The COVID-19 pandemic will permanently change how we work and how companies perceive the criticality of the bond between employee and employer. It's also almost overnight the importance of caring for the whole person in order to keep them safe and motivated has been broadly embraced by even the most hard-nosed corporate leadership. Not only do we now need to rethink how to restructure from here on out, but we need to decide and reinvent how to support our employees in the new normal.
In my last post, I discussed what companies needed to do to survive amidst the COVID-19 crisis, in reference to their placement on the 3-Tiered Stratification Model™. But now let’s dive a bit deeper into the model and examine its application to all markets and businesses. First let me explain the more in depth the farming metaphor that inspired me when I first developed the model. As an avid tomato gardener and CEO, who has spent 8 hours on a Sunday lovingly removing aphids by hand from 24 plants to rescue them from an infestation, (the only proven method), I can tell you that caring for my garden has helped me tend to my team far better. Depending on what stage my company has been at, we have benefitted from changes in approach and my team has required different kinds of support.
Rather than simply labeling companies in the 3-Tiered Stratification Model™ by number, there is an additional far more nuanced and instructive tripartite naming convention:
- Harvesting Hypergrowth - Thriving companies with accelerating sales and a growing customer base are much like farmers whose crops are both ripe for market and in high demand, like golden raspberries in the summertime. Reaping the rewards of meeting customers’ needs with a perfectly timed product or service, harvester companies face the enviable challenge of trying to keep up with demand — while simultaneously remaining ready to jump on new opportunities that extend their market leadership and drive further growth.
- Pruning for Growth - Companies in this stage are cautiously removing extraneous aspects of their business that are impeding their ability to succeed in the future by paring back down to the strategic core from which growth is possible. Like farmers tending to fruit trees in an orchard, they need to ensure they do not overcrowd or overwater, and most importantly that there is sufficient sunlight reaching each tree to enable photosynthesis to occur.
- Ploughing & Preparing the Soil for Regrowth - Much like commercial farmers who aerate and fertilize the soil between crops while patiently awaiting the changes necessary before attempting to begin anew, companies facing overwhelming market headwinds or in turnaround mode must reassess strategy with an objective point of view, and then watch with hyperfocus in order to know exactly when conditions will once again be favorable to sow new seeds and drive the regrowth.
Now let’s take it a step further and examine the longer-term approach to managing workforces and morale depending upon your present situation. Every company will have important decisions to make related to its personnel and what kind of resources will best help it organizationally in order to either Harvest, Prune, or Plough while anticipating and hopefully meeting the shifting expectations of employees.
Harvesters: Managing in an Environment of Abundance
Whether in a post-pandemic world or not, Tier One Harvesters will emerge as industry leaders but should take care not to become complacent. The innovation and agility that enabled them to get their product or service to market, combined with the good fortune of perfect timing, spurred massive sales growth and brand equity in an otherwise ailing market — but this may not have staying power. As new entrants begin copycatting or introducing their own even more innovative or disruptive solutions, the creativity that helped garner that initial Tier One success will be even more critical. Rarely does the first mover stay on top unless they are masters of innovation as a culture and the continuous cultivation of talent, as we learned from MySpace, Netscape, Kodak, and one of my beloved alma maters, Yahoo.
For Harvesters, the challenge lies in sowing the cultural seeds and establishing the practical conditions and freedoms that will foster employee creativity from the start. Look at examples like Google’s 20% Program, which was introduced back in its start up phase, which gave employees the liberty to work on any passion project of their choosing for up to 20 percent of their work time, or Genentech’s Give Back week, which for a decade has provided employees with a dedicated week during which they are encouraged to devote themselves to working on causes they care about.
In addition to investing in your people and the initiatives that are meaningful to them, Harvesters in Hypergrowth would be wise to prioritize projects that cultivate and promote leadership while showcasing the exclusivity of being a member of the so-called in-crowd. This can range from providing access to unique opportunities such as early manager development training, onsite celebrity speaker series, employee mentorship programs, inspirational destination team offsites, and consciousness raising digital resources such as on-demand “mindfulness for performance” video programs and the like.
Naturally, when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, to Harvesters it will always seem like you are unable to hire quickly enough and are constantly behind in filling open roles. The good news is you can and should be able to recruit the most in-demand talent, assuming your employee value proposition is aligned with employee expectations and you have strong word of mouth referrals from your existing workforce.
Pruners: Focusing Resources to Cultivate a More Certain Future
Unsure how long it will take to accelerate growth — and taking an optimistic, wait-and-see approach — Pruners have a focus on stabilizing revenue and might be freezing headcount to cautiously conserve cash. As these companies stay transfixed on improving business results, they should absolutely have a compelling long term vision that is well communicated to employees and in which each individual understands and can articulate how their role contributes to securing the desired future corporate outcome.
