5 key ingredients for creating a supportive culture during a crisis

Right now, every company, big or small, is shepherding their workforce through immense change. Business operations are being reinvented. Employees are anxious. And things are evolving so quickly that what is true in the morning might not be true by the afternoon.

With so much uncertainty, business leaders have a critical role to play. A look at trust during the coronavirus pandemic in 10 markets–including Italy, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S.–conducted by Edelman in early March found that people trust information about the virus they receive from their employer more than that received from government officials.

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That’s an incredible responsibility. But as the chief human resources officer at HP for nearly a decade, I’ve seen that it can also result in a strong, resilient work community during challenging times. During a crisis, the culture you create will define your organization. The key is to keep employees at the center of your response during transformative moments.

Be Real, Responsibly

Transparency is a key–often the key–contributor to employee happiness. As this pandemic heightens, bad news can’t be avoided, and employers shouldn’t try to do so. Instead, they should rely on the currency of trust, giving people a sense of comfort while being honest.

I, like many, was impressed by Arne Sorenson’s video to his Marriott colleagues. He was able to deliver tough news in a way that alleviated anxiety. He showed empathy and selflessness and delivered a clear message, hallmarks of a true leader. Culture depends on top-down leadership that inspires as it informs, and messages will resonate more coming from one key person your workforce recognizes, usually the CEO.

Model Culture Early and Often

Creating a supportive culture for all employees, regardless of their particular circumstances, is a vital step for global corporations. This means establishing what “the new normal” will look like in myriad contexts and communicating these changes in personable and relatable ways.

Amid COVID-19-mandated remote working, leaders must set expectations early and model them often. When a senior manager gets on a call with their child next to them, it empowers other working parents to do the same. When a vice president participates in a virtual happy hour, she demonstrates that colleagues should still have fun at work.

Keep the Employee at the Center of Everything 

At the onset of this crisis, my team envisioned what we wanted an employee to say once we came out on the other side. Ultimately, we wanted to hear, “I appreciate how HP is supporting me and I know what to do to deliver for our customers.” To make that happen, we began a dialogue and monthly surveys to understand how people are feeling.

As a result, we’re enacting programs such as Wellness Wednesdays and Family & Fun Fridays. We are providing anything and everything employees need. We are hosting Q&A sessions with medical directors to answer employees’ pressing questions. We are engaging teachers and education specialists to help guide parents who are now homeschooling. We are even working with a major movie studio to stream an animated movie exclusively to HP staff and their families on a company-wide movie night. Companies have to continue to be intentional about building culture, even when we are not coming together in offices.

Enable Managers for Teams’ Benefit

Time is precious in a crisis. Managers need accurate, timely and targeted answers to frequently asked employee questions. For many companies, that requires recalibration right now. Audit your communications channels, and ensure that, in addition to arming managers with comprehensive updates, there’s also a go-to channel for consistent information.

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Remember: This, Too, Is a Learning Moment

Every company should ask itself what can be learned from this pandemic. Think about how you can leverage the intense level of focus and resiliency that people have right now to create a better culture for everyone.

When there’s a crisis, there’s a structural shift. Things never go back to exactly how they were before. Often, I find, there’s something better to come if you are thoughtful about leveraging lessons learned.

For many companies–HP included–this has been an incredible moment of community, and we’ll continue to rely on the insights gained now as we move forward. How we act in the coming weeks and months is likely to define our organizations for years to come. I have no doubt we can create the culture we need to succeed by putting people first.

Tracy Keogh
Tracy Keogh is chief human resources officer at HP.