How To Maintain A “People-First” Company Culture — Even During A Crisis


COVID-19 is challenging all of us in ways we have never been challenged before. This is also true for companies across America, and across the world, that are confronting difficult decisions, restructuring their workplaces and redefining their employees’ roles. Ultimately, company culture, or “how” a company does what it does, could determine which organizations are resilient enough to navigate crises like these and ultimately thrive in the “next normal.”


Much has been written (paywall) about the connections between positive workplace cultures, employee engagement, productivity and corporate success. As it turns out, one HBR article (paywall) highlighted that some of the best companies to work for have been those that have and maintain a culture of putting people — especially their customers and employees — first. Yes, these are unprecedented times. But, the same “people first” cultures that grow companies could be the ones that position them to effectively respond to crises like the coronavirus pandemic.


Over the years, we worked hard at my company to put our people first and create an egalitarian culture that gives all employees respect and the opportunity to contribute their maximum potential. Here are some of my suggestions for leaders as they look to support their employees during this pandemic (and any other crisis).


Keep Morale High

At the best of times, boosting employee morale can lead to happy, motivated employees who work harder and accomplish more as a team. Times like these are not the best of times. People are worried about their health and safety. They are worried about keeping their jobs and being able to pay their bills. They are worried for themselves, their families, their friends and their neighbors. A people-first workplace culture should recognize this and create new ways to keep morale high and employees connected to each other and their company. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:


• Organize virtual team bonding activities. Perhaps your company organized happy hours. Or had a softball league. Or celebrated employee birthdays. Just because your team can’t congregate in-person doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from socializing with each other. With video conferencing software like Zoom and Google Hangouts, your team can stay connected not just for official business, but also for all of the bonding moments that contribute to great office culture.


• Relax policies. Families of all shapes and sizes are now sheltering in place together and trying to balance the demands of work and home. Children, pets, partners and roommates can all impact your employees’ ability to productively work from home. It is a period of adjustment for them, and it should be for you as well. Lead with compassion by considering each employee’s unique circumstances and doing what you can to be flexible — especially regarding their schedules.


• Provide wellness resources. There is no doubt that many of your employees will feel anxious and overwhelmed during a crisis. Some may have pre-existing mental health concerns that make them particularly vulnerable to the impacts of stress. Provide varied resources to support your employees’ well-being, whether those are tips on stress relief, virtual meditation sessions, reminders about employee assistance plans or access to professional counselors.



These are uncharted waters for all of us. Don’t fall into the trap of under-communicating because you don’t have all the answers. No one is expecting you to. By communicating both what you do and do not know, you can demystify the situation for employees, put everyone’s minds at ease and provide hope for the future. What’s more, honesty breeds trust, and a 2018 study (via SHRM) found that employees who trust their employers are more likely to go above and beyond in their role by working longer hours. So, above all else, be honest and transparent with your employees. Keep them apprised of how things are going at the company and what you’re planning without sugar coating it.

To effectively overcommunicate, you can also consider:


• Establishing a consistent virtual meeting schedule for all employees: all-team meetings and town halls can go a long way toward ensuring that employees at all levels feel informed, respected and valued. They also create another opportunity for team bonding.


• Meeting with teams and direct reports at least once a week: more intimate and focused meetings provide direct access to leadership and the opportunity to ask questions and delve into specific concerns. They also allow leaders to reinforce important company messages.


• Putting things in writing: meetings allow for a human connection, but there are times when they are not practical. Be sure to also post or disseminate written information via channels such as email, a company intranet, collaboration tools like Slack or company Facebook channels.



Companies should listen to their employees and empower them to help make the company better. By showing employees that you care about what they think, you can create stronger buy-in for the initiatives you eventually prioritize. The stakes are very high during times of crisis, and your employees may be less vocal, so here are a few things you can do to invite their feedback:


• Hold open office hours. Set up a virtual “open-door policy” and make it clear that all employees are welcome to schedule time with you. You may get feedback and ideas in these sessions that you will never get in larger meetings, and the conversations can also serve as a great early-warning system.


• Create a “suggestion box.” Suggestion boxes are a way for employees to remain anonymous and share ideas, whether they’re big or small. Be sure to acknowledge each suggestion.


• Reward good ideas. If a team member comes up with a strategy that helps profit margins or company efficiency, reward them  even if it’s just with a public “thank you.”


No one knows exactly what the future will hold. But workplace culture can make or break a company’s success. It’s important to carry corporate culture through every phase of a company’s development, including through moments of crisis. There’s no silver bullet, but a people-first culture can keep employees inspired and engaged and create a healthier and more resilient workforce for the future.

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