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Shaping an agile culture to address workforce challenges during COVID-19

Future of Work|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Integrated Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Cory Bronson and Queenie Chan | May 26, 2020

An agile culture enables an organization to address employees’ changing needs during the COVID-19 crisis.

An agile culture enables organizations to respond nimbly to the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, including new work requirements, a shifting competitive landscape and an environment of heightened anxiety. Culture is the essential bond that unites colleagues, engaging them so that they feel vested in a shared purpose and mission. The mindset and behaviors that power an agile culture in challenging times can better be understood by examining three key areas: communication, employee listening, and inclusion and diversity (I&D).

Communication that empowers a dispersed workforce

Frequent, open and transparent communication allows companies to be there for employees when it matters most, building empathy and trust that foster the psychological safety needed for agile risk taking, collaboration and continuous learning. Effective communication during the pandemic will help companies connect with talent on deeper level, motivating and empowering a dispersed workforce.

To empower a newly reconfigured workforce, companies need the ability to communicate with different categories of workers:

  • Regular remote workers
  • Newly remote workers
  • Workers unable to work for various reasons
  • Essential workers who must continue to work in person

Commonly used communication tools range from email campaigns to reinforce key messages to text messaging for urgent matters to portals and microsites with updates on a broad range of topics.

Some companies are using personalized messaging based on data collected via a portal to build a deeper connection with employees. To reach employees without computer access and a corporate virtual private network (VPN), employers use of mobile phone communications (e.g., text messaging, access to employee-facing call centers to respond to individual questions etc.).

What to communicate?

Shaping an agile culture requires that leaders communicate nimbly, delivering different types of relevant, timely information to support different employee groups. During a crisis, it’s essential to ensure that information about the mission and purpose of the organization is top-of-mind. An April 2020 Willis Towers Watson survey on the talent implications of the COVID-19 crisis reveals that over three-quarters of employers (78%) have stepped up communications around company purpose.

Employers would also do well to ensure they are meeting the range of information needs their employees require.

  • Work-related information: Employers must clearly communicate work-from-home guidelines, including information about resources and technical support that may be helpful for newly remote workers.

    It is also essential to regularly communicate near- and longer-term goals to keep employees focused and up-to-date. Managers play a critical role in clarifying and reinforcing these goals, which may involve new ways of working — for example, collaborating in agile, virtual teams. Yet our research shows that only 49% of employers indicate that their managers have been effective at making expectations explicit during the pandemic.
  • Health and benefit communications: Through timely and relevant health and benefit communications employers can help guide employees in how to stay safe during the pandemic (e.g., social distancing, frequent handwashing etc.) and access new ways of getting medical care such as telehealth services. It is also important to communicate need-to-know benefit information. In fact, almost all employers (91%) have increased communications about their benefits during this period.
  • Wellbeing tips and resources: Because some employees are likely to be experiencing considerable anxiety, it’s vital for companies to provide tips and resources to support employees’ emotional wellbeing — for example, by providing information on telebehavioral health services and employee assistance programs(EAP) — as well as their social wellbeing — for example, by scheduling virtual coffee breaks and weekly check-ins via teleconferencing (e.g. Zoom meetings).

    To encourage physical wellbeing, employers should provide frequent reminders about the importance of taking breaks and engaging in physical activities ranging from walking to yoga to running. It can also be helpful to provide links to online fitness classes.

    For employees facing financial stress, it’s vital to highlight the resources that can help them manage their challenges (e.g., financial coaching or counseling, student loan repayment programs etc.) and support their overall financial wellbeing.

Agile and continuous listening

Even though employees may be further apart physically and geographically dispersed, we are in a time where employers need to be closer to their talent than ever before, listening to employees and uniting all talent through a supportive, agile organizational culture.

Soliciting employee feedback and opinions goes a long way toward building a trust-based employer/employee relationship. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a high level of participation in these efforts during this crisis as employees are eager to voice their concerns. Yet, while three-fifths of employers have increased their efforts around employee listening, less than a third (30%) have taken action to survey employees.

Companies have a range of listening tools at their disposal including surveys of different lengths and virtual focus groups, which can be accessed via mobile phone and provide an interactive experience. Moving to agile and continuous listening — for example, via regular COVID-19 pulse surveys — will become essential throughout the different phases of the crisis. Organizations should tailor survey or focus group content to the current situation. Potential topics to cover include:

  • Work arrangements
  • Wellbeing
  • Support
  • Business issues and policies

Employers will want to use the survey data and resulting insights to respond to changing employee needs (e.g., in the areas of overall morale, support for caregiving duties, need for financial aid, etc.) in an agile manner and drive improvements in the employee experience. As appropriate, this data can also be shared with boards of directors to show the impact of the crisis on employees and the actions taken to improve the workplace in these challenging times.

I&D drives organizational agility

An inclusive and diverse workplace is foundational to organizational agility, innovation and growth. By embracing I&D, an organization promotes a sense of connection and belonging that empowers workers to come together in challenging times to innovate and solve problems in an environment where differences are not only respected but valued. In such an environment, employees feel a sense of psychological safety in their ability to be themselves as they embark on cycles of testing, learning and iterating to create new forms of business value.

But it is critical to address workplace attitudes and behaviors that hinder the collegial and collaborative mindset so essential to an agile culture. In this time of crisis, it’s important to raise awareness of bigotry and bias. For example, employers must have zero tolerance for any bias or discrimination against employees of Asian descent and refrain from associating the virus with any particular region, race or ethnicity. It’s imperative that senior leaders reinforce organizational values and antidiscrimination policies through various communication channels (e.g., town hall meetings, email campaigns etc.) and model the desired behavior.


As companies manage through the COVID-19 crisis, they must recalibrate their expectations and goals at each stage. At the same time, employees’ lives inside and outside of the organization are complex and stressful. An agile culture enables the organization to address employees’ changing needs. And it fosters a shared sense of belonging and purpose that helps unlock the discretionary effort needed to meet the organization’s evolving expectations.


Associate Director Talent Practice, Willis Towers Watson

Cory Bronson sits in Willis Towers Watson’s Talent Management practice where her primary client focus is in organizational transformation, digital enablement and future of work.

Associate Director Talent Practice,
Willis Towers Watson

Queenie Chan sits in Willis Towers Watson’s Talent Management practice where her primary client focus is in organizational transformation and future of work. Queenie’s collaborated on research projects for the World Economic Forum including, "Strategies for the New Economy: Skills as the Currency of the Labour Market" and "HR 4.0: Shaping People Strategies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution."

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