If the Titanic had managed to steer clear of the iceberg, the next steps would have been pretty straightforward: stay the course, and continue to keep an eye out for exceptionally large hunks of frozen water. However, in most cases, the delineation between the crisis itself and “post crisis” – not to mention the best way to navigate both stages – isn’t always so simple.

Complexity and ambiguity are both par for the course in today’s business world. However, times of crisis require leaders to play a critical role in guiding companies through exceptional turmoil while inspiring employees to keep driving forward. With COVID-19, businesses have transformed in a matter of months – truly taking “organizational change” to a new level of meaning – in order to keep up with the shifting demands brought about by the emergence of the virus.

From an organizational standpoint, these demands have forced many companies to redefine their work and recalibrate their business.  Difficult decisions have been made and felt globally: from furloughs and layoffs, to rewriting safety policies to protect employees, to rapid technology adoption and transitioning to working remotely. Five months in, anxieties are still high, and the economic and emotional impact of the crisis has taken a severe toll on employees. There is still fear in not knowing what the future holds: despite emerging developments, it is difficult to imagine exactly what the world and businesses will look like post-crisis.

Unprecedented change typically leads people through seven phases of emotion, as represented in the Kubler-Ross change curve below. In the context of business, it shows how we as employees react emotionally to major disruptive changes in the workplace. Companies – and even individuals – may currently exist at different points on the change spectrum, but leaders play an integral role in navigating their employees through the phases, instilling confidence and trust that they will get through challenging times and reach the final point of integration where employees embrace and are empowered by the “new normal.”


Kubler Ross Change Curve – Image provided by Google Images, KFR Foundation


Many questions come to mind with respect to how the employee experiences has and will continue to change as a result of COVID-19. As a company undergoes internal changes during turbulent times, how do we maintain, or better yet, improve the employee experience?  And what is leadership’s role in eliciting that change?

Willis Towers Watson recently hosted a webinar centered around this very topic.  They discussed just how critical leaders are in the process of helping employees overcome the negative stages of the change curve and moving the business forward to adopt change and achieve stronger outcomes. Understanding this is not a one-size fits-all scenario, there are many ways leaders can continue to engage employees during times of crisis and guide them in reimagining the future. Here are just a few.

1. The employee experience right now varies dramatically- some are thriving in their new work environments; others are struggling. Make sure to tailor the employee experience to the individual.

In order to effectively integrate change and set up the organization to emerge in a position of strength as the new normal is created, leaders must work to get their employees through individual hardships. As circumstances continue to shift, so will each employee exist at different stages of the spectrum. People’s workdays look drastically different than they did before, whether a given person has simply learned how to collaborate virtually or is being reskilled to work on an entirely new need for the business. While some quickly adapt to changes, others are more resistant and may struggle.  Advancements in data analytics, two-way communication channels, and other technologies enable leaders more, now than ever, to segment their employees and address the employee experience in a more targeted, tailored and dynamic way. For example, employees more prone to anxiety may need a longer lunch hour to go for a walk, in order to come back for the second part of the day in a focused frame of mind. Others may need shorter and more frequent breaks to check on their kids. At Vantage, one of the ways we have worked to gain an understanding of each employee’s unique set of circumstances is by administering pulse surveys every couple of months. These short questionnaires aim to get a current read on emotional well-being and gather continuous insight on how well the firm has managed the crisis – from transparent communication about what drives decision-making at the top to improving efficiencies through the use of tools and technologies. These anchored questions allow Vantage to be able to identify where opportunity lies for improvement, then track progress and record results over a period of time.

Of course, scheduling frequent check-ins, increasing touchpoints, and continuing to lead with empathy are all essential in understanding and crafting the employee experience, especially when only being able to leverage virtual means of collaboration.

2. While recalibrating your business to be conducive to the evolving environment, lean on your cultural values and company mission to guide your decisions.

At Vantage, a core component of how we have approached leading through the crisis is to utilize our values and company purpose to guide decisions about the firm’s  immediate and long-term needs. For the majority of 2020, our firm has worked remotely. We were well-positioned to make the leap to virtual work because our operations are based on our promise to our clients: to be their best partner for selecting, integrating, and developing world-class leaders. As such, we meet clients where they are; conducting our services virtually and remaining adaptable were changes already in the making, especially as we looked to satisfy global needs. Internally, this also means that we have remained both flexible and intentional in how we staff work and allocate resources–which have become especially critical during the global pandemic.

Similarly, Willis Towers Watson’s webinar called attention to the importance of companies and leaders leaning on their mission and values to guide decision-making through crisis. People are often reluctant to change, especially when those changes are drastic, frequent, and there is still a great deal of uncertainty looming about the near future. Companies who answer challenges with actions rooted in organizational values create greater buy-in for the acceptance of necessary changes. Your values provide a common language employees can already recognize, and can be used to drive positive action through difficult times.

3. Leadership alignment is critical to inspire and activate change that helps companies surface in a position of strength.

For leaders, clearly articulating a purpose for proposed changes that builds confidence and trust among employees is crucial in helping create a path forward. In a time where everyone is experiencing hardships and “unprecedented” is the word of the year, employees need to trust in the company’s ability to balance both the short-term and long-term business objectives. Steps and decisions leaders make early on in a crisis can directly impact company performance for years to come. In a recent study, roughly 80% of employees indicate their organization has responded to the COVID-19 crisis appropriately thus far and has acted proactively to protect their health and safety. While this is promising, leaders need to continue to maintain and reaffirm this initially-won trust through constant communication and a clear direction for employees. Trust, while difficult to build, is easy to break – and this is never truer than in times of crisis. To this end, making sure leadership (whether that consists of a C-suite, a pair of co-founders, or a small partnership team) is aligned on all decisions that will be rolled out through the company is imperative.

The important thing to remember is that the initial response great leaders displayed at the onset of the pandemic – consisting of empathy, patience, transparency, and adaptability – will be required for a long time to come. Even for those who are starting to return to physical offices, we’re a long way from being firmly established in the new normal.

Stay the course.

What other tactics or strategies is your company utilizing to create a positive employee experience? Drop a comment or share your thoughts below.