COVID-19 Business Survival – a chat with Sally Mlikota

Around 22 March, the Government began to enforce social distancing which brought about a significant impact to the way business is conducted not only in Australia, but globally. On 24 March, Sally Mlikota took over from Nick Loukas as President of the Cairns Chamber of Commerce. It would be an understatement to say the timing was not ideal however true to form, Sally, Director CBC Staff Selection, took it in her stride, albeit with a sense of trepidation into unchartered territory.

Now more than a month into her tenure, Sally shares some insights into what life has been like as President of the Chamber and also, how she has maintained effective leadership of her prominent business.

How did you prepare for a remote working environment?

My main priority at the start, was to ensure I gathered as much information as possible so I could work out what options we had to transition to an effective remote working environment – like many businesses, it’s not something we had ever had to do before. At the same time, I was mindful of the emotional factor and how best to lead in a supportive, effective manner. We all handle things differently and there certainly wouldn’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The first step was to ensure we had messaging on our website to inform people as to how we are tackling COVID-19 and to provide factual links to resources which would be of use. Simultaneously, we contacted everyone we work with both on the client and candidate side, to check in and gauge the situation from their perspective. We continue to call everyone on a weekly basis and have been able to help a lot of people with the transition. Even though technology has enabled many of us to work from home, there are still WHS requirements that need to be actioned from a training perspective.

Do you and the CBC Staff Selection team enjoy working from home?

At first, we were all very much excited about being able to connect via Zoom as it enabled us to see each other and have regular meetings. Very soon, it did start to have a negative impact, so I brought in Tracy Benson from Bensons Training to assist. She equipped us with skills which allowed us to handle different conversations from an empathetic perspective, without vicariously taking on additional angst. This didn’t mean we were learning how not to care, more that we were gaining skills in how to process that care and look after our own wellbeing so we could conduct business more effectively remotely.

Being in a state of limbo has been unsettling for most of us and whilst many businesses have contingency plans for disasters, not many will have had them for a COVID-19 scale pandemic.

How have people reacted to the changes brought about by the pandemic?

The work situation has certainly impacted almost everyone in some form or another and destabilised what we had become used to as the norm. Given that it came out of the blue, emotional connections for many, have become more important now than ever before.

People want and need to be heard whether they are calm or in a state of panic. We are all different but really listening to staff, candidates and clients has been the approach we have taken. I don’t expect my staff to have solutions to the emotional side of the people they speak to, but we have found that by actively listening, it has made a positive difference.

There are many and varied shared experiences out there but selfcare is paramount. We can support one another as friends, family, peers, and colleagues but most of us aren’t trained counsellors so recognising when to step back and involve someone else, is also important. Being kind to one another and giving and receiving in this way has been something which has stood out to me in the main – we seem to have collectively become far more effective in this regard.

What do you think the road to recover will look like in Cairns?

People have started to talk about recovery now and although we don’t know when that will begin to occur, it’s a positive step and a shift from the initial panic and confusion. Being able to go out for picnics, visit national parks, go for drives with the family will all ease the stress which being isolated at home, has brought about.

I think the recovery from COVID-19 will be varied but, in my opinion, we are looking at probably around two years before stability is restored. Certainly, the Cairns Chamber of Commerce will play a pivotal part in assisting businesses with the rebuild, particularly as some industries will have been hit harder than others. Tourism is the obvious example but that of course has a knock-on to how the city performs overall. Jobs have been lost and lives have been turned on their heads. We were fortunate in that we have retained 80% of our temps, a lot of whom are working from home.

It is vital that we work with facts to minimise fear and plan a clear path forwards into recovery. There have been a lot of mixed messages circulating which have led to confusion. For example, the Job Keeper scheme is a welcomed practical short-term cash injection for business owners to maintain staff, perhaps for shorter hours and for different duties, but when this was announced it did trigger some employees – and when employees are triggered, they are not making logical decisions and are not able to work effectively.

As humans we need clarity and gradually this will improve as these government schemes are understood in their entirety. I am encouraging any business owners with questions surrounding their eligibility to check the facts from respected resources, such as their local chamber, and in consultation with their trusted accountant.

Where the Job Keeper payments help employees keep their jobs, and businesses retain staff,  this will greatly help recovery as the business will have trained engaged staff ready to boost up the activity rather than trying to recruit for roles from scratch.

We have probably all learned from this experience and are in the process of living what will be an historic event of our time.

What do you and the CBC Staff Selection team do to for selfcare?

At CBC, we have a closed messenger group to share fun things to give us all a boost and lighten the mood which was particularly important to establish. Phone and Zoom meetings are taking longer than usual because people are wanting to share feelings and experiences more but on the flip side, it does get draining so recognising when it is time for a break, is important.

I have introduced a meditation weekly on a Thursday at 3.15pm which is an optional part of our working day. Zoe Strickland has been wonderful and whilst it is not for everyone, recognising this as a simple way that I could support my staff, has been vital.

Personally, I have been exercising regularly which I had stopped for a few weeks and I really noticed a difference for the worse during that time. I have also cut down on my social media and news consumption and limit this to 15 or 20 minutes at the start of each day so I can remain focussed on work.

When I think of how my friends and family overseas are dealing with COVID-19 and the amplified ramifications it has had on their lives, I count Australians as being extremely fortunate to have comparatively speaking, been less exposed to this awful virus.