Are You Sabotaging Your Emergency Ops Center?
Four ways to foster sustained high performance
Posted Feb 10, 2020
The coronavirus 2019-CoV is spreading worldwide. This means that emergency operations centers (EOCs) and other “war rooms” are being activated by government agencies, corporations, and non-profit organizations. These range from large, specially designed and equipped spaces to a dedicated conference room. Here will gather teams of subject matter experts, emergency managers, and senior executives for their “you’re it” moment: monitoring events, making decisions, and taking actions to protect their people, operations, and communities.
What is interesting, particularly in response to a public health incident, is how many of these facilities ignore proven measures to stimulate sustained physiological and psychological performance. It is up to leaders to change that. After all, these are environments where top teams work on high-stakes matters, often under pressure for sustained periods. Every advantage you can provide matters.
Where did things go wrong? One is a short-term focus on cost: Many EOCs are located in less desirable locations, such as basements. Another is an emphasis on privacy, and so the “war room” is located in a windowless, interior conference room. A third is that wall space is optimized for electronic screens across which information flows and whiteboards on which response information is recorded.
These are all important considerations. The critical challenge, however, is to meet those needs in ways that improve the performance of the people working in these environments rather than detract from it. The good news is that there are several easy, relatively low-cost ways to do just that.
1. Let Nature In
“Ambient stressors—the background characteristics of the physical environment—take a larger toll on us than we realize. While we may believe we can tune out excess noise in the office and adapt to stale air and windowless rooms, our nervous systems are working hard behind the scenes to accommodate those conditions so that we can focus. Because the vast majority of human evolution happened in natural rather than artificial environments, we need natural light and fresh air to help us de-stress and reset.”
If designing a facility from scratch, factor in windows in ways that do not detract from viewing screens or make sure that adjacent areas are awash in natural light. If you already have a “dark” room, nudge people into the light. One seasoned emergency manager told us that his organization located all food and beverages in an area with windows that faced trees—thus prompting people to take periodic nature breaks.
Another alternative is adding natural imagery on walls and prompting guided visualization. Research has shown that visualizing a natural scene can have similar benefits to actually experiencing it. A more recent study has shown benefits to even short nature simulations using virtual reality headsets.
2. Mind the Mindfulness Gap
Increasingly, research backs claims that mindfulness and meditation provide numerous benefits in stress relief and quieting mental distraction. Studies  by our Harvard colleague, Dr. Sara Lazar, and others have shown that meditation actually helps increase the gray matter in the pre-frontal cortex, home to the executive functions essential in high-stakes decision making. They also found a decreased size of the amygdala, which trigger the freeze-flight-fight survival instinct.
Mindfulness practices are designed to bring the mind into the present. This is important in an EOC because what happened in the last meeting or anxiety about the next briefing can easily distract from the work immediately at hand. Zeenat Potia, a mindfulness instructor at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, explained that mindfulness “helps you listen better, respond more productively, and be more deeply engaged. It also increases your empathy.”
Benefits can be derived with just short, focused exercises—many are available online at no cost. Starting each meeting with a minute or two of close-eyed deep breathing helps the team push away the commotion of the event to enable focus on the issues on the table.
3. Create Space for Focus and Unfocus
Focus is important. So, too is “unfocus” according to our Harvard colleague, Dr. Srini Pillay. Unfocus time helps stimulate creativity and complex problem-solving by giving the brain time to connect seemingly unrelated bits of information to form new patterns. This is the source of the “aha” moments of breakthrough thinking.
Taking a walk outside is a great way to provide space to unfocus. If you want to think out-of-the-box, it helps to get out of a space that is, essentially, a box. A walk that includes nature is even better. Alternatively, get to the gym or even to the atrium in the lobby. Or find a room away from the EOC where you can engage in visual thinking—drawing the problem and potential solutions—in order to stimulate different parts of your brain than will be engaged through traditional analysis.
4. Model Self-Care
You can craft the most ambitious wellness plan and bring in a world-renowned meditation expert. However, if you, the leader, do not model these practices, no one else will follow them. You have to take a walk—and leave the never-resting pseudo hero model of leadership behind. Demonstrate the discipline to leave the war room after eight hours to get some sleep. Skip the donuts in favor of fresh fruit.
Followers look to you for cues—our brains are hard-wired to scan for risks and rewards. You need to send the signals that stimulate healthy behaviors. This is not about pampering people. Instead, it shows your understanding of what it takes for individuals and teams to be stronger, longer.
War rooms and EOCs are not just for emergencies. People find themselves in similar conditions when organizations are involved in litigation or pursuing merger-and-acquisition activities. Even everyday work can find people in conditions likely to degrade their resilience—and thus their contributions—over time. Be the leader who sees and shares the light.
 Borst, G., Kosslyn, S.M. Visual mental imagery and visual perception: Structural equivalence revealed by scanning processes. Memory & Cognition 36, 849–862 (2008). https://doi.org/10.3758/MC.36.4.849
 Browning, M., Mimnaugh, K., van Riper, C., Laurent, H., LaValle, S. Can stimulated nature support mental health? Comparing short, single-doses of 360-degree nature videos in virtual reality with the outdoors. Frontiers in Psychology 10:2667 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02667
 Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S, Gard, T., Lazar, S. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research, 191(1), 36–43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
 Lazar, S., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R., Gray, J., Greve, D., Treadway, M…. Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893–1897. doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19
 Pillay, S. (2017). Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. New York: Ballentine Books.