“You don’t know what you don’t know.” This saying could not be more true right now as the coronavirus continues to impact every aspect of life: how we live, work, and interact with each other. What we do know is that the actions companies take today—and how businesses react to making tough decisions—will shape their corporate cultures and brand reputations, long after we emerge from this crisis.
As the chief people officer at Workday, I—along with the rest of the leadership team—am helping lead our employees through this unprecedented time. Once COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, we understood almost immediately that we had to be more than a source of information; we had to be a source of comfort and emotional support for our employees.
Our managers take pride in being really good at their day jobs, overseeing teams of engineers, running marketing or accounting departments, and supervising other functions you would find at any fast-growing tech company. But to lead people in crisis, we all had to rally around our company’s values and find ways to adhere to those core beliefs, especially when work became difficult or chaotic. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve quickly learned about our values—and about ourselves.
What it really means to put employees first
When concerns over coronavirus first began to surface earlier this year, Workday’s leadership team knew we would need to make tough decisions—and quickly. But not even our most senior leaders, many of whom had weathered the dotcom boom and bust and other crises had a playbook for a pandemic. So we turned to our core values and aligned around the first of six tenets posted on our website: “Most fundamentally, people are the core of our business. Without them, we would not have a business.”
A crisis like this puts any company’s values to the test. (Let me just acknowledge that there are many admirable companies that cherish their employees but have had to make the hard choice to fire or furlough workers.) Like a lot of tech companies, we have long appreciated the critical role our people play in supporting customers and representing our brands. In crisis, we came to realize that we had to demonstrate our appreciation in unexpected and tangible ways.
As our workforce transitioned to remote work, we had to consider employees with children, elderly parents, and other dependents who may need extra help, as well as teammates who live alone and may feel isolated during this time.
Workday and others have tried different programs to help alleviate this pressure. We have seen companies expand dependent care so workers have less on their plate all at once. Some, like us, offer employees additional financial support to help with unforeseen costs. Others offer free access to tools that will help them relieve stress such as meditation apps or ergonomics consulting. Flexible work hours to accommodate homeschooling have become the norm at many companies.
Treating employees well is its own reward, but the employee experience also impacts your company’s broader ecosystem: it influences how your employees treat your customers, how they’ll represent your brand externally, and if they’ve left your organization, their willingness to one day return.
How providing transparency provides comfort
Transparency is critical during a crisis, but it’s not always an easy balance. We have had to figure out how to be honest and forthcoming about difficult updates, while making sure to not create panic or violate people’s privacy. Still, our employees have valued a proactive approach to communication.
In thinking about when, how, or what to communicate, we have created a workstream that has helped us figure out what to share, and on what platform (email, video) and to whom. Ask yourself whether the news you’re distributing is relevant to your whole organization, impacts a select group, or could have the potential to expand beyond its intended audience, in which case you might consider a broader reach as part of being transparent.
It’s also important to listen. Transparency is just as much about knowing what your workforce wants to hear as it is making assumptions about what they need to know. For example, we knew our employees had tons of questions and concerns about a variety of topics and while we had traditionally hosted company meetings to provide important business updates, we knew we needed a different format this time around. We quickly pivoted to weekly videos and virtual town halls for each of our three key regions—North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific—and rather than spending most of the time talking, we listened and took questions from employees as an executive team.
By being open and honest, you’ll not only gain appreciation, but you’ll also help reinforce the important sense of community and that together, we will get through this.
Finding time for moments of lightness
While many organizations are experiencing significant challenges right now, there are still moments to find lightness and relieve some of the ongoing anxiety and pressure we are all feeling. As part of this, find time for fun—whether it’s you driving it or making your people feel comfortable doing so.
Create shareable outlets like collaboration tools where they can interact with one another virtually; distribute tool kits, so managers know where to lean in; and inspire by leading some of the fun yourself or recognizing the ideas that work.
In many ways, fun is in our DNA at Workday; it comes from the seeds that were sown by our founders, a core value from day one. With our teams being remote, I wondered how our culture would transcend outside our office walls but knew we needed to be intentional. One example is our People Leader Toolkit for managers with resources and ideas to not just help manage productivity, but to also create a sense of fun, such as creating a shared team playlist on Spotify. I have also been amazed at the continued passion our employees have for finding lightness, whether it’s spontaneous dance parties over Zoom, virtual happy hours, or team scavenger hunts.
While none of us have a crystal ball or know what lies ahead, a set of guiding principles can help inform critical decisions in a virtuous way, especially as businesses look to reopen and find some normalcy once again. Regardless of the outcomes, if we can look in the rearview mirror and know that we’ve been true to who we are, we will be confident that we have acted in the best interest of our company and our people.
Ashley Goldsmith is chief people officer at Workday, a provider of software for financial and human capital management.