Employers Unmasked: People at the Core of the COVID-19 Business Recovery

March 12, 202026min

The COVID-19 – or coronavirus – outbreak has been named a ‘pandemic’ by the World Health Organization (WHO).

On making the announcement, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also said that he was “deeply concerned” by “alarming levels of inaction” around the world. However, companies that have embraced Employee Experience (EX) are setting themselves apart from the rest and are at the forefront of the global business recovery.

Naturally, we are assuming the “inaction” that the Director-General refers to does not include parts of the world – including the UK and Australia – where people have been proactively and expertly building stockpiles of toilet roll, pasta, and hand sanitiser!

A compelling survival toolkit, but perhaps an indicator that news can frequently travel too far and too fast in the modern world, creating unnecessary panic.

An inconsistent truth

The focus of global attention has moved on now from China as things begin to escalate in Europe and the US, and there is a perception that significant inconsistencies have emerged in the response to the outbreak. It is always great advice to wash hands and maintain good hygiene levels, but the problem has been here for a while and it is only now that serious dialogue begins about stricter measures such as ‘social distancing’ and the banning of large events.

Right or wrong, the experts have some big calls to make!

As an Englishman, I support the NHS and it appears that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, does too with his proclamation that the NHS “will get everything it needs” during the crisis. This is reassuring and I am semi-comfortable with the calm response from Sir Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, although things are placed firmly into perspective with the news that he is readying colleagues in the NHS to deal with unfamiliar and very different ways of working to deal with the expected and intense pressures on the health system.

Generally, there is much debate about what measures should be introduced and when in society. Being led by experts is acceptable for politicians, but as they well know, society often runs on emotions, not logic. A lack of action can spark fear and unhelpful behaviours.

I fully expect the remote working practices that many employers have already adopted will scale, and schools and universities will soon follow suit.

On the BBC a few weeks ago, I advocated for a global response and appealed for calm heads to emerge. I like facts and evidence as much as the next person, but humans are emotional powerhouses too.

It’s good to read reassuring quotes, but much better to see decisive actions. That’s why, during that discussion, I also stated clearly that the best place to be at that time was China, despite Wuhan being the epicentre of the crisis.

I felt this way simply because I have experienced living in China for three years. I have countless examples in my memory bank of what happens when China, at a central level, decides to do something. In short, stuff gets done and all necessary actions move forward, usually at lightning pace.

From rapidly building new hospitals to restricting movement, the WHO has praised China’s containment of the outbreak and the evidence appears to support this praise with a dramatic decline in new cases. There were only 15 new cases yesterday (March 11) in mainland China. I’m inclined to believe that decisive and massive action makes a big difference.

In business, there has been a mixed response to the outbreak and companies are getting found out. Indeed, there has been an awful lot of talk about “purpose over profit” in business in recent years, and how organisations now need to stand for something more than just money.

Well, now is the perfect test of that rhetoric. Through this pandemic we are watching something else unfold – we are seeing the true colours of employers of all sizes…

Do they really care about people?

Are the values genuine and authentic?

Can they uphold and live their values in a truly human-centred way through a crisis?

Employers are being tested and assessed by their workforces in real-time every day.

The employer response

Actions, based on evidence and data, are ideal to lead the workforce through a crisis, but time-and-time again as I speak to employers and CEO’s, the justification for action has often not been wholly based on data – it’s been based on doing the right thing.

In some areas there are zero cases, but employers have already embraced remote working, for example. People mean everything. The economics of decisions has been cast aside by the very best employers.

They have been proactive in playing their role in society and the community. Because of this, they will prosper in the long-term.

Starbucks China springs to mind. The response on the customer and employee side was exemplary. I’m glad I chose this company as a case study for my book Employee Experience.

Yet again, they have made business decisions through the lens of taking care of their people and upholding their values. This meant store closures and enhanced support (financial and otherwise) for staff alongside extensive and proactive support for people in society. The company made itself part of the solution.

Belinda Wong, Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer of Starbucks China, summed up her approach to leading people through crisis, saying: “One of the biggest things I learned was how to handle 58,000 people’s emotions, to really empathise and care for them, and also uplift their spirits in a difficult time.

“It changed how I communicate. I bring them along on every step. If they have a question, I answer it personally, no matter who they are.”

In a more purposeful and experience-driven economy, the race is on. Not to protect the numbers, but to show an extraordinary level of care and concern for people. This is what differentiates and defines high performance in 2020 – the financial and human outcomes, as Wong suggests.

“This whole experience is not a lesson of business disruption, but of leadership and humanity,” she said.

“I’m comforted when I look back and see what we did and know what we mean when we say we are a different kind of company.”

Embracing the ‘experience’ of work

Not every company thinks this way. Unfortunately, this is still not normal.

This outbreak is showing the huge experience gaps that have opened-up between companies that have and have not focused on their people as a priority. The economic impact cannot be understated. This crisis will create long-term consequences for companies worldwide, and it will also hit the pockets of people working in less secure roles as contractors, hourly workers, and across the gig economy.

