Beating the Heat: The Latest Leadership Challenge

Record-setting temperatures across the globe have firms scrambling to adjust operations, both for now and long term. 

Five years ago, most leaders probably weren’t thinking about how to manage their business—and keep their employees safe—during a heat wave. But with the summer of 2022 starting to, well, heat up, a wave of boiling weather across the globe has many managers scrambling to figure out what to do, both in the long term and short term, about torrid temperatures.

In July alone, all-time record highs were set in dozens of cities across Western Europe and Asia, while more than 100 million people in the United States were living under extreme heat warnings. Trains and other public transportation systems have been shut down. Airplanes can’t take off because the runways are melting. Massive wildfires associated with the heat are burning in southern France, parts of Spain, and Portugal, while more than 2,000 people have died across the Iberian Peninsula from heat-related issues.

Coming after three years of extraordinary challenges—see: the breakdown of supply chains, mass political upheavals, a global pandemic, and persistently-high inflation—dealing with high temperatures temporarily might seem downright ordinary. But the heat is just another reminder of the challenge leaders have in keeping their employees engaged and productive. “Just like the supply chain, inflation, COVID-19, and war, as you think you get back to a sense of normalcy, something jumps out and says ‘No,’” says Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry Advisory.

At the same time, many experts believe that heat waves will become more frequent and extreme as a result of human-induced climate change. “These type of climate issues are on the precipice of planning,” says Victoria Baxter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s ESG and Sustainability Solutions practice. “I don’t know how many companies have a climate continuity plan.” That could include some extensive steps, from adding large air conditioning systems to warehouses to relocating new facilities and operations to cooler climates.

In the short term, experts say leaders should show some of the flexibility they likely gleaned from the pandemic era to help during periods of intense heat. In London, for instance, some firms opened up their air-conditioned offices to the roommates and pets of their employees so they could have a respite from the heat (only about 3% of homes in Great Britain have air conditioning). It’s also critical to reinforce safety tips, Royal says. Communicating workplace safety tips frequently was an effective method many firms adopted during the pandemic. Korn Ferry found that during the early stages of the pandemic, employee engagement often stayed steady or even rose when leaders reinforced safety tips. 

With the sweltering weather, experts say leaders can also show some empathy. The heat is water-cooler conversation now, says Kate Shattuck, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and co-leader in the firm’s Impact Investing practice. “The heat makes people a little bit on edge, and we need some levity.”

Earlier this summer, Shattuck tried to work from a cabin in Pennsylvania, in part to escape the high temperatures and humidity of Washington DC. Instead, she wound up working in a shady nearby park, because her non-airconditioned cabin was actually hotter than outside. While working, she sent a few notes to the new cadets at West Point, her alma mater, who have been spending much of their time outside in the heat. Her advice seemed appropriate for everyone: “Drink water. Smile to yourself. Just keep it simple.”