Courtesy: Jason Joseph

I lead the marketing and creative teams at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. COVID-19 would test us in a way that hopefully nothing else will in our lifetimes. I had been involved with COVID-19 communications since February 19 and had a close up view to how serious this virus was.  I understood the impact to our health system that would most likely occur and I knew our team would be needed now more than ever. It was my job to make sure that I did everything I could to lead the team while we were apart. While the research I did on that Sunday night prepared me for the first team meeting, it would take more than I originally thought or that any article advised.  No one had faced motivating a team during a something like this in our lifetime, especially one that would have a front seat to this crisis.

I knew our first call would be key in setting the tone for the challenge that lie ahead. The most important thing I wanted to do was lift them up while I acknowledged how immensely tough this would be both professionally and personally. There is nothing more important to me than my team.  They are exceptional and they deserved me to be at my best as a leader. Empathy is always important to show as a leader, but during this time it would be key to keeping a team motivated. Members of my team would be trying to work while possibly managing kids at home trying to learn online or others would be feeling isolated and alone. Everyone was talking about preparing for the surge but our surge would hit on day 1.

I always believed in transparency with my team.  Transparency can be an overused word but it is an underused action. I believe in being as transparent as I can. My team responds to it. Any team does. I knew we were going to need to continue to show our worth to the organization. We had always provided bi-weekly project reports. I asked everyone to do a weekly project update so I could have a clear understanding of the work being completed week by week. If anyone was wondering about the work being done by my team, I wanted to be able to easily share all the contributions being made by each team member.  

At the end of the call, I challenged them that we would hold ourselves to high standards and set the example for others. We would each do things that we may never have done before. We would be supporting communications to make sure we provided the necessary information to our faculty and staff. I also thanked them for their flexibility, determination, empathy and innovation in the days and weeks to come. I learned that clear communication was important as always.  I also realized that daily huddles would be key the first several weeks to make sure we stayed connected.

Daily 30 minute Zoom huddles for the first four weeks of this crisis were key to making sure we stayed connected and aligned to the needs of the medical center. I knew that I needed to bring a smile to the team at the beginning of these calls.  I shared a fun picture the first day and then the team started sharing their dogs, cats, plants and kids.  It’s important to remember that our surge hit Day 1.  Our team worked 12 to 14 hours days and the weekends were long as well.  We needed something to make us smile and it allowed us to get even closer as a team.

I shared key information that would keep the team up to date.  We shared lessons learned.  We shared work in progress to get feedback. Teammates would give “shout outs” to others.  It helped everyone know things that were accomplished and celebrate it as well.  We have always celebrated our accomplishments in my team meetings by recognizing values displayed but it would become more important than ever. 

Our team would be leading communications for many of the twenty workgroups that were set up to address all issues of COVID-19.  We would support supply chain, labor pool workforce, health and well-being of our faculty and staff, recognition and telehealth care to name a few.  I have always believed that a marketing team is at its best and most valuable when you are working with your operations partners to solve problems.  We always see things through the eyes of the consumer and that is invaluable to any initiative. 

In addition, I took time to make individual calls just to check in on everyone, not to talk about work but to see how they were doing.  I think I caught some off guard as they would start talking about all the things they were working on and I would interrupt and say I am just calling to say hi and see how you are doing?  How are the kids adjusting to school online?  How is the roommate?  Can I help with anything? It made my days longer but my team was and is worth it. I wanted them to know that I cared about them.  It was great to just have a one on one conversation and get a sense of how everyone was coping.

I also used my favorite app, Ink, which one of my colleagues had told me about when I needed a way to send pictures and cards easily to my Mom.  I love Ink because you send a picture with a pre-designed card or you can just pick a design and write a note.  It allowed me to send notes to various colleagues across the department to say hi, thank them and just let them know I missed seeing their faces in just a couple minutes without leaving my home.  I still have more notes to send but I am at about 20 now with more to go.  

