COVID-19 caught a lot of people with their guard down when it launched a surprise attack on the world. It forced organizations of all types and in all sectors to make sudden, dramatic changes. In addition to taking many lives, the pandemic is destroying jobs, permanently closing businesses, wiping out life savings, opening old societal wounds, shredding opportunities, and shattering dreams.

For many, the picture is bleak. Still, on close examination, countless success stories can be found, small victories amidst the coronavirus war. At Gagen MacDonald, our gaze is directed at how companies manage change and transformation, how they draw on their cultures to make progress, and how well their leaders lead. We have found some examples of exemplary efforts in our work with clients and by close monitoring of the world’s response to the pandemic. We find validation in our core tenets.  For example:

Leadership Is Essential. Big, tough decisions had to be made fast regarding workers and workplaces. To self-inflict massive business disruption is not something taught in business school nor is even practiced in most industries, yet CEOs, management teams, business owners and others did not dither. They made the hard calls. And after millions of workers were instructed to stay in their homes, many leaders engaged in massive communications outreach to their employees, often by web video, sharing information and revealing much more of their personal circumstances than ever before. As a result, countless workers now feel a closer connection to the men and women atop the organization.

The Power of Purpose. The pandemic has revealed the workers who are truly necessary to keep our society running – people who work in grocery stores and hospitals, police, fire fighters, sanitation workers, truck drivers, bus drivers, utility workers and others on the front lines. Although many are fearful of the higher risk of infection that they (and, possibly, their families) are taking on, they continue to work because they know the system cannot run without them.  In one way or another, they are called to serve. This clear purpose leads them to act heroically.

The Value of Culture. The coronavirus is subjecting organizations of all types to a stress test. People are being asked to trust leaders in what could be, literally, a life-or-death situation. Some employees have been asked to continue working in circumstances or in facilities where their degree of protection is arguable. The fundamental value being tested is trust, which is central to all cultures. Trust has to be earned and it is nurtured through active relationships, shared values, and strong communications.  Front-line workers in high-risk jobs like nurses, food delivery workers and flight attendants are displaying high degrees of trust and affiliation to their organization’s culture. Trust will be further tested as formerly home-bound people are directed to return to their workplace.

The Importance of Recognition. When medical personnel are making great personal sacrifices to care for those sick or dying from COVID-19, the heartfelt applause from fellow citizens has become a worldwide phenomenon. We have all seen how much this has helped the weary, emotionally drained people find strength to continue the fight for their patients’ health. Other essential workers taken for granted by the public prior to the pandemic — truck drivers, grocery store clerks, senior care workers and more — are expressing newfound pride in their jobs as for the first time they are being thanked by people who now see how critical they are to the efficient functioning of society.

There are great challenges ahead as organizations are forced to downsize, work in new ways, adjust their business models to new realities and, in many cases, develop new norms for behavior at work. Since there will likely be a significant reduction in physical interaction, maintaining healthy, competitive cultures will require new skills and practices, greater empathy, and even stronger leadership.

Given what we have observed in our work with clients over the past two months, we are optimistic.