Empathy, transparency and flexibility are critical to caring for your employees and keeping them engaged during the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts unpacked these three pillars of a successful company culture — both during a crisis and in the long term — in conversation with Jeanette Mulvey, executive director of content for CO—.

Here are five key takeaways from the discussion.

Make employee health priority No. 1 with policies, protocols and one-on-one worker input

Zawadi Bryant, CEO of NightLight Pediatric Urgent Care, a chain of children’s urgent care facilities with telemedicine services in Houston, Texas, quickly pivoted to addressing employee safety of her essential workers amid the rise of COVID-19. That meant consulting with her medical staff to determine the policies and protocols needed to ensure safety; securing the amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) its facilities needed for her team to be safe; and then “rewriting our policies and protocols, and [communicating] them to the team as soon as possible,” she said.

As NightLight’s staff are front-line responders who, by definition, face higher exposure to the coronavirus, it was critical to offer workers options by asking them simply, “How comfortable are you with coming into the clinic?” Some were not, Bryant said, opting to work reduced hours, eliminate a shift or work from home.

For NightLight, adopting a safety-first, flexible workplace mindset was key to addressing workers’ fears and concerns at the outset of the pandemic.

“First, [we had] to address the safety concerns of our employees and patients, and be flexible in how we were going to deal with that on a one-on-one basis,” she said.

Create a fun, empathic and efficient work-from-home culture that serves employee needs and business goals

Kodiak Cakes, the family-run business whose pancake mix sells in thousands of stores nationwide, including chains like Target, was forced to tackle an unprecedented surge in business from consumers’ grocery store panic-buying as the pandemic set in, said CEO Joel Clark.

As its operations team shifted the business to a work-from-home model, its “People and Culture”-dubbed human resources arm trained managers on how to manage a team remotely, which proved really helpful, he said. Kodiak Cakes also took the pulse of what workers wanted via surveys.

The business has since established a highly communicative and collaborative work-from-home culture that is an extension of its existing company culture, he said, with frequent video chats, weekly check-ins and “monthly deep dives,” as well as fun elements such as virtual fitness classes, virtual happy hours and lunch-and-learn events on topics such as personal finance that have resonated with workers, Clark said. “It’s really helped us stay connected,” he said.

To ease workers’ anxiety and stress, NightLight builds “joy breaks” and “huddles” into workers’ shifts, where employees dance, sing, meditate or share an inspirational quote or line of scripture to decompress and establish a sense of calm, Bryant said.

In terms of making sure employees are performing up to par, having clear goals and metrics that they’re measured against, and holding them accountable to those goals will allow for work-for-home success, Clark said. “As long as they’re meeting their goals and accomplishing what they’re doing, we’re fine. You can’t worry about everything else.”

Embed flexibility into company culture

As workers grapple with an unprecedented crisis that has turned their lives upside down, employers should consider individuals’ distinct challenges and address them with genuine interest, compassion and flexibility, said Alissa Henriksen, owner of consulting firm Grey Search + Strategy.

For one, simply ask them, “’How are you dealing with this?’” she said. “We are not just dealing with the shift to working from home: People are also dealing with home-schooling, and now figuring out working with spouses at home,” she said. Hence, it’s more important than ever to “overcommunicate with employees,” and “if you’re not able to be flexible, it might hurt you.”

Indeed, if you don’t have the pillars of a company culture in place, “from flexibility to being more virtual to being more empathetic … this is the time to put one in place.”

As long as they’re meeting their goals and accomplishing what they’re doing, we’re fine. You can’t worry about everything else.

Joel Clark, CEO, Kodiak Cakes

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Have hard conversations with transparency, empathy and humility

Layoffs, furloughs and job cuts mark the harsh realities of the pandemic, which means having difficult conversations with employees. Doing so with careful consideration, transparency and compassion is key, speakers said.

NightLight’s Bryant regularly updates her employees on the state of the business during quarterly meetings to keep workers informed. And when it comes to laying off workers or reducing their hours, she clearly explains why the business decision had to be made to employees in one-on-one conversations, and to impacted teams.

She gives them time to process the difficult news, offering a next-day Zoom session to address their questions and concerns, “to make sure that they are feeling heard,” she said. Bryant has been “humbled” by workers’ grace, with many offering to help, even as their livelihoods are being imperiled, she said.

Indeed, it’s important that companies are transparent with employees about how their business is being impacted by the crisis, which will cushion the blow for workers who’ve lost employment, Henriksen said.

Also critical is communicating to employees who are losing a job that, “this is not an easy decision, and that they wish they didn’t have to be put in this position,” she said. And “by saying, ‘you did a great job, you’ve been instrumental in this business,’ it will at least give them some closure. How you are communicating today is never going to be forgotten,” Henriksen said.

Adopt best practices gleaned from the crisis

Use the time to fine-tune your company culture, while adapting the best practices born from the crisis long-term, Henriksen said. For example, the ability to be virtual may reap cost savings and higher productivity, she said.

For more resources from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published April 21, 2020