By Stuart R. Levine

Published in, Forbes

The Covid-19 crisis will impact business for a while longer, even with a vaccine on the horizon and improved treatments for the disease. Businesses and leaders are recognizing a challenging new normal. The economic outlook is cloudy, and the most successful companies undertake strategic plans accordingly. They need to prepare to act quickly to adapt to whatever the future brings. Your organization’s culture is the most important means to execute your strategy in normal times and it has become even more critical in these novel times. Organizations whose cultures foster curiosity, communication, agility, and employee empowerment will have the best chance of succeeding in the face of constant change.  

Everyone hopes a vaccine will be a game-changer. However, an effective vaccine will not immediately end existing concerns. Strategic business planning must address multiple scenarios that emerge as an uncertain environment persists. For example, what are the consequences for the employees and the company if, as potentially anticipated, a 90% effective vaccine were available sometime in the next quarter. If it is generally accepted by the population, most pandemic fears could dissipate. Alternatively, it probably will take longer for vaccines and treatments to bring business activities to a pre-pandemic cadence. Or, what if a Covid-19 vaccine were to be less effectiveness and comparable to the annual flu vaccine which according to the CDC is only about 50% to 60% effective. These two different scenarios bring complexity to the strategic planning process.

The health and safety concerns affect the economic outlook. Everyone hopes for a robust 2021 recovery in the global economy. But the International Monetary Fund has recently downgraded its forecasts, and warns of a longer, slower recovery. Bankrate recently surveyed economists and found them to be fairly evenly divided on whether the economic outlook is positive or negative going forward. Their average projection of U.S. unemployment for mid-2021 is at 7%, about double the pre-pandemic level.  

Your strategic planning process will address many possible scenarios. However, it is your human capital planning as defined by your culture that will be the defining factor in your future success. The best leaders possess the exceptional ability to understand and impact culture; they see culture and leadership as intertwined. The days of “the customer always comes first” have been replaced by “our employees come first”. Employee creativity, drive, and engagement enables organizations to face the future, whatever it may bring.

Senior leadership must ensure that the culture is up to the intense challenges created by this pandemic crisis. Off-site work will most likely endure for a longer period of time, and for some employees will permanently become part of their work week. Leaders must understand and address employee “Zoom fatigue” and work-from-home burnout. Having family nearby during the workday can be both a blessing and a curse. ZOOM meetings alone without human contact, can lead to loneliness and feelings of disconnection. People miss the information flows and comradery that being in an office can bring. And business is missing out on the creativity resulting from spontaneous encounters.

Leadership needs to find ways to harness the power of employees to work together to discover optimal paths and value at the intersection of curiosity, agility and action. Organizations with cultures that inspire employee creativity are agile. They can quickly adapt to change and, as a result, they have better financial results. Their leaders celebrate and reward creativity and inquisitiveness. Each employee is driven and motivated to discover new solutions, develop them, and work with management to determine if the idea is the best course of action. Management is keen to incorporate employee input into strategic plans, and employees know their contributions can have impact which increases intellectual and emotional engagement.  These companies find their employees are the most satisfied and most optimistic about the company’s future. The converse is also true. Organizations that do not reward curiosity and innovation and do not empower their employees, find it more difficult to satisfy and retain customers and suffer the financial consequences.

The most successful companies have a huge appetite for data and feedback and extensively share the results with employees. Leaders strive to fully comprehend how employees’ roles, responsibilities, goals, work situation, abilities to perform, and customer relationships are affected by the pandemic and how they impact the many planning scenarios. With so many employees no longer gathered in fixed locations, a distributed workforce truly requires effective structures for collecting feedback and communicating the results. Great organizational communication up and down the org-chart is the secret sauce in a resilient and agile culture.

Companies regularly seek the views of their employees and customers about general matters. Surprisingly, however, only about one-third of companies collect information from employees or customers directly related to the pandemic and use the resulting information for strategic planning, according to a recent SurveyMonkey study. Yet, the organizations that collect and use pandemic-related feedback experience substantially better financial results than the ones that do not.

Distance work will be with us for a while, and the coronavirus is forcing difficult lessons about resiliency and adaptability as individuals and organizations deal with this continuing challenge.  Nonetheless, even in these unsettled times, there is an opportunity to strengthen your culture. Encouraging and rewarding a mindset of exploration and curiosity will lead to ingenious solutions to weather the Covid-19 storm. Resilient agile companies, where employees contribute and take action, are the ones best positioned to thrive, with an engaged workforce best prepared to face the future.