How to Champion Your People during the Crisis

Beso Turazashvili – Founder and CEO - 25.05.2020
How to Champion Your People during the Crisis
As the saying goes, a friend in need is a friend indeed. An unprecedented challenge for businesses around the world, for many companies COVID-19 has become the moment of truth. The situation requires complex decisions and special attention to relationships with employees and only few managed to cope decently with this challenge. Over a long period of time already, we at Electric Brand Consultants have been advising businesses on integrated communications, and now we would like to share some of our latest observations, as well as provide recommendations that will help companies use HR communications to adapt to new conditions. 


The challenge or new opportunities 

Bird, an electric scooter rental service based in Silicon Valley, has recently become notorious for inviting a third of its employees – more than 400 people – to the Zoom conference, and announcing their dismissal in two minutes, after which all their Slack accounts were blocked. 


This incredible incident spread around the world mass media not only in connection to how ugly the dismissal was conducted. The shocking thing was that this startup, a showcase of the Silicon Valley (in 2018, it set the record in how fast it achieved a unicorn status), with its global ambitions and claimed commitment to the principles of sustainable development, turned out to be a model of moral turpitude and disregard for people, exposing the corporate world ugly essence hidden behind the glossy cover of PR and advertising campaigns. 


What is this story telling us? The giant turned out to have feet of clay. Even the most beautiful facades are too fragile in the face of global turmoil. 



Key trends in HR management 

Within branding or communication strategies development projects we usually put special emphasis on industry HR trends and strategies. We noticed that although it has become fashionable to talk about HR communications and digitalisation importance, the march has been happening mostly on consultancy reports pages and in the speeches on forums rather than in the real life operations. 


In fact, fundamental changes have been taking place in the sphere of work for a long time already, and gradually they have been followed by the new approaches to management and HR communications. Now these trends are undergoing headlong acceleration, which means that it is time for businesses to implement everything that has been postponed until better times. Well, the best or not, but they have come. 


What did we know about these trends yesterday? 

First of all, there are three megatrends worth mentioning, against which the current situation is unwinding: 

  • the growing predominance of services over manufacturing 
  • crucial role of creative industries for the global economy (by this term we mean culture, media and IT) 
  • automation, which extends not only to manual or routine labor, but also to certain areas of intellectual work 


The structure of the labor market has become increasingly complex, and employment forms — more and more flexible. Formal employment was replaced by its alternative forms, from the gig economy (labor distribution platforms) to freelance, temporary contracts and part-time jobs. 


Researchers from Harvard and Princeton found that between 2005 and 2015, about 94 percent of new jobs in the country appeared as part of alternative forms of employment. 


The demand for professionals with well developed soft skills has increased. While technological competencies were becoming more and more in demand, the lack of such social skills as solving complex problems, critical thinking, and interpersonal communications was exacerbated. 


The need to constantly adapt to changing market requirements and the cross-disciplinary nature of many professions have made various formats of continuing education an important part of work and a key requirement of the new employees generation. Opportunity to learn and grow is one of the millennials’ priorities. 


Workplace wellbeing has become an important factor in business sustainability as burnout and depression become more common, especially among millennials. One of the reasons for these phenomena is constant connectivity and “digital overload”. 


A Deloitte study (A Deloitte study on workplace health) found that 84% of American millennials experienced burnout at their current job. Although economic damage from burnout has not been calculated, according to Lancet Commission estimate in 2018 depression, which is mainly caused by burnout, will cost the world economy $ 16 trillion by 2030. 


Holistic approach to HR is a return from the impersonal concept of “human capital” to valuing each employee as an individual and of a group as a team of like-minded people, driven by shared goals and ideals. Companies declare a focus on value creation for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. 



How HR communications reflect the trends 

We see that business communications also changed – the HR component plays a much larger role in them now. This change is especially noticeable with brands of industrial giants, that we often study when working with this industry. Digital transformation forced them to completely change their approaches to HR in recent years. 


Employees become one of the key audiences 

In fact, they have come out of the “guise” and have become brand’s consumers like all others, and their loyalty as employees have become one of the key indicators of successful communication. Creative advertising campaigns and techniques aimed at recruiting and improving the employer image, have started to appear. 


The GE campaign became iconic, when in 2016 it began to turn its positioning from an industrial to an IT company in connection with a large-scale program of production digital transformation. In the context of critical shortage of qualified personnel in American industry, they launched the HR rebranding process, marked by “What’s the Matter with Owen?” campaign. The campaign resulted in an 8-fold increase in the number of job applications in the company. 



Employees play a significant role in communications 

At first, they started to come up in corporate communications more often, and then the companies started to let them speak on their behalf and in HR communications. 


The Netherlands chemical giant Akzo Nobel posts photos citing its employees from different countries and departments on office walls and actively uses them in a compliance document, which consists largely of their stories. 



