How to Fortify Your Culture During the Coronavirus Crisis

Just a month ago, my home town was preparing for the Milan Fashion Week.

Hotels were fully booked, it was near impossible to find a table in many of Milan’s trendy restaurants, and Via Montenapoleone was brimming with shoppers hungry for the latest luxury fashion items.

Fast forward a few weeks later, and Milan (and the whole country) has ground to a halt. An unprecedented lockdown that was imposed to slow Europe’s worst outbreak of coronavirus is probably just a preview of what’s to follow in many places around the globe.

Looming recession, mounting uncertainty, and the already tangible impact of the COVID-19 related crisis raise many burning questions for entrepreneurs and leaders. The main one is:

“How can we mitigate the adverse effects of coronavirus on our people and our business and prepare for the new normal?” 

Here are three areas to focus on right now to fortify your culture and emerge stronger on the other side of this crisis:

1. Put people first

Here is one of the questions I always ask my clients when gathering data about their culture:

“What’s valued more than profits in your company?”

The most successful and agile organizations I’ve worked with have always had one answer in common: “People.”

Having a people-first culture is especially important in times of crisis.

My guest on the CultureLab podcast and a renowned crisis expert, Melissa Agnes, writes in her book, Crisis Ready:

The right crisis-ready mindset prioritizes people over processes and bottom-line.

Health and safety

At the moment, the most important people-related issue is health and safety. Many organizations have rolled-out mandatory remote work or have taken extra measures to protect the employees who cannot work remotely. Tech giants, such as Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG), Twitter (TWTR) and Amazon (AMZN) have implemented remote working policies for many or all of their employees around the globe. Contact your local authorities for guidance.

Job security

Hundreds of thousands of employees have already lost their jobs worldwide because of the measures taken to tackle coronavirus. Small businesses such as restaurants or bars, often have no choice but to terminate employment agreements. Some of these terminations are seen as temporary measures.

Contemplating layoffs is common in times of great economic volatility and yet it’s important to remember that laying people off is counterproductive in the long term. Research shows that when periods like this occur, the companies that go through sweeping layoffs underperform in the future – and many go out of business.

Here’s what Josh Bersin suggests in his latest Forbes article:

Let’s slow down, accept the business interruption that’s going to take place, and take care of the people. In today’s world, the CEO has to be the ‘Chief Empathy Officer’ first. If we do this, the recovery will be faster, and our companies, lives, and entire society will be better off.

2. Let your values guide you

In the following months, many leaders and entrepreneurs will be faced with unprecedented dilemmas, often forced to make fast decisions with insufficient data. There’s no playbook for the kind of challenges we will all grapple with.

The current situation is a great opportunity to reflect on your company values and use them as a compass that guides you on this journey through uncharted territory.

Here are a few examples of companies and leaders who have recently taken decisions based on their values, undoubtedly strengthening their employee and customer loyalty as a result:

3. Keep connected

While social distancing is one of the key recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, you don’t need to let it lead to social isolation. There’s a real risk of an increased sense of isolation and anxiety nowadays, especially when people work remotely.

Maintaining and intensifying connection and communication with your team is key. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Leadership presence

Studies show that leaders play a particularly important role in reducing employees’ anxiety and fear. In Paul Argenti’s study of crisis communication after 9/11many employees described how important it was to hear the voice of the leader, whether live or through email, phone messages, or social media.

Morning team meetings 

Depending on the size of the team, it’s a good idea to hold short daily meetings to review new developments, go over daily goals and address key concerns. These meetings should be brief and are not meant to replace written communication.

A virtual cafeteria 

Consider creating an always-on video conference room that would serve as a virtual cafeteria for your team members. People can come and go as they please, grab their favorite beverage and chat with their colleagues.

Weekly happy hour

A weekly happy hour can last anywhere between 30-60 minutes and it meant for people to simply hang out together. This is the space for people to socialize and many of my clients with virtual teams have been using it with success for a while now. One of the common rules during these meetings is – no talk about work! Partners, pets and kids are often welcome.

Virtual Jeffersonian Dinners

I was introduced to Jeffersonian dinners during the Unreasonable Impact Asia-Pacific program (where I was a mentor to 15 incredible CEOs of purpose-driven businesses). By engaging in a single conversation over dinner, with only one person speaking at a time, we were unlocking the power of our collective wisdom and getting to know each other at a deeper level.

The purpose of a Jeffersonian dinner is to listen, learn, and inspire one another through meaningful dialogue around a particular topic. A Jeffersonian Dinner format was created by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1800’s. He was known to invite thought leaders and influencers of his time to share in conversation and debate on a topic.

You can find instructions on how to host a Jeffersonian dinner here.

Ad-hoc meetings

Physical distance can create a mental barrier and people hesitate to contact their colleagues while they are working from home. That’s why employees should be encouraged to reach out to their co-workers when in need of help, an impromptu brainstorming session or advice, just like they would if they were in the same office space.

When dealing with the inevitable fallout of the COVID-19 in your business, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s in circumstances like these that company culture is shaped the most.

Every difficult decision has the potential to be an immunity shot for your culture -  a unique opportunity to walk the talk, live your values, do the right thing, and fortify your culture.

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