I knew we would need something else to get us through.  We would need to have a little fun to make it through. I could tell something was needed by Wednesday of that first week.  My team was missing each other by Wednesday of the first week that we were home.  Heidi Orsini, Sr. Director, on my team mentioned that her husband was having a virtual happy hour that Friday.  I immediately scheduled a Virtual Happy Hour via Zoom for that Friday.  Friday came around and it was the last thing that I had time for but I joined.  I had to do it.  I scheduled it.  And boy am I glad I did.  That 30 minutes lifted my spirits and got me through the last several hours of that Friday evening.  It was wonderful to share a few laughs with and I thanked everyone for the laughs at the end of the call.

I realized after the first week of organizing the daily huddles that I couldn’t keep the virtual happy hours ideas going.  The first one was great just to see everyone.  We shared our dogs or cats on screen and just talked for a bit.  We would need some more organization for next 30 minutes VHH.  I had a couple people on my team led by Rachel Viets work on some creative ideas for our virtual happy hours like Pictionary, Trivia and Marketing BINGO.  They did an incredible job.  I am thankful for their support. The VHH were attended by 80% of the team each week.  The hours had been really long and the stress was really high. We needed more than ever to make that connection and share a laugh in this crazy time.

Courtesy: Lori Abshire

We needed laughs because we conducted a poll during our team huddles to understand how everyone was feeling starting in week 2.  I asked a poll question during the huddle to understand how everyone was doing.  I checked on how everyone was feeling, what did they appreciate now more than before or what have they done to take care of themselves. In week 7, over 60% of my team one day was overwhelmed, anxious, lonely, sad or disconnected. That was a tough day for me.  It was that week when it really hit that “this” wasn’t going to end anytime soon.  You could look at these numbers and say obviously everything you just shared isn’t working.  Look at how your team is feeling.  I would say to you just the opposite.  Look at what my team was willing to share without fear of judgement.  They know our team is a safe place. They know I care about how they are feeling and not only that but I am monitoring to make sure we do get to some sense of work life balance.  We had been running at a sprint pace for far too long.  It was still hard for my team to give themselves a break because taking care of every challenge given to us was critical to supporting our frontline heroes.

No one wanted to let themselves feel anything because how could we…we saw what our frontline staff was doing.  They were risking their lives.  They were true heroes. We were exhausted mentally but we were safe in our homes working.  An administrator at the medical center had passed away from COVID-19 and several of us knew her and had worked with her.  We were overwhelmed and we felt guilty for feeling that way.  

I kept sending emails encouraging my team to take a walk or sit outside and take a call.  I let them know via our huddle or in an email about a walk I took or that I fit in an elliptical workout during a 30 minutes opening and I wasn’t going to have any other time so I took advantage.  It cleared my head.  If you tell them you are taking the time, then they know it is ok to do the same.

You can’t care enough.  Now or Ever. We are a creative bunch so I wanted to do something to give everyone a couple hour break from the craziness.  We needed a quiet refuge. I found had transformed their business to mail canvases for painting.  That was it!  I worked with the owner to include a letter to everyone and a canvas to paint.  Because I work for a state institution it is important that I am very clear about this point….this was a gift from me personally. We unveiled our paintings at a virtual happy hour a couple weeks ago.  It was so much fun.  The creativity was amazing!  

Courtesy: Lori Abshire

Later this month, we will have a celebration VHH.  I want to do something for the folks on our team that have kids graduating from high school, 5th grade this year, kindergarten, etc.  Plus we have two Ohio State student interns who will graduate.  We need to pause and celebrate. We need to do this more than ever before.

After many years of leadership experience, no one could have trained us up for a time like this. Our teams are dealing with so much personally and professionally. However, I felt confident that if I leaned on my empathy, transparency, connections, and a bit of fun, we would make it through this time together.  It would make us stronger.  I have no doubt that is the case.  My team has risen to this challenge.  It is crazy to think that while we are apart physically that we are an even more cohesive team than we were before.