Culture During Times of Crisis

Jen Prosek's O'Dwyers BylineWhen people ask what I’m most proud of about the agency I started, I never mention our growth, our client base or the work we do. My answer is always our culture. It’s not that those other things aren’t important. It’s just that none of them would even be possible without the strong, supportive work environment we’ve built.

The COVID-19 crisis has tested our culture—and the culture at all businesses—like never before. Every move a CEO makes today is being watched. The best talent will judge companies on how they communicated and came together during these difficult times, and the organizations with strong cultures will ultimately benefit.

What can leaders do to strengthen their cultures as they manage through the crisis? Here are a few tips:

Overcommunicate on multiple levels
In normal times, most employees want to hear about two things: how the business is doing and the impact on their salary and benefits. Today, business leaders need to communicate about so much more—health, safety, empathy, government response, customer needs—and they have to do it despite high levels of uncertainty. Giving honest answers is critical, including being honest about what you don’t know. Anything less can lead to reputational damage from which you may never recover.

Show your human side
Leaders need to realize that everything is on display now. Five years ago, we started an employee benefit program at Prosek called “Up the Humanity.” It was all about helping people form connections with one another. This is the most “Up the Humanity” moment I’ve ever experienced. We’re seeing people’s bedrooms on video calls and meeting their kids as they wander into the picture. While it can sometimes be difficult in the moment, embrace the opportunity it provides to get to know colleagues on a different level.

Create meeting equality
I’ve also noticed that large scale video calls make it easier for people at all levels to speak up. Instead of executives being at the head of the table, everyone is in the same little box on a computer screen. That creates what I call “meeting equality.” Leaders should be thinking now about how to make sure that equality doesn’t disappear once we all return to the office.

Be the chief hope officer
While it’s important to be transparent and honest with employees, you also need to give them a sense of optimism. We have weekly staff meetings, and during those meetings I talk candidly about both wins and losses. I also give people tools and strategies they can use to make their own luck. When I first started doing this, some managers wondered if we were panicking junior staff. I asked a group of young people and it turned out that they wanted to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Some had roommates whose leaders told them nothing—until one day they got laid off. People deserve the truth, along with a sense of hope and a course of action.

I believe our culture has made it possible for our firm to quickly adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, which will ultimately make us stronger in the future. But keeping that culture intact requires vigilance every day, now more than ever.

Jennifer Prosek is Founder and CEO of Prosek Partners.