Calling 2020 an “unprecedented year” doesn’t come close to cutting it.
With all that unchartered territory, of course, came no shortage of learnings, including in the workplace. Many of us learned for the first time what it means to manage, or be managed, in a fully remote setting. We learned how to make difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty and how to keep our career momentum alive against all odds. And, as leaders, many of us also learned which crisis management strategies can help bolster employee morale, meet stakeholders’ needs and ultimately keep a company afloat — and which strategies fall short of doing that.
Below, leaders shared with us their learnings about effective crisis management in 2020 and what that can mean for companies going forward.
The 5 Crisis Management Strategies That Worked
1. Making leadership accessible
At the start of the pandemic, Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, chose to be on call 24/7 for her team — literally.
“I gave my team my personal cell phone number and our director of operations gave out her personal phone number, too,” Sweeney said. “We did this as a means for our team members to keep in touch with us and contact us if they had any questions or concerns, ranging from questions about transitioning to working from home to more pressing emergencies… it’s important that they have as many avenues as possible to communicate with us during this time.”
2. Having a dedicated crisis management team
A leadership team who has to scramble when a crisis emerges is hardly reassuring, to workers or to customers and stakeholders. In comparison, organizations that managed a smoother response to the start of the pandemic had often identified “crisis teams” in advance.
“We focused on building our crisis management team beforehand,” Avinash Chandra, founder and CEO of BrandLoom, said. “As a team, we made sure to quickly alleviate any kind of internal fear or concern in the workforce. We also aligned employees with any external messaging and protocols. All of this was possible because we had crafted contingency plans for different crises and scenarios.”
3. Diversifying digital tools
Our reliance on technology has never been more absolute than now — which is why Simon Elkjær, Chief Marketing Officer at avXperten, was glad to have not only a remote work plan already in place, but backup plans for the digital tools that his team would require.
“As we use cloud-based applications to create and store our files, you can only imagine how shocked we were when we saw that Gmail, Drive, Docs and the like were momentarily shut down,” he recalled. “Thankfully enough, we were able to plan ahead and prepare ourselves for situations like this. We were able to download, install and log on to other applications with similar features to keep our business going as usual.”
4. Knowing your “key risks”
When everything feels like an emergency, having a system in place that helps you prioritize is crucial, explained Matt Bertram, CEO and SEO Strategist at EWR Digital.
“I started by identifying our key risks,” Bertram said. “Next, my team and I formulated strategies to mitigate each of these risks. We trained all our employees on the core components of our strategies. To ensure that our strategies would be effective in the case of business disruption, we practiced ‘what-if’ scenarios. This way we could be sure that each of our employees understood their role and would be able to act quickly and appropriately in the event of a crisis.”
5. Leading with empathy
Leadership that recognizes workers’ humanity — not just once or twice early into the pandemic, but in an authentic and ongoing way — is a non-negotiable.
“Talking to each of my staff almost daily and asking how they were doing or coping helps a lot to combat feelings of isolation,” Paul Sundin, a CPA and financial adviser at Emparion, said. “One popular strategy that worked was to get everyone to have Zoom lunches together and talk about everything under the sun except work. Lastly, I have instituted mandatory time off away from the desk each day and tell my employees to go for a walk and, for some, to take a much needed nap.”
The 1 Crisis Management Strategy That Didn’t Work
1. Being overly reactionary
While adaptability was inarguably critical to any business with a hope of surviving 2020, there’s a fine line between being agile and being overly reactionary. Companies that have thought ahead about possible crisis scenarios have an easier time staying agile, while those without contingency plans often fall into the second category.
One of the most telling examples of this divide? The mass layoffs that came immediately on the heels of COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S. While many businesses jumped to cut expenses, starting first with human capital, Dan Bailey, President of WikiLawn, believes his company was correct to hold out against such measures, calling them an “abject failure of crisis management.”
“In terms of crisis response, it offloads a lot of immediate expenses, but it leaves struggling people out in the cold,” he said. “It also affects any hope your company has of retaining people long-term. Those who aren’t laid off this round will be skittish and believe their jobs are in jeopardy, so they’ll jump at the chance to work someplace else.”
Alex Keyan, CEO and founder of goPure Beauty, learned a similar lesson. As the head of an e-Commerce platform, Keyan saw businesses like his make mass staffing cuts in the first days of the virus. Choosing instead to close ranks and wait, Keyen was ultimately glad he did — within a month, online sales had doubled.
“We were glad we kept our team; had we been too quick to react and laid off our staff, we would not have handled the increase in sales that came next,” he said. “I know many companies are still struggling, but I think the lesson of not reacting too quickly still holds… things are never as good or as bad as they seem.”
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