Four Questions to Protect Your Organization’s Culture During COVID-19

Written by

Ashley Grice Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director | Jim Hemerling BCG Managing Director & Senior Partner | Debbie Lovich BCG Managing Director and Partner | Felix Schuler BCG Managing Director and Senior Partner | Robert Werner BCG Partner and Associate Director |

Mar 26, 2020 · 8-minute read

For leaders, the rapid and exponential escalations of COVID-19 have meant 15-hour days of simultaneous videoconferencing, chats, email, Slack conversations, and texts—all conducted while making rapid decisions and communicating with anxious stakeholders. As leaders deftly, compassionately, and tirelessly navigate these decisions, they are—whether they recognize it or not—indelibly shaping their organization’s future culture. When it comes to COVID-19 response, every moment is a culture-shaping moment, for good or for bad, and will continue to have an impact long after the COVID 19 crisis.

How can business leaders make sure that they are not laying the groundwork now for a reckoning of cultural regret when the current crisis passes? There are no magical answers, but addressing four critical questions can help leaders focus on taking the right culture-enhancing actions.

1. As we observe our culture in action during the crisis, do we like what we’re seeing?
Just as humans reveal their true character in the choices they make under pressure, a crisis will lay bare the reality of your organization’s culture for all to see. And you can be sure that your employees, customers, partners, and investors are watching to see how committed you are to their well-being.

Take your employees, for example. As the immediate wave of showing care for employees’ health and well-being plays out, you should shift toward thinking about the next wave of how to help your people. As we have already seen, many employees will not be able to engage and contribute to their normal full capacity. Schools have closed, grocery shopping can be a challenge, and many employees don’t have proper workstations in their homes. These and other unprecedented circumstances exert unfamiliar pressure on virtually every employee.

It is time to start thinking about the next layer of care. For example:

  • In a situation where basic elements of autonomy—such as being able to leave one’s home or visit one’s favorite restaurant—are massively curtailed, which elements of choice can you give your employees? For employees with childcare needs during the day, can you let them choose when to engage on pieces of work, by setting up chats and shared documents that they can comment on when they have time?
  • No one knows exactly how this crisis will further unfold, but in some areas you as a leader may be able to provide a modicum of clarity regarding the priorities on which your business is focusing. What are those areas? How can you honestly address employees’ worries about their work quality, their job security, and their career prospects? Holding regular and open virtual town hall discussions throughout your organization is a great place to start.
  • How can you help employees continue to learn and improve their skills while working remotely? Offering curated learning programs that enable employees to learn and hone critical digital skills can be a no-regrets move.

Each day, employees will experience new, unanticipated needs—so how can you get ahead of those needs? Setting up an employee council to provide daily input from the front lines will yield early indicators of what the next level of care might entail.

2. Are our decisions and actions aligning with our company’s purpose?
To best support employees in times of change and uncertainty, organizations must provide an emotional beacon—something authentic and uplifting that they know won’t change. Derived from ethos, purpose is rooted in what a company is at its authentic best. Purpose gives employees a reason to go to work in the morning, even if they do so in their pajamas, in their homes, in a state of moderate chaos. It also helps them connect the dots between their daily work and its ultimate contribution to improving the bigger picture.

In addition to offering uplift to your employees, your organization’s purpose can serve as a practical guide for decision making, helping you leverage the organization’s strengths and focus your efforts on areas where you can make the biggest difference to your stakeholders.

Consider how you can best lean on your purpose in this time of need:

  • How can you deliver on your principles and values when employees are dispersed and remote?
  • How can you use purpose to focus efforts on areas where your business can contribute most in this time of need?
  • How can you apply your purpose to develop innovative ways to approach your new normal?

For example, if you have creative talent on staff who suddenly have a lot of downtime, consider contacting a nonprofit or small business aligned with your purpose and offering those organizations your staff’s help in responding to the new normal. Focusing idle employees’ efforts on something with meaningful impact will give them focus and a sense of control, as opposed to feeling helpless. And harnessing the energy and resulting discretionary effort of cooped-up extroverts can result in creativity you never expected.

Use your organization’s purpose to give employees a goal worth fighting for, so they can to focus on the horizon, which is stabilizing and motivating and will help you jumpstart your culture for the era after the crisis.

3. How are our decisions and actions helping to build trust with our employees, customers, partners, and society more broadly?
Trust is always important, but during times of heightened stress, it is at a premium—especially since confusing and often conflicting messages are likely to emerge under these conditions. More than ever, leaders need to be mindful of the impact their actions will have on maintaining the organization’s trust. For example:

  • Are you making promises that you are fully committed to keeping? If you have committed your full support for employees to balance their suddenly virtual working mode with the need to take care of their suddenly homebound children, are you enabling them to work more asynchronously? Or are you bristling when a member of your team is unavailable to join a team call at a specified time?
  • Are you following up on these promises to ensure that they are swiftly and consistently carried out? For instance, it is critical to follow through on a commitment to make technology available to key employees who suddenly need but don’t have effective access to it.
  • Are you connecting with your people on a personal level, ensuring that they feel safe sharing their concerns, fears, and ideas with you? Doing so can be as simple as taking five minutes to connect with each of your team members every couple of days, ideally by video, for an agenda-less chat, to let them talk about whatever is on their minds, whether it be business or personal—and for you to do the same.
  • Do the decisions and actions you are taking prioritize the best interests of your employees, customers, and society? Inevitably, you will have to make tradeoffs between the three groups, and you will not always be able to optimize the result for everyone concerned. But you can ensure that you clearly communicate what you are prioritizing and why, and thereby avoid leaving actions open to interpretation as profiteering during a crisis.

4. Are we building the foundations today for our rebound culture?
Once the immediate situation stabilizes, you will need to take stock and determine your post-COVID-19 business strategy. How might you need to change course? Which culture and behaviors will be necessary to turbocharge it? It is nearly impossible to answer these questions now, in the midst of the crisis, but you may be able to identify no-regrets behaviors to focus on today. For example:

  • Cross-Organizational Collaboration. Are your team and your organization coming together across silos to deal with the crisis?
  • Having Each Other’s Back. Is a partnership approach evident in the actions you take with regard to your employees, your suppliers, and your partners?
  • Customer Obsession. Are you finding innovative ways to stand by your customers today?
  • Accountability and Agility. Are employees equipped to perform well remotely, without constant management guidance? Do they have the tools needed to do so? Do they have the autonomy to make decisions without seeking counsel or approval?
  • Benefiting Society as a Whole. Are there ways to pivot your business operations to aid society by helping fulfill demand for suddenly scarce services or products?

The answer to each of these questions doesn’t have to be an unequivocal yes at this moment. Competing priorities, complex tradeoffs, and limited resources may be in play. But more deliberately articulating the culture you need to build in order to care for your stakeholders and accelerate out of this crisis will inform and enable the decisions, actions, and communications that you make today.

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The idea of pausing briefly to consider these four questions during the relentless pressure of 24/7 crisis management may seem impossible and even inappropriate. But it needn’t be time consuming—just long enough to ask yourself, “Is this in line with the culture we need to protect us now and to accelerate us out of the crisis later?” Doing so will make the difference between deliberately navigating toward your cultural north star and charting a course in a different direction.

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Thank you again to the author team: Ashley GriceJim HemerlingFelix Schuler, and Robert Werner

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