We’re in a new era. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to the world how connected we are, while also peeling back our layers to unveil a shared human hope: coexistence in good health and happiness. Our leaders must think beyond customer experience and focus on total Human Experience, which takes into account both employees and consumers.
“Look at this as an opportunity to show up as an elevated company whose foundation for decision-making is trust and respect for lives—for honoring the humans at the end of your decisions,” said Jeanne Bliss, former five-time CXO, now a global leadership advisor and keynote speaker. “Your attitude will become your people’s attitude, and that is how you will show up in the marketplace.”
Human Experience: Focus on Employees
Studies over the years have noted that satisfied, engaged employees create better customer experiences and drive higher revenues for the company. (A recent Gallup study showed that companies with engaged employees have 10 percent higher customer ratings and 21 percent higher profitability than those with disengaged employees.) To keep engagement and morale high during a crisis, it’s even more important that leaders ensure employees feel cared for and valued by the organization. A leader who joined one of the virtual gatherings Egon Zehnder held in April said tracking employee sentiment during this time is important. “People will think differently about their companies after this—positively or negatively. This may well be a point in time where leaders have an opportunity to refine their organization’s culture around a common purpose, deeply rooted in society, where inclusion, trust, and accountability emerge as core values.”
In this time of uncertainty and change, approaching employees with an authentic desire to understand their fears and needs will help to build a stronger culture and build a loyal following.
In our work with clients, we’ve found some practical ways to show care and compassion:
- Start with the basics: Do your employees have what they need to survive the times?
The question sounds daunting and one that would vary by individual, but during the current COVID-19 pandemic, there are basic items, such as masks, toilet paper, cleaning products, work-from-home office equipment, and more that your people may not have easy access to. Your company may have greater access to these goods through strong supplier relationships, economics of scale, or other connections and could leverage them to help employees. (There are many ways to bring value and relief and not all of them require the company to foot the bill—simply providing access can be a relief.)
- Retain employee benefits and salaries to the degree you can.
While companies are all focused on long-term sustainability, many are making changes and sacrifices to allow employees to retain their benefits and salaries. VISA CEO and Chair Alfred F. Kelly Jr. told his workforce of 20,000 that the company would not lay off any employees due to COVID-19 this year. “There is enough sadness in the world and already too many families impacted by job losses,” he said. “I have no interest in contributing to that.” While not every company will be able to do this, particularly those with seasonal or part-time workers, leaders should investigate all possible options, particularly about retaining health care benefits.
Some companies have taken unexpected steps. As shelter-in-place orders and business closures rolled out in mid-March, Chuck E. Cheese CEO David McKillips reached out to other companies CEOs, including its competitor Dominos, to see if they would consider hiring Chuck E. Cheese employees to allow them to keep working.
- Have empathy that your people are juggling a lot.
With this unprecedented pandemic, we are seeing kids at home on “virtual learning” programs, nannies/childcare providers unavailable, dual working families stressing internet bandwidth, and single parents simply trying to stay afloat. Everyone is dealing with something. As a leader, your voice matters. Be vocal and let your teams know you understand they are dealing with many competing needs. This empathy will go a long way. Let people feel comfortable knowing you know this isn’t business as usual. It’s OK that wild 5-year-olds interrupt a video call. Have a laugh about it when it happens and share what’s hiding behind your virtual backdrop. Give employees the flexibility to work non-traditional hours to accommodate the new reality of caring for kids at home in addition to working full time. Empathy breeds connections, and strengthens relationships, trust and loyalty.
Visa launched a Mental Wellness Community to help employees cope both personally and professionally during these unprecedented and unchartered times. “We’ve adapted to the new virtual workspace rapidly, promoting different ways of interaction among employees: remote cooking lessons hosted by our own employees, fitness classes, virtual Happy Hours, and even drawing contests for our employee’s children are just a few examples,” Maribel R. Diz, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Visa Inc., Latin America and Caribbean Region, shared. “Most importantly, we have established a cadence of regular ‘All Hand’ meetings, both from regional and global levels, to keep employees informed and connected during every step of this journey.”
- Reconsider what’s important to people.
The office fitness center suddenly has no value. Why not offer a subscription to online virtual workouts or send employees gym equipment to build a home gym? Consider a fitness contest and send the winner a Peloton bike or treadmill. The company car may no longer be needed, but what about a cool new electric bike? Or forget the transportation, maybe it’s about supplementing Wi-Fi by paying for increased bandwidth or unlocking tele-medicine for your team, giving them access to doctors virtually.
- Consider a personal sacrifice and watch your wealth go up in other ways.
There have been numerous public examples of CEOs taking a pay cut or even withholding their own salaries for months to support the payroll for the rest of the company. McKillips committed to donate his salary for three months to an employee relief fund. In other organizations, key leaders in addition to the CEO are reducing their pay to support the company. “Since March 30, our company’s Board of Directors, our CEO, and our Executive Vice Presidents have been foregoing 50 percent of their salaries,” Arun Bajaj, CHRO of Gildan Activewear, said. This is a time to think of others who do not have the same assets as those who reside in the C-suite. Entry-level and mid-level employees live differently, and a small change to their income or even the thought of it can inflict fear and burdens too big to bear.
