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A Tale of Two Companies During COVID-19

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to hear from two very different organizations on how they are thinking about re-opening, their ongoing struggles, and the best practices they have learned. 


It’s a common saying that ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’. Each company’s culture and organizational norms have played a big role in how they respond, plan, and shift. In other words, if you’re not liking your company’s response, champion CHANGE of the organizational structure, systems, and culture. It’s not too late to make a change that supports adaptability, reputation, and profits for a resilient future.

Two Case Studies

Here’s the highlights of two very different organizations and their journeys.

Case 1: Banking Industry

1800 employees | primarily in one state with a few other domestic locations

Storyteller: Talent Development/Diversity & Inclusion leader

Story: As a regulated industry, business continuity has been hard baked into the culture through an on-going taskforce, pre-COVID because it is essential to always provide customers access to their funds. For example, employees have to test their VPN regularly at home to be prepared for emergency. As the leader shared, “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” Although no one could have predicted COVID and its impact, because the full organization has practiced over time, nothing was completely new.

“We’ve not just been able to survive during this time, but actually thrive.”

Key Takeaways: Someone (and ideally a cross-discipline group) responsible for business continuity planning empowers businesses to take on the unforeseeable. A strong business continuity group creates opportunities for communication in crisis, organization-wide practice, effective training and information distribution, and anxiety-reducing work relationships.

Practices The Org Put In Place:

  • Leadership Actions: frequent communications not just when there is “new news” but to check-in ongoing and invite dialogue
  • Organizational Learning: The L&D team partnered with Marketing to build a COVID-specific platform, which includes topics like how to work from home, training on new systems and processes, and employee wellness support. New hires are being onboarded via virtual orientations – a pre-COVID initiative taking on greater importance.
  • Remote Performance Management: Given the duress people might be feeling, the organization focused on increasing recognition and decreasing compliance to their usual performance management activities. Recognition practices included bonus pay for essential workers, publicly posted video messages from leaders recognizing individual contribution, and encouragement to use the existing internal recognition platform.

Their re-entry plan is a phased approach that utilizes a hybrid model. They are starting with a phase 1, in which offices will be re-opened to select employees (who can choose whether to return or not). Some practices they are putting in place are temperature screening, staggered start times, closing gaps within the different cleaning practices stated within their various facilities’ contracts. A key concern is what is actually possible to implement via cost – if a bottle of hand sanitizer costs $7, it quickly becomes cost-prohibitive for the organization to provide.

Many people don’t think that communication is a big part of picking up the pieces – but it’s been a major part and machine behind supporting the business.

Culture Connections: By nature of being a part of a regulated industry, this organization was better prepared than those in other industries. This gave them the power to be proactive with efforts around the COVID crisis. In addition, this is a People-First vs. Profit-First culture. They seek to increase psychological safety and decrease anxiety through transparent frequent communications, sense of job security, supporting employee well-being and giving employees choice.

Case 2: Construction Industry

2500 employees | nationwide

Storyteller: Learning & Development Leaders

Story: As a part of the construction industry and serving as hired contractors, profits are based on projects and when projects stop, job security quickly follows. This organization is a more traditional, top-down, little diversity at the leadership level culture. At the start of the crisis, those essential to project delivery were also the most at risk in terms of job security. While salaried office staff were told to work from home if they could, but would get paid either way, those in the field were out of their paychecks as soon as their projects stopped. Little to no support was offered to empower working from home, since the more traditional leadership style called for a “butts in seats” approach and the belief just wasn’t there that people could in fact be productive remotely. Getting back to business as usual is a key priority and so, they’ve chosen to mandate all 2500 employees to return to work.

Key Takeaways: What your leadership believes is possible and necessary sets the tone for what work gets done by the organization. Putting the primary responsibility for safety in the employee’s court creates anxiety and greater risk, especially upon pressures of maintaining job/paycheck security which creates incentives to stay at work no matter what.

We didn’t want people to get comfortable to work virtually. So there wasn’t a lot of traction for supportive employee resources.

Practices put in place by this organization:

  • Training: The L&D team rapidly worked to create training on remote tools such as Microsoft Teams, since the organization has generally not worked remotely at all prior to COVID.
  • Re-Entry Team: Despite a lack of phased approach and the full company population mandated to return to work, there were primarily two people responsible for Re-Entry planning.
  • Employee Re-Entry Orientation: Similar to a stand up meeting, employees were socially distant via cubicles while trainers shared basic instructions for policies related to returning to work. Policies have no enforcement or tracking behind them and include rules like maintain social distance, no gatherings greater than one, wear masks and meet outside if face to face group meetings are required, no communal eating, and no sharing of food.
  • Employee Daily Self Assessment: Each day, employees answer three questions – are they exhibiting symptoms? Have they been in contact with any person who has symptoms? Have you been in contact with anyone traveling? However, there’s very little incentive to answer yes and no follow up process that happens if you do say yes, including any thought around paycheck security if staying home.
  • Temperature Screening: Recently implemented, however employees can see each others temperatures as they are read (potentially creating awkward privacy concerns and discrimination) and lines form due to unclear staggering of arrival times. Oddly (but perhaps not considering the traditional nature of the org), managers are allowed arrive whenever they like, but the rest of the employees have a particular entry time.

There’s been no conversation related to mental wellness at all. Our basic employee support is difficult to find and often incorrect information provided.

Culture Connections: This organization began with little employee choice and a focus on profits with a top-down management style. It appears that the minimum has been put in place, primarily for liability concerns, rather than truly protecting employee safety. Even though various entities may have ideas to help, the silos and lack of collaborative culture prevents coordinated effort. The haphazard nature of processes put in place imply a reactive organization, creating practices that give a false sense of security, but lack in real impact.

To Close

Every organization is responding based on the patterns that have guided them well in the past and the priorities they’ve chosen to focus on in this complex situation. As we say in OD, “Every organization is perfectly designed for what they get”.

Each organization has to balance the wellness of employees and the wellness of organizations — and ultimately (or ideally), find the both/and in which these aren’t competing priorities. We don’t know yet what approach will “win” and continue to thrive long term. What we can do is to keep noticing what’s going on and gather our reflections to make changes happen to the patterns and habits that aren’t serving us, in the short term and in the future.

What has the journey looked like for your organization? What practices has your organization been putting in place?

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This article emerged from a series of rich conversation at the New Normal Dialogue I host every Wednesday at 12 pm EST. 

Crystal Kadakia – CEO at Kadakia Consulting, an organizational consultancy focused on aligning business & people strategy to bring the future of work today. We co-create and lead initiatives with our clients that evolve org culture by maximizing the best possibilities that exist in your context.