Last week, I had multiple Zoom meetings with clients discussing how they would respond to the ever-changing COVID-19 situation.

One client, mobile payments provider PayByPhone UK, really stood out as they ended our session by linking back to one of their company values + associated behaviours:

“We are one team and that means we have each other’s backs in good times and bad”, said their UK CEO, Jonny Combe.

This was music to my ears. A strong culture alone can’t help you weather this – or any other – storm. But it certainly plays a part.

More than ever, as an employer, your response to this situation needs to play out as your employees would expect it to. Remember the psychological contract I’ve discussed before?

“This too shall pass”

So said the very wise Abraham Lincoln. And it will. However the world looks for you once this period is a distant memory, now is the time to make sure that you don’t throw your culture to the wind, but dig even deeper down into it; for the sake of your business, employees, suppliers, customers + clients. Small things will make a huge difference over the next few weeks, + if ever there was a time when you should be acting in a way which chimes with your company values + leaves you with happy, loyal employees, this is it.

What are the big brands doing right?

Marketing Week has some interesting reading on this theme; highlighting some of the brands who’ve played a blinder.

They report “Pret a Manger is among those brands that have taken decisive action. The coffee and sandwich chain closed its seating areas to operate on a takeaway-only basis in a bid to reduce social contact and prevent virus transmission. Pret has also extended its support for hard-pressed NHS workers, offering them hot drinks for free and implementing a 50% discount on all other products. CEO Pano Christou announced the move in his blog, where he thanked NHS workers for all their hard work. The message rapidly gained public support.”

Reading this, you won’t be surprised to hear that Pret’s core behaviours are Passion, Clear Talking +Team Working. They’ve shown this in their clear communication and generous response in a time of need. Gold medals all round at Pret.

Building society, Nationwide’s response to the crisis is also admirable. Before the Government’s “Stay at Home” policy came into force, they were one of the first organisations to open branches early to protect elderly + vulnerable customers from crowds + an increased chance of getting COVID-19.

Brand network director Mandy Beech said, “Lots of good work is being done across and within communities throughout the length and breadth of the UK and we want to do as much as we can. We understand the current situation is likely to hit the elderly and vulnerable the hardest, not only because of the higher risk of catching coronavirus, but also through potentially feeling isolated from the wider world should this issue continue for a longer period.”
The first value listed on their website? “We value people”. They sure do.

Lastly, VW have now stopped manufacturing throughout Europe + are instead looking into using 3D printing to make hospital ventilators which are critical in assisting patients with coronavirus. Their values of Teamwork, Integrity + Accountability are totally playing out in their response to this crisis.

What are big brands doing wrong?

Oh dear, Virgin Atlantic. Disappointingly for many of its employees, the airline, led by Richard Branson, hasn’t covered itself in glory in its response to the huge challenges faced by the airline industry at the moment. Its decision to ask employees to take 8 weeks’ unpaid leave seems a far cry from Branson’s famous quote: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” It’s also the polar opposite of Virgin Atlantic’s “Supportive” company value – “We are a family of friendly and inclusive people who pull together and openly help each other”. Ahem.

To quote Mark Ritson, ex-marketing Professor at London Business School, + brand consultant: “It would cost Sir Richard – net worth around £3bn – about 1% of that fortune to ensure his employees receive a £500-a-week payment to support them and their families during the eight-week hiatus. Obviously, that was too much to ask. But Virgin, which includes … behaviours like ‘supportive’, ‘respectful’ and ‘proud’ in its corporate brand values, should have taken one look at its positioning and known exactly how to behave.”

I’m sure you’re getting the point now. How you react to this crisis has the ability to engage or be off-putting for both future + current employees + customers alike. But how can you best handle the challenges your business + employees are currently facing? It starts with your Values + Purpose.

Bringing your Values + Purpose to the fore

Here are my recommendations for coming through this time with a stronger team + business:

Employees worried about financial security

Given the continuously changing landscape, + the fact that no-one is able to predict how long this situation may last, this is a tough one. However, the key is to make sure that your response to this important issue is one that mirrors your company’s values. If you profess a value of honesty, for example, play this out. Be honest. Don’t bury bad news or make false promises. Yes, in the stark reality that you’re unable to offer the security that your team is looking for, this will possibly be one of the toughest messages that you will ever have to deliver as leader; but people will respect you for your openness + thank you for helping them to plan for their future.

Equally, if your company advocates transparency, play this out. Transparency is a key component in maintaining trust. Make sure you regularly + openly communicate with your employees. Give as much information as you have available in that moment around what the future may look like. Not being told how the land lies is worse than hearing the truth + being able to respond to it.

