While Tokyo has so far escaped relatively unharmed from the triple blow of the 9.0 mega-quake, devastating tsunami and ongoing Fukushima nuclear saga, for anyone involved in business here in the capital, events have brought a different kind of challenge.
With the world media panicking and some foreign governments advising their citizens to evacuate, large numbers of Japanese and foreigners alike have fled the capital for other areas of Japan or abroad. The people who remain, while trying their best to keep the city running, are anxious over their futures and have had to contend with the worry of blackouts and transportation problems.
For those of us committed to staying in Tokyo with the companies we run, how do we cope with the crisis? Here is some advice for owners, managers or anyone who has found themselves in a leadership position as a result of this crisis.
Put your people first
Above all, put the safety and well being of your staff first. However, this does not necessarily mean evacuating and closing down the business at the first opportunity. Particularly if a lot of your staff are Japanese or long-term foreigners, as is the case in our company, you also need to consider their futures. When the current crisis is over, they will need jobs and some kind of future to come back to here in Tokyo.
People have unquestionably been shaken up; anyone you talk to probably has numerous stories of how they have been affected. Some people have relatives or friends in the tsunami-hit area with whom they are still unable to make contact. Around our offices, spirits are generally high but it is also evident that staff are suffering from a lack of sleep and that stress levels are somewhat heightened.
With that in mind, companies should be understanding if their employees want to leave the city or take a break from work. There may be some with families encouraging them to return home or embassies advising them to evacuate from the city. Others may have been so rattled by the events that it is difficult for them to function properly in the office. Showing some compassion to these workers and reassuring them that their jobs will be open when they return will be gratefully received and their loyalty towards the company will only deepen. In some cases, there may be an opportunity for staff to work remotely or from another branch, but this will depend on the nature of your business and the nature of their role.
Reduce opening hours if you can and allow staff to work more flexible hours than usual. This will let them spend more time with their families and avoid the worse than usual rush-hour congestion frequently seen in the past week. Encourage your staff to take plenty of exercise and keep up with interests outside of work if they can. There is nothing like routine for helping people to overcome traumatic and unsettling experiences.
Be a leader
Being a leader in a crisis is about helping your people by instilling a clear sense of purpose. That purpose might be staying here and fighting hard for the sake of your customers and each other. Or, for some companies, it might be about organizing an evacuation of employees and their families. Either way, make sure your employees know what the purpose is and how firmly you believe in it.
At this critical time, employees look to their leadership to be strong, more than at any other time. Showing confidence, even when you may not completely feel it yourself, is crucial to the role of a leader in crisis. The sense of relief your team will feel with strong, confident leadership will be greater than ever in these difficult times.
In addition, you will never find a better opportunity to truly earn your employees’ honest respect; respect earned not because you are the CEO, owner, or manager, but because, when they really needed a strong leader and a clear sense of purpose and direction, you were there providing these things. You might be quite surprised by the positive energy shift in your team.
It is your role as a leader in the company to really understand the risks. You need to not only keep up to date with the latest news, of course, but also try to separate fact from opinion and sensationalism. Try to keep perspective about what is happening and the scale of the problem and avoid being consumed by rumor and paranoia. Can you explain to your staff and customers what a microsievert is? Do you have an idea what the worst possible scenario from the Fukushima accident is? Do you understand why there are blackouts, who they affect and how you can help to prevent them? Do you really understand how the disaster has impacted your business – your customers, distribution networks and suppliers? How will your staffing levels be affected in the short and medium term?
A large part of my day at the moment is spent meeting with key managers and getting updates on employees and team members. I am also spending as much time as possible talking with customers, as well as other people within our industry. When I have spare time, I am scouring Internet news sites and Twitter for new information and the general pulse of both the Japanese and foreign communities in Tokyo.
Now more than ever is the time to communicate often and effectively with everyone connected with your business. Communication serves many purposes in a crisis – relaying information, showing compassion, motivating people and giving reassurance. Your employees, customers and employees will thank you for doing all of these.
In the famous words of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." You can allay employees' fears by giving them timely and accurate information on developments with the nuclear situation, your industry and the economy. Also, employees truly value up-to-date information on company-related issues, from opening hours to salaries to strategic decisions. In these uncertain times, there are few sources of reliable information, so you owe it to your team to be one of those sources.
Another must is to increase face-to-face time. In our business, we have held regular meetings and have made a point of increasing one-on-one conversations with staff and customers to update and motivate and so that people feel a true sense of the team pulling together. The difference after just a week of doing this is striking, with everyone far more positive and optimistic.
A sense of humor goes a long way to reassuring people after a crisis and can ease the psychological toll. Try to make people smile and brighten their day with a (tasteful) joke or light-hearted anecdote where appropriate.
Stay calm but positive
Business has been unpredictable over the past week and my guess is that it will continue like this for some weeks. Every day can bring a new challenge of a kind that you have not had to deal with before. When problems do arise, remain calm and make sure you have all the information before making a decision. Panicking and making rushed decisions lead to mistakes and can be even be dangerous.
This same composure is necessary for strategic decisions. We are pushing back any major decisions, especially those involving large cash expenditure, for a couple of weeks until the outlook at the Fukushima plant and the outlook for the energy situation and general economic situation are better understood.
At the same time, there is absolutely no harm in being positive and looking towards the future – in fact, your people need it and deserve it. And, with the business landscape so unpredictable at the moment, there are a lot of opportunities for those who remain in Tokyo.
I wish you all the best of luck in getting through these tough times.
The author is COO of Dean Morgan KK.© Japan Today