My good friend Sebastiano lives in Milan.

Last Thursday, he messaged me about coronavirus. In what seemed like his typical laid back Italian view at the time, he thought that the virus was not really going to impact their daily lives. By Tuesday, this had all changed. The Italian government lockdown had unexpectedly thrown his business into a situation they had not considered possible or prepared for in any way.

His message to me yesterday morning via Whatsapp was, “Prepare.”  Then last night we learned of the Europe travel ban.  Today, effectively all professional sports have paused.  Changes are happening fast.

While we have no way of knowing whether this is or is not the “great existential threat” to our cultural status-quo, we do know that everyone’s business has been significantly affected. At the very least, we can all expect “how we work” to change in the short term. The longer view is to be determined.

Communication and cultural preparedness – how we keep our workforce engaged as things drastically change is something we have been counseling our clients over the past few days.

We are advising a deliberate approach to ensure that your culture and in turn, your workforce, deals with all the possibilities in a productive way.

With that in mind, here are four things to consider:

  1. Review Your Remote Work Policy. If you have one, it was probably written some time ago. It may not reflect how remote work is actually practiced today. Now is the time to get real and get specific. Many remote policies were written vaguely by design because it applied only to a select group of professional employees. This won’t work for everyone, especially non-exempt employees.
  2. Prepare Your Non-remote Workforce.  You likely have a large number of employees who have never worked remotely. We advise that you start mentally preparing them for the possibility of working from home now. They already know that this may happen and are concerned about it. Carefully consider how jobs could be performed remotely. If the time comes, this group will need to fully understand what the expectations for work will be as it’s a whole new world for them.For a considerable number of employees, working remotely is not a possibility. What is the contingency plan for these groups and how have you prepared to communicate those possibilities? Can this time be used as a personal development opportunity?  Are there creative compensation strategies that can be deployed?  Can this group be reassigned to a new function?  It’s better to spend time carefully thinking about this now, instead of in the minutes before an impending announcement.
  1. Consider and Test Your Communication Platforms and Methods. Do you have an easy and efficient way to communicate with ALL of your employees if they are instructed not to go into work? Are you sure it works? Test it.
  2. Revisit and Communicate Your Business Priorities. Consider how the impact of coronavirus will impact your business in the short term. You undoubtedly created goals for 2020 with little to no insight that a pandemic could uproot them entirely. By identifying this reality and defining what your business priorities or organization goals will be moving forward, you can ensure that everyone is aligned in helping you achieve them. The impact of having everything you’ve been working on eliminated in a matter of days can be frightening. Acknowledging this fact and outlining new priorities can quickly rally everyone around new goals that help the organization overcome challenges.
  3. Turn Anxiety into Effort with Communication and Leadership. Never has there been a more critical time for your employees to hear from its leaders clearly and transparently. You are busy now and will get busier in the next few weeks. We know, it’s easy to put off that e-mail or update because it’s going to take time to write (and re-write). In times of uncertainty, people look to leadership for stability and inspiration. Failing to communicate during this time can have a significant impact on your employee’s belief in your culture. And, in turn, the level of effort you need them to make to contribute to your organization.
  4. Your Values and Purpose are Defined Now. It’s easy to take a stand when times are good. It’s when the chips are down, and tough decisions are being made, that culture is truly defined.One of our clients is in a highly cyclical industry. It’s one that’s experienced tremendous turmoil over the past two decades. Yet they have one of the highest engaged workforces in the world (according to Gallop). What we learned from their employees is that this level of engagement was solidified during the challenging times, not the good times. Over a decade later, its world-class culture is defined by how it acted and lived by its values during the most difficult of times.

We hope these precautions never get put to use. Nothing would be better than for this to be a giant exercise in preparation for us all. It’s also all of our jobs to ensure our organizations and our people weather this challenge.

Chad Strickland
Co-Founder, NICH +Culture