Keeping up team spirit

No matter what your company values, the key here is to offer ways of enabling your employees to connect + create a sense of community in a world where non-essential physical interaction, outside of the people you live with, is off-limits. Bringing a sense of team spirit to the fore can prevent feelings of isolation + help to maintain psychological safety for your employees. Basically, it shows you care.

We’ve seen some great examples of this in recent weeks, from companies downing tools on a Friday afternoon to share a beer (virtually) + a laugh, to having a day where employees ditch the PJs + dress up in something glam. Other companies are sharing funny ‘working from home’ stories + pictures of them juggling kids + work – they’re having fun as a team in the face of a crisis. One employer even told us that their team feels that they’ve bonded more as a result of having dedicated time to have fun together, albeit virtually.

Throughout this time, it’s important that you keep in touch in a way that, + as regularly as, feels right for your organisation. This can include formal comms – 121s + whole team catchups, as well as informal comms that enable you to have fun as a team. Back to PayByPhone UK again. They’ve set up the PayByPhone Music Club. Each day they’re announcing an album of the day + then setting up polls so employees can vote for their favourite track + rate the album.

Keeping up laughter levels is a great idea in troubling times. Not only can laughing together pull you together as a team, but did you know that laughter has many health benefits?

Laughing burns (a few) calories, + once you’ve got that lovely relaxed feeling post-laughing, you’ll feel like you would do after a good workout. You’ll lose tension in your muscles + warm fuzzy-feeling endorphins will flow into your brain. When you laugh, you’re also strengthening your immune system, increasing antibody production + producing cells which fight off disease. Laughing can also reduce your blood pressure (I’ll have to remember to watch a funny video next time my child presses DELETE on a document that I’ve been working on!).

Studies have shown how having a laugh together makes people feel safer + strengthens their shared bond. That’s seems like a good idea right now, doesn’t it?

Supporting employees under pressure

As companies transition to the new ‘normal’, it’s important to acknowledge that, as well as finding a new, fairly monotonous, routine, some employees may also be facing other pressures at home; including caring for + teaching their children now that schools are shut. It’s important that you respect these additional needs + address them in a way that is empathetic + congruent with your company culture.

Many people will have spent the last few days panicking about working with kids around, or wondering how to work around caring for, shopping for or supporting vulnerable family members.

Digging deep on your company values, it’s your job now to make it clear that “We’re all in this together” + “We’re going to be flexible”. How? Here are some things to think about:

Remember the viral video with Professor Robert Kelly, American academic + expert on Korean relations? It showed his child walking into the room whilst he was being interviewed for the BBC, + his wife attempting to crawl in to recover the child without being noticed. Who needs the pressure of kids being neither seen nor heard when their homes have become makeshift offices? Some businesses are proactively taking the pressure off employees by making it clear that it’s fine to have a child sitting on your lap during a call, or for there to be tantrums, piano-playing or general furore in the background sometimes. Their mantra is that we’re all under pressure + we’re all doing our best.

If Trust is a company value, show employees that you trust them to get the work done as best they can, when they can. Do employees have to work 9am – 5pm or can they work any time, as long as the work gets done? The days of working 9am – 5pm are so 1980s Dolly Parton anyway!

Wellbeing

Employees’ wellbeing is paramount right now. You can simply draw down on more traditional tools like Employee Assistance Programmes. You could also use the current situation to be more creative in how you look after your staff. What about daily huddles for virtual lunch, sporting challenges (the person with the most steps done around their home in a week wins a prize), or sharing links to online group mindfulness sessions?

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be a big organisation offering expensive wellbeing initiatives to support your employees with remaining fit + well whilst in isolation. St Albans based Sherrards solicitors, whose working environment is based on Support, Collaboration + Flexibility, are sending out “work from home” packs to all employees to offer them system support + self-care tips whilst working remotely. All employees will also get a KitKat to eat, by way of a reminder to “Have a Break…”. What a nice touch!

The key in all of this is to remember that these are not normal times. That does mean, however, that there is a greater opportunity to offer more creative ways of supporting employees alongside those viewed as more typical. So, remain empathetic, think outside the box where you can, + remember to ground all of your actions in your Values + Purpose. This alone will offer your employees a huge sense of relief.

In line with Culture Chameleon’s core value ‘We Are Creative’, I’ve got lots of tips + tricks for supporting employees based on your company culture. Get in touch to find out more!

I’d also love to hear from you if you have further examples to share around how your business is coping with COVID-19 + what you’re doing to care for your employees + boost morale.