COVID-19 – Leadership during Extended Deployments

Our current crisis has driven some teams to extend Deployments or Hitch Rotations as a logical solution to reduce COVID-19 risk while minimizing losses. Medical workers and first responders are being forced to over extend to cover patient needs and sheer volume.  It’s important to understand that this is not a new challenge, although it may be to the people we ask to execute it. By nature, this is a very common modus operandi in the United States Navy. When a Navy ship weighs anchor and deploys, there is a return date…on paper, but we all know as sailors, that our schedule is subordinate to world events.

I’ve found in my Naval career, that some of the most difficult leadership challenges have been to keep my men and women focused, safe and motivated while situations beyond my control required extended deployments. The primary concerns for those individuals on extended deployments are logical; security of the family they left at home and the uncertainty of not knowing when they will return home. The primary concern for leadership is how to keep people’s heads in the game so no one gets hurt or killed.

This question of “Leading During Extended Deployments” was recently posed to me by a client who works for one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. As I started to respond based on my experience in the Navy, I reminded myself that I have a plethora of teammates here in CAVU that have as much, or more experience leading through this particular challenge than I do. So I reached out to them and collated the responses below as best practices learned through hundreds of years of naval service.

  • Constant communication is key and most importantly, listen to your people. When you’re in uncharted or unusual territory, there’s no better time to listen to the entire team and solicit their input – you’ll have a far better chance of gaining their support. After communicating the “why we are doing this” and then receiving input, make them part of the solution, then all involved parties will be far more successful.
  • Consider the personnel on site and if the operational tempo allows, grant a one or two-day rest and relaxation rotation. This is what we in the military refer to as R & R and can be done nearby, or even at the site itself to provide a recharge. This will make a positive difference in boosting morale and reinvigorating tired workers.   We had the opportunity to send one of our coaches who worked 6 weeks in a row for a 3-day rest period to a nearby town.  He was still in self-quarantine in a hotel, but being able to get rest, exercise and eat something different made a world of a difference. Our Coach is back to work and reports feeling refreshed and good to go.
  • Point out the importance of proper fatigue management. Encourage your team to follow some type of schedule to take care of their mind as well as their body. Rotate job responsibilities to the maximum extent safely possible to keep it fresh and reasonably challenging.
  • Keep an eye out for each other and clearly communicate that they need to speak up if they’re too tired or their head isn’t in the right place. Tell them that it’s ok to take a pause and they won’t be disciplined or looked down upon for calling a ”Time Out”. Self-reporting or self-admission while experiencing a personal challenge is a key component to a high reliability team. Self-admission is culturally difficult, but it’s critical in keeping everyone safe. It’s also a great time for leadership by example.
  • Ensure your crew has ample time to communicate back home on a regular basis. Make yourself aware of their stressors as much as possible so that you can mitigate, alleviate or even eliminate some of them.
  • Once you recognize fatigue/boredom/complacency, it needs to be dealt with immediately. It might be possible to shorten hours for someone temporarily, or send them to rest for a couple of hours by adjusting the schedule. Another potential option is put them in less demanding or less hazardous jobs for a couple of days. The last resort is to halt operations temporarily and do a “time out for safety” to recalibrate the entire team.
  • Working actively on morale and positive attitude during daily work routine is vital. Everybody can have influence, especially the leadership. If you start the day with a smile and a positive note versus focusing on the challenges, it sets the mood and atmosphere for the rest of the day. A pat on the back or even a small tangible reward like a food treat or maybe a special meal is a gesture that can have a huge impact.
  • Everybody appreciates recognition from their supervisors, so focusing on positive reinforcement is more important than ever during times of stress and fatigue.
  • Ensuring people have at least eight hours for sleep, time to participate in their physical fitness regimen and a proper diet are all critical pieces to successful long-term deployments.

As leaders of men and women on extended deployments and back to back hitch rotations, getting everyone home safely to their families while ensuring the viability of your organization is the number one goal. Achieving that goal by asking your workforce to go above and beyond the call is far more effective if you’ve previously built trust and confidence with your people. There’s no better way to demonstrate your appreciation than to outwardly show you understand and appreciate their sacrifice by using some of the best practices of military leadership.

Dell Bull, Rear Admiral USN (Ret.)
Currently serving as Vice President – Americas, CAVU International

 

 

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