There was no existing playbook for COVID-19. Most businesses are figuring it out on the fly, and each new week introduces shifting concerns and cultural norms. That uncertainty necessarily trickles down from C-level decision-making to the rank-and-file workforce.
With so many policies, processes, and procedures in constant flux—not to mention overall economic volatility and social unrest—HR managers are likely fielding a daily barrage of questions from employees coupled with very understandable anxiety.
We created the COVID-19 Corporate Memory Project to capture and aggregate in real-time the decisions that our biggest corporations are making as they manage their business during the pandemic, and to make the many lessons learned more readily available to business leaders. As corporations have contributed to this archival resource, we’ve begun to spot best practices to help mitigate some of this anxiety.
Invest in scenario planning
Too many organizations are playing constant catch-up, perpetually reacting to the latest CDC guidelines or phased reopening plan. Especially in national or multinational organizations, a one-size-fits-all approach is often impossible given the different state-by-state restrictions across their workforce. It’s kick-and-chase, and by the time new procedures are in place, the goal has moved again.
A recent Wharton article explored the value of scenario planning (also known as futurecasting), a structured exercise in which companies explore “plausible ‘what ifs’ that challenge prevailing beliefs and instill agility, adaptability, and resilience to plan for a world that is much more uncertain than we tend to acknowledge.” After identifying multiple potential futures, teams develop a different playbook for each scenario, with the following mindset: “If you knew with 100% certainty that your business environment in 2023 would look like this scenario, what decisions, plans, and investments would you start making today?”
San Antonio-based supermarket chain H-E-B has had a pandemic emergency plan in place since 2005. That anticipatory mindset helped the company open early dialogue with Chinese, Italian and Spanish retailers about what was coming, and H-E-B put vital policies in place (limiting customer purchases to prevent panicked stockpiling, for instance). These internal preparations allowed them to not only shore up their own operation, but to also support the precarious local restaurant industry that contributes to a healthy food ecosystem (H-E-B bought bulk take-out for their employees and stocked local restaurant specialties in their stores, free of charge).
By roleplaying possible futures, the planning can start in earnest, and HR managers and employees can be better prepared today for the inevitable shifts of tomorrow.
Clarify culture & purpose
Most businesses have already codified their core values or brand purpose. COVID-19 is stress-testing those stated values, but first and foremost, business leaders must be clear about what they stand for. If company culture is well-established, this may be an essential time to reiterate that purpose to the workforce. For newer companies or those experiencing additional seismic shifts (a merger/acquisition or entry into a new geographic territory, for instance), this can be a time to re-examine, revise or reword core values.
Vice President of Communications Travis Doster from steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse explained how the company doubled down on its mission of being “a people company that just happens to serve great steaks.” The company’s COVID-19 marketing has underscored that “people-first mentality,” and internally, they’ve made numerous efforts to provide relief, stimulus, and financial security for their employees as they pivoted to a 100% to-go/curbside model.
As values statements are reinforced, however, the follow-through comes under greater scrutiny.
Walk the walk…or else
It’s one thing to say what you’re about. It’s another thing to make good on that promise. Messaging stating “we’re all in this together” means little if it becomes an empty platitude followed by problematic working conditions.
If business leaders lack compassion or understanding for the range of COVID-19 realities—single employees quarantined in urban hotspots may be dealing with a very different set of challenges than suburban employees suddenly working from home while homeschooling young children—the “One Company” ethos can quickly backfire as empty rhetoric.
In early April, employers ranging from Bank of America to Salesforce.com to Marsh & McLennan pledged to refrain from layoffs (for anywhere from 90 days to the remainder of 2020). Other companies have made good on promises around vacation/sick days, childcare support, or CEO pay cuts. By contrast, Amazon was recently taken to task by John Oliver for lauding its “retail heroes” in external marketing while many warehouse workers report an inability to maintain CDC social distancing guidelines or carve out time to wash their hands.
Companies must be clear about how they value their workforce, and then make good on that promise with concrete support.
Reward and recognize your people
From essential workers to healthcare professionals to the countless frontline workers maintaining our supply chains, millions of employees are putting themselves in harm’s way to support customers and communities. HR managers can play a role in identifying individuals and teams deserving of special recognition, and their stories can symbolize the sacrifices being made by a broader workforce.
On an enterprise level, in late March, PepsiCo announced additional compensation for all U.S. frontline employees, while providing enhanced benefits for a range of potential employee disruptions—100% pay for symptomatic/quarantined employees, and paid leave for employees affected by school/daycare closures. On a more personal scale, Lowe’s has profiled and name-checked individual associates and teams going above and beyond to help each other and their communities during the COVID-19 crisis.
Again, these recognition efforts are most effective when messaging is coupled with concrete support, and together they help build employee confidence during a time of great uncertainty.
Following these best practices and staying abreast of rapid developments is by no means a magic bullet to remove all anxiety associated with COVID-19. However, proper preparation, clear communication, concrete action, and appreciation initiatives can all work together to mitigate the worst of the uncertainty and give employees confidence that better days lay ahead.
We have these insights because the COVID-19 Corporate Memory Project is capturing history as it is being made by corporations across the country struggling to manage their business through the pandemic. Documenting the history of this moment is critical for preserving the procedures put in place to improve safety while sustaining operations; creating a mechanism that allows your people to process and share their experiences and capture content that can be used to recognize their contributions; and demonstrating to prospective talent how the organization’s behavior is consistent with its purpose, values and employee promise.
Companies that take hold of the decisions they are making today are writing the playbook that they lacked at the outset of the current crisis. The companies that are contributing to the COVID-19 Corporate Memory Project are helping American businesses strengthen their capacity to withstand the next crisis.