Technology companies have been leading the way in differentiating themselves as employers that stand apart from the rest by proactively offering enhanced benefits to their workforces, including full pay protection for hourly workers whose jobs may not be required as remote working practices come into effect.

Notably, Microsoft and Amazon have been at the forefront with this, while many from other sectors have already done the same in supporting their workforces. Others have done the groundwork in balancing technology and people to drive business growth, and are in very strong positions to quickly adapt their business models.

Wiktor Schmidt, Executive Chairman at Netguru, detailed how his company has moved fully to online/virtual working to handle the COVID-19 situation, whilst closing offices and suspending business travel. Working remotely was already a key part of its existing EX.

Within this, a long-planned ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with the whole company changed to an online format. In the past, he said, the company “would run each AMA partially onsite, gathering all available core managers in one place (with employees)”.

“This time, we had to do it 100 percent online, with each of us sitting at home. And it was the best AMA session we’d ever had. Working remote has always been at the very core of our culture. Because of that, we’re fully prepared to work online,” he said, emphasising that this was the case whether there was a virus out there or not.

Holistic & human-centred actions

For employers, it’s ‘all-hands-on deck’ to deal with this crisis, and the very best people professionals will be getting out and working directly with staff.

Colleagues like Lisa Dillon Zwerdling, Chief Employee Experience Officer/VP of Internal Care Coordination at Visiting Nurse Association Health Group, based in New Jersey. Lisa is currently working on the COVID-19 taskforce for her organisation, which includes educating all clinical staff who will have contact with patients in their homes through mandatory training, taking part in office cleaning, provision of protective and hygiene products to staff, and the operation of a reverse 911 notification system to keep everyone well informed and connected.

The taskforce is also rolling out new ways of working, including home-working and acts as the liaison between local, regional, national, and global bodies.

The need for holistic thinking and human-centred leadership is never greater than at times of crisis. Lisa, as an HEX Practitioner, demonstrates this by focusing on supporting people in a variety of strategic and operational ways. Indeed, at times of crisis, HEX Practitioners will be constantly thinking and acting with people in mind:

  • How can we support people more?

  • How can we co-create solutions and proactive actions with our teams?

  • How can we leverage the resources we have (including technology) to maintain a healthy connection with staff?

  • How do we exemplify our values within and outside of our organisations?

Those companies that have already embraced a greater emphasis on the EX will be reaping the rewards. Their HR professionals may right now resemble something more akin to an ‘Experience Architect’.

Those ahead of the curve will benefit from years of wise investment in technology, co-creation, and creating the conditions for people to experience their unique Truth (purpose, mission, and values) every day. This crisis offers an opportunity to enhance and deepen this connection. For others, it will not be as straightforward. Years of under-investment and a lack of focus on the things that really matter in work will be hitting them hard.

There will be some real learning coming down the line from the crisis.

Experience is everything

Employee Experience remains the number one business and HR trend because everything is part of our experience in work, whether it is a positive or negative one.

Employers may well be making decisions based on the numbers rather than the people, and harming the employment relationship in a profound way, as Robert Pender, HEX Practitioner, suggests.

“As an HEX Practitioner, while it is encouraging to see some companies take steps to support their people, it appears many organisations still don’t have a plan in place and seem to be waiting on governments to dictate what the appropriate responses should be,” he said.

“Whilst there are potentially huge financial ramifications for organisations, and aspects of legislation may help align how the business world responds, waiting passively for directives does not represent the behaviour of a human-focused organisation.”

Taking part on a virtual panel this week, the discussion focused on how HR will be fundamental in business recovery following the outbreak. I reinforced what many of us are thinking.

As usual, this crisis is all about people and experiences. It’s about creating and maintaining connections. It’s about caring for and demonstrating a deep commitment to people.

Interestingly, at times of crisis, we see the best and worst of humanity, and the destructive power of fear and selfishness. With many employees sharing their real-time experiences online, the commentary offers ample evidence that things need to change. In this context, it’s a time where the influence and impact of our companies (and ourselves) as a force for good in the world becomes crystal clear.

There remain critical issues in the way that companies develop themselves and their relationship with people. Related to this, there are significant challenges in the way that companies set themselves up; research I summarised from The Economist pointed this out last year – a lack of alignment, accountability, and human-centricity is getting in the way of healthy experiences in work.

The yet-to-unfold effects on business and human outcomes during the outbreak will be hard for some to bare. Employees may not be having the experience that they want or need, and it is a huge failing on the part of employers if that is the case.

Living purpose, mission, and values during a crisis

In the long-run, businesses that uphold their Truth during a crisis will come out stronger, richer, and healthier as a result.

A caring, decisive, and proactive approach from employers is required. Leading employers may be asking staff to self-isolate as part of the “biggest remote working experiment of all time”, but what they’re really saying is that they care about the health and wellbeing of their workforce. They will be doing whatever is necessary to support their people. This, and actions like it, will be remembered forever.

This is about creating a positive connection for life, not just through a crisis.

This article was originally published on the World Employee Experience Institute website.

Ben Whitter

Ben Whitter

Ben Whitter is one of the World's leading figures within HR & Employee Experience (EX). Ben is the Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI) and Chairman of the UK EX Awards 2018.




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