Creating Certainty Around Uncertainty: Practical Tips for Leaders

Our nation, and the world, has been thrown into a state where every element of our safety is being poked and prodded. Consider that the virus has threatened our physical safety (risk of illness), our emotional safety (media stories, daily virus data, personal change management) and financial safety (economic concerns, personal financial fears, temporary and permanent layoffs).

Based on this, it should come as no surprise that the majority of survey respondents shared that their leading emotion around the re-opening of our workplaces is “uncertainty” – 37% to be exact. When safety is threatened, it is challenging to think about anything else. With that in mind, we have put together the following list of leadership tips to help lead through these uncertain times.


We asked over 36,000 Canadians “If tomorrow the economy and workplaces open up, and you could return to work exactly as you did pre-COVID, what is the leading emotion that comes to mind for you personally?” Of the 1,536 people who responded, here is what they said.




10 Ways to Create Certainty in Uncertain Times

Communication creates certainty – so let’s over communicate (in a good way!). Demonstrate in words and in writing what steps you’re taking as a company. Here are 10 suggestions on creating certainty in uncertain times – click each tip below to read more.

  1. Be clear on the non-negotiables
  2. Provide certainty around job security
  3. Create certainty around return dates
  4. Facilitate simulations
  5. Build a leader toolbox
  6. Provide clarity and love for your leaders
  7. Value the brand you’ve built
  8. Create certainty around physical safety once workplaces have re-opened
  9. Designate and name your expert team
  10. Embrace the uncertainty



We all understand that employees working from home are facing unique challenges. That being said, it’s still important for each person to know what is expected of them. It’s important for the business to outline its needs now and for the future.

If specific performance measures or deadlines are essential, make these clear – for example:

  • The Accounts Receivable team is responsible to keep AR up-to-date, less than 10% over 60 days;
  • The Network Administrator is responsible to update firmware on network switches;
  • The Recruiter will locate at least 3 qualified candidates per role within 5 days.



Companies aren’t able to make promises like they did before COVID-19. That creates uncertainty for many, especially financial uncertainty. Let team members know what government programs you’re working toward, what goals you’re achieving, what they can do to participate and create. Communicate what you know – and admit what you don’t know.



We may not know exactly when the economy will open back up and when we can open our physical doors again, but employers can start the conversation now. Here are two ways you can address return to work dates:

  1. Pick a NET date: Space exploration dates are scheduled on a ‘NET’ or “no earlier than” date. Employers could say, “Our scheduled date to return to the office is no earlier than July 1st. Even if the province opens up on June 15th, we will not be going back to the office until July 1st.”
  2. Let the government dictate a date: Avoid mentioning a date altogether. Explain that you will follow the provincial government guidelines. That way your team knows to follow the news and can anticipate that they will be expected back to the office once the province gives the employer the go-ahead.



Another important element is emotional safety. Employers have the daunting task to define a future for employees when individual fears and concerns differ greatly; one person’s stress and anxiety differs from another based on their circumstances.

To create certainty around emotional safety, our firm is running simulations with team members. We’re talking about their past, present and future lives, which includes a blend of personal and professional elements. The simulation breaks their day down into: morning routine, workday and evening routine. Here’s an example:

THE PAST: Describe your daily routine in detail. Highlight in red what you loved about each day, and in blue what you disliked most.

THE PRESENT: We all have a new daily routine. Instead of a commute, some may sleep in or work out while others are setting up their kids with their home schooling assignments or virtual classes. The work day may now be Zoom meetings, online chats, remote project work and lunches with their family. Again, highlight in red what you loved about each day, and in blue what you disliked most.

THE FUTURE: There’s a lot to consider – will schools be open, will employees want to work from home 2-3 times a week, will we be wearing masks, will commute times be shorter (not many people back at work) or longer (people afraid to take public transit).

The point here is to understand the employees past and present – and then look together at what’s possible for the future. If you can’t do the individual simulations, you might want to consider doing small group surveys to get a pulse on how your team members are feeling and what they’re expecting when they return to work.

You can break the survey up into small groups of employees in similar roles and ask for them to spell out their worries for their return. That way you can group concerns by role, and address them as a team.



To create more certainty, offer your leaders the knowledge and develop their skills to perform their duties in the environment of the future. This includes:

LEGAL: Teach your leaders how to address issues they have never experienced before, such as:

    • Work refusals – employees saying “I’m too scared to come to work” but fear is not a legal ground for not working.
    • Medical notes for anxiety – how will leaders manage medical leaves and emotional distress

CULTURE: Some say that culture is the new compensation. If that’s true, creating a positive company culture during and after COVID-19 is a new reality for your leaders. Help define what your culture will be and what steps your leaders can take to develop it. For example:

  • How do you offer recognition remotely?
  • How do you celebrate milestones (Birthdays, Anniversaries)
    and work-related achievements?
  • Will your company host holiday parties?

SAFETY: Train your leaders on how they will govern and lead productivity and every day business with safety as a key driver.

  • Will your employees physically go to client meetings?
  • How will your organization monitor the safety standards of a work site you’re responsible for?
  • Will candidate interviews be held on-line, or in person, and under what conditions?



We talk often about leaders teaching/training others. But who can our leaders turn to? Our leaders in government, healthcare, large corporations and local shops are uncertain. So are your leaders.

Make sure that you’re valuing your own leaders too: validating their fears, appreciating their efforts, communicating openly with them, and including them in the planning for the  future.



A brand is an important part of the culture of the company. Even in times of uncertainty, your company still has your brand. You’ve created that brand over many years, don’t let it slip away. Communicate it, protect it, develop it, and ensure it will be there post-COVID-19.  By securing the brand, employees will feel more certain that what they have worked for will be there as the economy opens.



Provincial government guidelines can be relied on as a baseline from which to create physical safety for their employees. In addition, employers are openly sharing tips and best practices on their social pages including many articles on LinkedIn. The point is to assuage an employee’s fears by clearly outlining and implementing exceptional safety measures, such as:

  • Changing how desks are laid out in an office to allow for more physical distance;
  • Adding partitions between open desk areas;
  • Shutting down open public spaces in the office, such as kitchens – or allowing a maximum number of occupants with defined seats permitted;
  • Varying shifts and entry/exit times in a building to reduce high traffic times such as 8-8:30am, or 4:30-5pm;
  • Engaging a cleaning crew with clear dates and times to see;
  • Having a supply of disinfectant wipes and masks.

There’s a lot more to be said on the topic of physical safety when returning to work – we’ll provide more best practices in the month ahead.



For all of the elements listed above, it would create further clarity if you had an individual or a team leading the major subjects such as safety and personal wellness. These could be named teams of specialists.

“Our workforce wellness and safety team is made up of these 3 people… here’s how to reach them. Here’s who they are and why they are here to help you.”



Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security. – John Allen Paulos (2007)

The reality is that none of us know what post-COVID-19 will look like. What if COVID-19 life is the new normal? We don’t know. As leaders we can say that. It’s okay to be vulnerable, and it’s okay to validate your own feelings and everyone else’s.

What we DO know is that all of this uncertainty is giving us pause. There is no playbook for COVID-19 or post-COVID-19 and we can’t create absolute certainty.

A return to work could be emotionally complex and physically complex. The best we can do is work through the uncertainty together.

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