A chief talent officer of a food company who joined a virtual Egon Zehnder gathering shared that for employees on the frontlines they wanted to be sure to instill a sense of purpose to their work, ensuring the safety risks they are taking are for a greater good and part of a solution. “What has gotten traction for us is when we delivered free pizzas to hospital workers or to school teachers,” he said. “You feel the up swell in engagement, and
love and appreciation.”
There is goodwill in selfless moves by leaders that will not only drive long-term profitability but also personal emotional wealth.
Human Experience: Focus on Customers
The world around us changed almost overnight. Consumer needs and priorities have changed and will continue to evolve as the weight of the pandemic settles in for the long haul. Brands that continue along with the same strategies, products, and services may get rejected over time.
Just as there are practical steps for caring for employees, there are things companies can do for their customers as well:
- Are your policies comforting and user-friendly?
Who wants to book a vacation now? Buy an airline ticket to Italy? Reserve tickets for a Disney vacation? Our views on the future have likely indefinitely changed. Consumers want to know they have an out for extenuating circumstances. Give them that right and know that they’ll give you business in return.
Consider your policies for keeping safe distances in lines or in seating configurations and update SOPs, train staff, and launch changes quickly.
- Are your procedures in line with new fears and expectations?
It’s a good time to update your cleaning procedures. Do you have the right products and cleaning frequencies? Are you offering adequate protection to employees and consumers? Think about heavy duty cleaning wipes for shopping carts, gloves for pumping fuel, and masks at entry for those who may have a cold or want extra protection.
- Are you communicating the positive changes you’ve made?
Take pride in your newly updated policies and procedures and tell everyone. Think about entering a hotel room with a note or checklist of how/when items were cleaned (mattress steamed before your arrival, all surfaces disinfected, etc. – give details). In one of our own offices, we were recently concerned about how the 5-gallon water jugs were sanitized after we return them. It was only after calling the company and getting transferred 10 times that we learned the good news that they are heated multiple times to 150 degrees in addition to strong washing with disinfectant. Companies should be proactive about all they do to keep people safe. This will build trust.
- Are your communications relevant?
Some companies have not tweaked their marketing campaigns and continue to advertise activities many of us can’t engage in—dining out, gatherings of large groups of people and more. It’s important to take stock of your messaging and not appear tone deaf to your customers. “We had to take a massive review of all of our marketing to see how we can be relevant,” a CEO who joined one of our virtual meetings explained. “We’re spending more time on social and video and thinking about using content and experts differently.”
- How are customers’ needs changing and how are you adapting?
Today many people don’t want or have been ordered not to leave their homes. Are you addressing this new normal in a way that helps your business?Consider Cox Communications and how they implemented “on-site with virtual assist” to enable technicians to guide customers in setting up their cable boxes without ever entering their homes. Chuck E. Cheese launched a ghost kitchen brand using the kitchens at Chuck E. Cheese, called Pasqually’s Pizza and Wings. This new offering provides a delivery option for the company that appeals to a consumer outside of their young family demographic.
Good advertisers are pivoting quickly, changing their tones to reflect reality and hitting us with emotion. Facebook launched the “Never Lost” campaign that takes viewers through painful, tear-jerking moments in a COVID-19 world and ends with hope and human connection, introducing the company’s Community Help Platform.
- Are you making the right products?
Look at the great reactions from companies that were able to switch out production lines to build products of greater need and reconsider how they can add value in this moment. Dow Chemical, Heineken, LVMH, and Anheuser-Busch InBev are making hand sanitizers. Tesla, Dyson, and CAE are making ventilators. Gildan Activewear, in collaboration with several partners is producing protective personal equipment to help address shortages caused by the pandemic. “We are currently sewing face masks for a cooperative consortium of apparel and textile companies supplying non-medical face masks to the health care sector,” Bajaj shared. “We are also producing non-medical face masks and isolation gowns for various retailers to be distributed to health care organizations.” Carnival Cruise Line is transforming its ships into hospitals. Lowe’s is creating isolation pods for EMS and rescue squads to safely transport patients. The New England Patriots private plane was converted to a charter plane to transport N95 masks from China to the United States.
Think about what matters most to customers now. You’ll find them working from home, juggling virtual learning for kids, and hosting virtual happy hours and birthdays on Zoom. Once we get through this crisis, there will still be an increased number of pandemic preppers and doomsday preppers. How can you serve their new needs? Might you get them on a subscription service to guarantee they will always get a regular delivery of Clorox wipes or toilet paper?
Your customers have also rediscovered some simple joys: family time, outdoor activities, books, board games, backyards, and more. Can your brand, product, or service play a role in their new happy places? Consider how you might flex in these changing times to stay relevant and build goodwill—and drive new revenues.
Unlocking Human Experience
When you think through the human experience from both the employee lens and the customer lens, you unlock power that will set your company apart. Employees who are treated well will want to treat customers well. Customers who are treated well will drive profitability. You will transform your culture from inside out and you’ll find that the human connection is what binds us all and propels us forward. “This is your moment to improve lives,” said Bliss. “It’s your moment to choose prosperity of the human spirit.”
What companies do today—or don’t do—will be remembered, and human-centric choices today can ensure a strong reputation for a post-COVID-19 tomorrow. “How we act today is how our guests and employees will react tomorrow when we open again,” McKillips said.