In 2007, Will Smith starred in a movie called I am Legend. The story talked about a virus that impacted the whole world and infected millions. Will Smith, who was immune, along with his four-legged friend, worked to discover a cure. Ironically what we once thought was sci-fiction, we are now in part living. We don’t have the hostile mutants, but we do have a global workforce and economy impacted by a virus that is difficult to contain.

Recently, we returned from the west coast, where we recognized many of the visual displays that occurred in Will Smith’s movie. We saw roads empty, sidewalks bare, and the occasional person quickly walking to their final destinations. Restaurants were attempting to find a way to stay alive, and discounted sales grew each day, just to attract a customer or two. It was apparent that our workforce had been turned upside down, and people were nervous about what the future will look like for their family and businesses. We heard comments about, will I have a job tomorrow, will the company that I work for survive, will we see a recession, and what will happen if I can’t pay for food or rent.

And yet, during our journey, we saw many businesses being innovative to help secure a future for their employees. There were many examples of servant leadership and community pride. Every direction we went we saw employers working to find ways to keep their employees on the payroll and keep their doors open to support the needs of the community. We also heard stories of employment decisions that will have long term impacts on employee retention, employee engagement, and human capital.

We are at a point in time to consider the long-term survival of our organizations and not just the short-term financial impact. Let’s take time and focus our eyes on what resources we will need to be successful after this crisis, one major resource to consider is our employees. The following are a few ways you can continue to build trust, employee engagement, and secure retention through these difficult times.

Adjust Polices and Relax Employee Restrictions

Take the time to show employees that you not only care for them, but you also trust them.   If the employees are engaged with your organization, they will want to help you find ways to survive, and they will fight to help you to be successful.   It is important for you to help your employees buy into your vision, and they will help you meet your organizational needs and KPI’s.  Shifting your current operational strategies may mean that you might have to relax some of your rules and allow the employees the flexibility to work remotely. This might also mean allowing employees the ability to flex work time to help care for loved ones. If you are considering adding constricting new rules, regulations, or work requirements during this time, it will only harm morale and decrease productivity.  Leaders can either strengthen the work-family or cause a divide as organizations navigate through this crisis. When considering your operations, please consider that your employees will help you survive and be even stronger in the long run.

Be Authentic and Communicate

Now, more than ever, is a time for leaders to be authentic and build connections with their workforce.  Authentic leaders will show traits of sincerity, integrity, and honesty.  We are at a time where leadership styles need to be adapted to meet the needs of this rapidly changing environment.

It is not enough to just take the time and make promises to your employees; it is time to show your employees you are committed to their long-term success and survival.  Hopefully you have already built a trusting relationship, but if you haven’t, now is the time to find ways to strengthen your professional relationships with those that you lead. According to Stephen Covey, take the time to be self-aware, have moral goodness, and have a creative imagination to meet the current needs of your organization and your employees.

Remember to help develop a culture where open and honest communications can be shared throughout your organization. Employees will often be nervous and even scared of the unknown. Regular communication and support will help to provide comfort and lower stress levels. If employees are aware of what is occurring at work, more the employees will stay committed and engaged with the organization.

Develop a Safe Environment 

The literature on employee engagement often points to several variables that must be considered when considered a response to COVID 19. For today, I would like to draw your attention to the engagement variables of safety and psychological experience. For the safety and psychological experience of our employees, we must strive to help mitigate any potential and unforeseen risks for our employees.

There are many sectors of employment that will need to continue to work in public spaces. In these cases, help to ensure proper steps are put into place to help protect your employees.  Consider increasing your training on infectious disease, adding additional hand cleaning stations, and increasing accessibility to personal proactive equipment.

We also need to consider the risk versus benefits of having employees report to your work-site, even if kept in small groups. If remote work and video meetings are a means to sustain your business, please consider allowing your employees to stay in a place where they feel safe and secure. Remember, this is a time to help to keep your employees safe and secure with the goal of getting your business back to a normal operating level as soon as possible.


Our organizations and employees are experiencing stress due to COVID 19. In many cases, we see innovative and positive leadership examples. In our field of human resources, we have the opportunity to help our organizations and employees succeed. It has been motivating to see our communities pull together to survive, and we can help to bring our stakeholders together for long-term survival. We know that leadership is an ever-changing process, and we now must recognize that organizations, teams, and individuals will need to grow and adapt to the current normal. Leaders and HR professionals have the opportunity to help those we serve to develop new skills and knowledge to unleash expertise, improve employee engagements, and maintain long-term employee retention.

— This story is written by Dr. Matthew W Hurtienne, Dean of the School of Business at Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor.

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