Skip to content

How a global pandemic might change businesses for the better.

It’s time for communication, compassion and flexibility.

By Hailey Eisen 


As COVID-19 upends economies and alters how business gets conducted, organizations must think beyond the bottom line – especially when dealing with customers and employees. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to consider the ways in which their values are reflected through their business practices,” explains Kate Rowbotham, professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business. 

Kate says that businesses should focus their efforts on these three areas: communication, compassion, and flexibility. 


Communication is more important than ever. 

“Communication is extremely important because of the uncertainty we’re all facing,” Kate explains. “As everyone tries to make sense of this situation and understand the impact it will have on our lives, organizations must be completely transparent with employees and customers.” 

In the absence of talking face-to-face, communications can come in the form of emails, phone calls and virtual meetings. “I think some companies are doing better at this than others, and that relates to how good companies are at communicating in normal times,” Kate says.

So, what does good communication look like in a crisis? The keys are openness, honesty, and clarity on things such as compensation, work-from-home expectations, and what support an organization can offer. 

“Employees will be looking to leaders to model the behaviours they’re expecting from others,” she says. When leaders don’t know the answers, it’s better that they say so. “It actually makes me happy to see a leader say ‘I don’t know,’ to admit that they’re as unsettled as the rest of us, and to seek out answers rather than pretending they have them all.” 


“It actually makes me happy to see a leader say ‘I don’t know,’ to admit that they’re as unsettled as the rest of us, and to seek out answers rather than pretending they have them all.” 


Compassion is the only acceptable response. 

“This virus is affecting people in different ways, and many will be touched directly or indirectly by its impact.” With so much suffering happening around the globe, there’s really no way to respond but with compassion, Kate says.

That means tampering expectations — especially workloads. “With friends, social supports, exercise, and other things that we typically advise employees to turn to in times of stress inaccessible to many of us, companies have to carefully consider the impact of stress on productivity.” 

If we can’t expect ‘business as usual’ then what is the ‘good enough’ option for these unprecedented times? It’s a question Kate would like to see organizations ask themselves. Developing and working within ‘good enough’ standards will help reduce stress, and may even boost productivity.


Flexibility means rethinking how work should be done. 

As we move further into what has now become a ‘new normal,’ we know that everyone’s responsibilities at home, stress levels, and availability will differ. Thus, flexibility is important. 

Allowing employees to control their day and determine when and where they can get work done, will help increase productivity. “We’re all beginning to think about what productivity means, where it happens, what tools are needed to support it — and this could lead to lasting changes in the traditional workday.” 

Employees should be included in decision making and given autonomy to determine what works best for them. “In times of uncertainty, many people feel more comfortable with direction and guidance, so the key is balance,” Kate says.

Many are watching to see how organizations align their behaviour with their values. As an example, Kate recalls a story of a hotel in British Columbia that had to lay off all its employees, but found each of them another job first. “We are also hearing stories of CEOs taking pay cuts or dropping their salaries to zero in order to continue paying their employees,” says Kate. “We’ve seen grocery store chains go above and beyond to take care of their employees and communicate with their customers transparently. As an example, Loblaws was one of the first to raise employees’ salaries.”

With so many changes rolling out so quickly, Kate believes a lasting impact is inevitable. “I’ve always drawn on Management Professor Linda Hill’s work in my teaching, and one thing she talks a lot about is managers really getting to know their employees and who they are,” Kate explains. 

Interestingly, social distancing may give leaders and teams the opportunity to really get to know one another and develop new techniques to work together. Even when they’re apart.

Kate recently discussed these ideas in a webinar from Smith Business Insight and Queen’s Executive Education, as part of a weekly series on how COVID-19 is impacting all aspects of life and business. Register for the next session at