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Maintaining employee engagement and loyalty through a crisis

Tips for handling difficult decisions and conversations

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A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic requires business owners to make some tough decisions. How they handle them—and how they treat their employees in the process—can have a lasting impact on employee engagement and loyalty.

“People will remember how you made them feel during difficult moments,” says BDC Business Advisor Ewa Okon. “In that sense, a crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate your leadership. Even if you have to adjust your strategic plans, reduce hours or lay people off, you still have control over how you implement and communicate those decisions.”

With the right approach, she says entrepreneurs can actually bring their teams closer together during a crisis, strengthening the business now and over the longer term.

People will remember how you made them feel during difficult moments. In that sense, a crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate your leadership.

Bring your people along

Instead of imposing decisions on employees, try to “bring them along with you”, advises Okon. That means communicating openly and involving team members in the decision-making process.

“Be transparent and share the reasons behind your decisions. Let people know your vision for the business and how they fit into it,” she explains. “And be honest when you don’t have all the answers. You’re allowed to be human. It sends the message that you’re all in this together.”

Open, honest communication also requires two-way dialogue, says Okon. She recommends getting team input before making decisions whenever possible and reflecting their thinking into the approach that is ultimately taken.

“Your employees may have great ideas you never would have thought of,” she says. “Plus, tough decisions are much easier to swallow if people know they’ve been heard, their opinions matter and their needs have been taken into consideration.”

Collecting feedback after a decision has been made is also important, she says, to learn what worked well (and what did not) for next time.

Be flexible

The decisions made in a crisis will affect different people in different ways. Business owners should strive to be flexible and accommodate personal circumstances whenever possible, Okon says. A one-size-fits-all approach may leave some employees feeling unsatisfied.

“Employees who have young kids to look after but no access to care because schools and daycares are closed may need flexible work hours,” she says. “As long as the work gets done, you’re happy—and they’ll be happy because you’re considering their needs as a whole person, not just as a worker.”

Set a leading example

Showing effective leadership during a crisis can help employers in several ways, says Okon. It strengthens employee engagement and loyalty, which directly contributes to company success in the short term. It builds the brand reputation needed to attract future employees. And it’s an opportunity to stand out among competitors and peers.

“Some of your counterparts may be making hasty decisions without thinking about the longer-term impacts. A crisis is your chance to show up as a real leader and set an example in your market of how to treat people well even in challenging times. Be somebody who does the right thing for your business and for your team.”

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