Wow, what a testing time for all of us. What a challenge for government and health agencies, for charities and care providers, the education system, and for businesses of all types across the globe. Covid-19 has created an unprecedented and open-ended range of uncertainty ahead of us, impacting everything from health and wellbeing to income and employment, education and pretty much every other sector.

While we are only in the very early days of this crisis (despite how it feels already), Covid-19 has already changed everything, including managing to wipe all references to Brexit from the UK media. 

Job cuts and unpaid leave

Thankfully, last Friday’s Treasury announcement, which underwrote 80% of employee salaries, has mitigated some of the immediate pressure. But that didn’t come soon enough for some employers. Gordon Ramsay had already made 500 job cuts and Tim Martin at Wetherspoons won’t pay staff until the arrangements are confirmed and in place. Other employers were remarkably quick to ask staff to take unpaid leave.

As I write, various retailers (such as Sports Direct) have been struggling to justify staying open during  tightened restrictions on daily life — though the lack of clarity in initial government communications certainly didn’t help (thankfully off-licences made the cut).

One of the more notable stories from the first days of the crisis was that of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man advising his employees to pool their accrued paid sick leave to help cover isolation and illness. Thankfully, Bezos, Amazon and Whole Foods have subsequently taken action to address this, although significant questions remain over working conditions with infections and deaths on the rise, especially across US Amazon facilities.

If you can’t be anything else, be kind

Forbes magazine has contrasted such behaviour with that of Walmart in the USA, whose Chief Executive has lauded his staff for their efforts, announced a pay bonus to be paid on 2 April and promised to recruit 150,000 more staff to support them through the crisis. John Furner, President and CEO of Walmart, has been lauded for the emotional intelligence of his statements and approach.

To quote:

“It’s been incredible to see Walmart associates step up to the challenge of serving America this month. During a very uncertain and stressful time, you have done your jobs with calm, compassion, and excellence. Because of you, Americans have been able to get the items and services they need from clean, orderly, stores — or delivered right to their doorsteps. Thank you so much for devoting yourselves to your customers and communities. I also want to say thank you to your spouses and loved ones who’ve had to take on extra responsibilities during this time — particularly with many schools and day cares closed, and relatives and friends to look out for. We are so grateful for your hard work.”

Leadership has a vital role to play in a crisis, just as it does in the day-to-day, business-as-usual world that we used to take for granted. Leaders are expected to be great communicators, role-model organisational values, to be human and to take the time to talk and listen to employees at all levels. These values are all vital to a healthy, positive, workplace culture. In fact, there has been a growing movement for more kindness in society and the workplace for some time. The message for executives and leaders? “If you can’t be anything else, be kind”.

Tearing up 50 years of economic orthodoxy

Equally, last summer saw an important landmark in business culture with an Executive Roundtable of almost 500 US business leaders signing up to statement vowing to tear up 50 years of economic orthodoxy. The primacy of shareholder interests and returns was declared over, replaced by a broader social purpose:

“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,” the group, a lobbying organization that represents many of America’s largest companies, said in a statement. “We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”

Whatever the sincerity of such a grand pronouncement — and there are many sceptics — it could hardly be timed better for the current climate. There is a growing sense that this will be a defining period for businesses and that their futures will be determined by how they respond to escalating events. Central to that line of thought will be how they treat, protect, and support their employees.

Working for or with a business?

For the business leaders who have yet to see the light, this is a chance to evolve without facing any of the usual accusations of inauthenticity. For those that have long embraced best practice, this is a chance to shine and to showcase what their organisation is all about. For those who have never really thought about it, this is the time to see the value of a positive workplace culture and a truly engaged workforce.

Jonathan Geldart, Director General of the Institute of Directors, talks of two types of employees – those that work with a business and those that work for a business. You can sense immediately what he means by that statement. We all know workers who roll in at 8.59am and rush to get out of the door at 5pm. Equally, we all know employees who are truly committed and always willing to go the extra mile. All employers are going to experience this difference in the coming weeks and months.

The customer comes second

In my early years, I remember being confounded by the idea that the customer is always right and tripped myself up at a number of interviews along the way. Having finally mastered that one, I was then thrown another curve ball a few years ago when I came across the idea that the customer comes second.

And who does the customer come second to? The employee of course. All businesses are learning that truth today. We will watch with interest as this plays out in the coming years. Will we see a flight to the best employers, a return to secure employment and increased earnings? Or will the struggle to recover outweigh these positive trends?

Remote working only increases the importance of positive, trusting workplace cultures, of course. People must feel confident that they are trusted to do their work, as and when they can, in these extraordinary times. The pressure on working parents with children at home is extraordinary. Smart employers (many of them with female leaders) get this and will work around this reality.

But it’s not all about leaders, of course. I have been genuinely impressed with the response of Profusion employees to the current crisis. They have taken the lead in leveraging our digital connections to keep people together. Whether that is through regular company meetings, video workouts, online film clubs and other socials, art competitions and no doubt much more to come. Keep it up and spread the word!

People are fond of saying that ‘you should never let a crisis go to waste’. One area where we can hope to see positive long-term change is around workplace culture and the treatment of all workers in all sectors.

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