Brands now talk about challenges and opportunities for growth 

Trying to attract valuable personnel, companies put the complexity and diversity of tasks that their employees solve in the first place, defining this as a resource for professional and personal growth. 


Companies not only participate in charity themselves, but also try to involve their employees in it, encouraging activism. 

Brands place more and more emphasis on the business mission in relation to society, which their employees actualize both through work for the company and directly participating in campaigns. 


The survey by research company Povaddo showed that more than half of the largest US companies employees believe that American corporations should be more active in solving important social problems. 


One of the world’s largest producers of agricultural fertilizers, Mosaic is actively promoting to employees the idea that they help feed the world facing the threat of overpopulation. 



6 tips for HR communications during the pandemic 


Tip 1: Provide Opportunities for Being Initiative 

Set your employees out for a more entrepreneurial approach to work – let them feel that all of you are in the same boat and everyone can contribute to getting out of a difficult situation. Invite them to develop new businesses and take more responsibility for the existing ones by offering a bonus or a share of future income. 


Probably the major beneficiary of the coronavirus crisis is the Internet retailer Amazon. The company could quickly increase its capacity and benefited from quarantine. It is quite possible that one of the reasons for the company’s sustainability was last year’s initiative offering employees of delivery department to open up their own businesses in this area and providing them with an initial investment of $ 10 thousand and one-time payments of three-month salaries as an installation grant. 


Oasis, one of the largest gifts suppliers was also able to benefit from the entrepreneurial zeal of its employees – however, in this case, the general team spirit also played a role. The company analysed its headcount, dividing them into 3 groups: employed, unoccupied and part-time, and transferred the unoccupied to other projects and sales channels –in total about 20% of the personnel was reassigned. Moreover, the remuneration structure changed. Earlier a significant part of the employees’ income consisted of a share of their personal sales, but now they were offered to work for the whole team so that the profit was shared among all employees. The team-building and mini-teams effect, with people from different departments started working together and supporting each other, resulted in a multiple increase in sales in the channels previously not typical for the company (primarily in the b2c segment of online retail) and the emergence of new partnership projects, and most importantly – provided for introduction of a new business model, which will now work even after restrictions removal. 


Tip 2: Support Benevolent Activities 

If your employees have free time, create opportunities for them to jointly implement charity initiatives. This way you can provide them with a meaningful engagement during the lockdown and strengthen their relationship with the company and the team even in the absence of workload. 


Tip 3: Boost Morale 

While employees are in a confined space and spend all their day in front of the screen, think about their peace of mind. Maintain the framework of the working day, offer joint yoga classes or video meditation, try to conduct some kind of entertainment events and internal flash-mobs. 


Perhaps what we will remember of this time is the abundance of all kinds of online flash mobs and challenges. Internet campaigns, allowing people from different places to experience a sense of unity, are more in demand during social isolation than ever before. 


Tip 4: Invest in Training 

Now that many people are using their freed time for education, its time to think about what might suit your employees and offer them appropriate courses. In addition, you could involve them yourself in training delivery: if someone has such an ambition, now it is the best time to make it come true, share experience within the team or offer your own courses to the public. 


Many companies today have opened access to their corporate online training courses that were previously available only to employees. They shared tips and insights, and also could show their corporate culture from the inside when people were looking for answers and were interested to see how it works. Through this, they communicated their values and management practices and strengthened brand awareness in the market, among competitors as well. 


Many companies have also opened access not only to courses on remote work, but also to a wide range of online training. This openness shows the brand strength, increases potential candidates’ interest in it and attracts attention. 


Tip 5: Manifest Solidarity 

Demonstrate solidarity within the company: your employees should know that its owners and managers are in the same position as they are, are sensitive to their aspirations and are ready to share the burden of the crisis. Maintain ongoing open and honest communication and make sacrifices whenever possible to reduce pressure in the company. 


Strong inequality in such times is often the cause of employees and citizens dissatisfaction. It’s hard to say whether Ilon Musk, whose fortune as of April 29 is estimated by Forbes at $ 38.9 billion, is thinking about it now. Musk is preparing to receive the largest payout in his life – $ 600 million – in the midst of salary cuts in his Tesla company, which amounted to 10% to 30% depending on the employee position. Subsequent decisions of Mask may have a long-term effect on his company’s HR brand. 


Tip 6: Know How to Part 

If you cannot retain your team, try to ease their situation and do everything possible to appreciate the contribution of each of them and, if necessary, help find a new job. You can write a short story about each of them and post it in social media to publicly express appreciation and provide references for a potential employer. 


COVID-19 pandemic is a time of great change, and appropriate HR decisions may be not so obvious. But if the employer is guided by the principles of openness and transparency and is sensitive to employees’ needs, then you will get out of the crisis with a strong team spirit and new vigour to work in the post-coronavirus world. 

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