Millions of American workers are already in the unemployment abyss, but for those still working, or who might return to work, business leaders should take note: How a company handles the people it lets go is noticed by employees, as well as by customers and partners. And a failure to prioritize worker concerns could cause a further deterioration in trust in the business while also prolonging the crisis by neglecting the health of families and the economy.
To care for the workforce and avoid further disruption, business leaders should address four priorities.
Safety and cleanliness have shot to the top of workplace concerns.
At a minimum, companies should provide everyone with hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes, and they can’t let people work if they show any signs of being sick. For those coming to workplaces, companies should make flexible hours the standard for everyone and consider staggering their days on and off.
Stemming financial insecurity must also be a top priority. The value of frontline workers hasn’t yet shown up in their wages. Although some restaurants and groceries offer wages close to the $15 per hour sought by some politicians, when hours are cut, even those wages disappear. For essential health workers, low pay can cause them to jump ship.
Compassion makes a difference. The best leaders communicate with their workers regularly about unfolding events, consider everyone to be “family” and acknowledge particularly heroic or poignant stories of people going above and beyond to help others while making sacrifices themselves. Recognition can make people feel valued, and also inspire others.
Companies can also create and manage online communities based on interests or even geographic proximity. For instance, during an earlier financial crisis, when nearly half of IBM’s North American employees worked remotely and morale was low, one executive decided to raise spirits by connecting those who lived near one another and coordinated enjoyable creative activities for them to do together. This type of morale booster could easily be replicated online.
Leaders should look beyond their own company or industry to help deliver essential services. Hospitals and health workers have particular needs, and some big companies are refitting facilities to produce masks instead of apparel or ventilators instead of autos. That’s not enough.
Many businesses have underutilized resources or creative ideas. To help schools implement online learning, for instance, companies could lend idled office computers when white-collar workers are furloughed or are working on home devices.
Those who have lost their jobs might also be put back to work performing other useful tasks, while still receiving their unemployment benefits. Could they offer online training in areas where they have skills? Could they become financial mentors? Could they work as tutors for local schools? When one large bank I worked with was faced with the need for a layoff during an earlier recession, it ran a venture challenge in which some furloughed workers could compete to win an investment in a promising startup business. The winners could begin to develop the startup before the crisis abated.
The COVID-19 crisis should be a wakeup call for compassionate attention to worker needs. Business leaders need to heed the call, or risk facing resentment and its consequences when the economy opens again.