Pruning companies may learn too late that you can’t ignore things like employee stress and burnout when resources are scarce, specifically the hardships associated with short-sighted parental leave policies or less-than-adequate child or eldercare support benefits. Employees will quit or be unproductive due to emotional health issues if you fail to consider what kinds of support your people are going to need to make it through when employees are expected to make due with less and stick it out. Empathy is an especially needed skill for your bottom line when you cannot just throw money at the problem, although as I hope you have learned in managing modern employees, empathy is pretty much always a requirement and cash is no longer a substitute for caring, period.
Forward-thinking employers in every tier, in fact, will keep these benefits on the docket or start rolling these out as the demand for talent to be productive and to keep churn to a minimum due to the high associated costs are very real irrespective of where you sit on the continuum during a downturn or a recovery. What’s more, in a hiring freeze environment, retaining your talent is mission critical, as you are not allowed to replace the headcount you lose, even if they leave of their own accord. Now isn’t that a sobering thought, as well as a compelling reason for treating employees extremely well and investing the effort to figure out how to retain them?
Managers in Pruning companies need to ensure that their existing team’s needs for flexible benefits are being met with solutions that help them manage their everyday lives (and are available at relatively low cost), like flexible work hours, extra paid leave, professional development/educational reimbursement, networking opportunities, and small group volunteer projects. In addition, introducing low budget voluntary adhoc employee groups (e.g. moms, runners, sci-fi fans) to develop a strong sense of community and creating a wellbeing program that suits people’s real needs are both strong signals that management cares. Investing in inexpensive culture-boosting ideas is a particularly smart strategy to entice the employees you need most to stay with you over the long haul.
Don’t underestimate the power of strong leadership and flexibility to retain employees during a time of uncertainty. Great things can happen with a positive outlook and a sense of freedom. A recent Randstad study found that 61% of people would be willing to accept a lower salary if a company offered a great benefits package — and this speaks volumes about what really matters to today’s workforce and what it takes for an employer to meet their expectations.
Ploughers: Reimagining the Fundamentals for What’s Next
Focusing on the basics while waiting on a sector or market turnaround, Ploughers can not rush into their reboot. But they do have the potential of infinite blue skies ahead if they can just weather the storm and reemerge — possibly stronger than before. This is akin to grape vines that have been stressed by harsh temperatures and are known to actually produce the most delicious wine, albeit at a much lower yield, because through surviving the ordeal they develop far greater character.
Likewise, Ploughers, having experienced hard times, may have massive morale issues as well as unsettled and anxious employees, including those on furlough. It takes time — and management support — for a Plougher’s remaining workforce to develop the kind of resilience that leads to long term survival and the strength to thrive anew.
As a Plougher, you have both the enormous power and potential to connect with your workforce, even those furloughed, and ensure they know that you care about their health and wellbeing, and that you will be a transparent communicator that can be relied upon. You must take this responsibility seriously and earnestly as once the bond of trust is broken you will not be given a second chance. Conversely, if you are a good shepherd of this trust, you will be rewarded with sincere and lasting loyalty the likes of which have all but vanished from the modern workforce. That’s why Ploughers need to focus on identifying their best talent, coming up with ways to train them for next steps, and retaining them through re-growth. Adding new talent may rely on articulating to candidates your goals for success and showing commitment to cultivating a healthy culture and future.
With benefits, while it’s probably a requirement to cut costs and find more affordable options — and reach for low-hanging fruit — it is critical to still try and help people feel their best and even more in control of their everyday lives. Rank and file employees at a Plougher are likely overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, and are greatly in need of a steadying force to make them feel that it will all be all right in the end, no matter what. Offering EAP resources, as well as on-demand videos to alleviate stress and anxiety will help maintain a sense of empathy and connection.
The key is to offer something that reaches everyone and helps even those who may soon no longer be on the job. Proactively reducing the stigma employees who are furloughed or layed off are feeling, and retaining a sense of the relationship bond that will otherwise be abruptly severed is especially important if, as a Plougher, you’d like to be in a position to rehire people when the time is right to begin the turnaround, and you want to avoid your corporate name having been tarnished by your handling of the downturn.
In the new world, and for all tiers to move forward, what must be underscored is the importance of ensuring we are supporting employees with what they need, when they need it and how they need it, rather than relying upon what perhaps worked in the past. My tomato plants are just beginning to flower, and while some are growing much faster than others, I check each one of them every day. I’m happy to report that the aphid problem seems to be under control for now.