the world, we were in uncharted territory. Almost overnight, words like “Zoom” became part of our daily vernacular. Our acronym (WSIB) could stand for “Working Somewhere In the Basement.”

The transition has not been without bumps, and all of us are finding ways to handle added anxiety and stress. This experience has reinforced the truism that you cannot over-communicate in a crisis. There is incredible power in talking with your teams and listening.

Everyone is seeking answers and clarity, including senior leaders. Even if you don’t have all the answers — and you won’t — regular, consistent forums for communication are vitally important. Keeping them going for as long as you can has tremendous impact.

It is also helps to have varying voices at the table. In our case, we are benefiting from the advice and active participation of our union executive, who are helping to make the operation go as smoothly as we could reasonably hope.

By listening to concerns, hearing feedback, taking action, and coming back for more, leaders can demonstrate that we’re all in this together, and we will get through it together.

Don’t waste opportunities

Getting through these unprecedented times does not mean we will look the same on the other side.

Surprising opportunities can emerge in a crisis. These can include things that seemed almost impossible in the short term, but because of your crisis response, you have demonstrated that they can be done while managing risks effectively.

Transitioning to a work-from-home organization was one of those opportunities for the WSIB. We will eventually reopen our offices, but they will look dramatically different, and the vast majority of our staff will continue to work from their homes most of the time.

Accelerating online services is another opportunity we will not let pass us by. We were building out new online services before COVID-19 struck, but the situation has opened a door to speed up that work, and we are taking it.

Bringing our customer service model into the 21st century will give people access to information about their claim status, return to work plan, and health care coverage right on their computer, tablet or phone. We have to pounce on any opportunity to make that happen faster.

This time of upheaval can highlight what’s important and necessary, and what’s not, and what is possible when you don’t have the luxury of months, weeks or days for deliberation. Acquiring that psychological and organizational agility can be a light shining through the darkness of uncertainty these days.

While the next crisis probably won’t look exactly like this one, leaders should know even the best-laid plans will require quick decisions that should be grounded in your values.

Our teams and our customers will be looking to us for regular contact, transparent communication, and assurance of hope, and if we look closely, we can see opportunities around us — and act on them.

Tom Teahen is president and CEO of the WSIB in Toronto.

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