Team Management

Management Lessons From the Companies Who Are Surviving (and Thriving) During the Pandemic

Justin Bariso Author, EQ Applied 
Management Tips From the Companies Surviving the Pandemic - Gusto

So, you’ve managed to keep your business afloat during nearly a year of a pandemic. Maybe you’ve managed to pivot, adjust, or to take advantage of new opportunities.

Congratulations! This has been no easy task.

What now? 

Remember that during difficult times, your people will look to you for direction and inspiration. If you can keep moving forward—despite all the challenges, stress, and anxiety—your people will follow.

But no one should be expected to have all the answers. As the business landscape continues to adjust at lightning speed, what will help you make it through this pandemic, and beyond?

There are a number of companies and entrepreneurs that are not only surviving this difficult time—some are thriving. And it has a lot to do with strategies they’re using to manage their assets, including their most important resource: their people.

What are some management and workplace strategy tips you can glean from these companies?

Here are a few. Make sure to take notes.

Starbucks

The world’s most successful coffeehouse outlined its strategy toward the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s a great case study in learning to navigate economic uncertainty.

Starbucks has more than 4,000 stores in mainland China, where COVID-19 made its first appearance. As the company went through the process of closing and reopening stores, they learned invaluable lessons. For example, as Starbucks began its phase of gradually reopening stores in the US, it did something different than some of its peers: It gave power to local store management to make a variety of decisions.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” wrote Rossann Williams, Starbucks’ executive vice president and president of Starbucks’ US company-operated business in a letter to employees. “The impact of COVID-19 varies across communities, and decisions will need to be made locally, with our field leaders, store managers and local health experts.”

Did you notice the key phrase: 

Decisions will need to be made locally.

This was a great decision by Starbucks. After all, who better to decide how to reopen a store than local store management, those who are most in touch with the circumstances in their state, city, and even neighborhood?

Starbucks did something else, too. CEO Kevin Johnson announced the launch of a data-rich dashboard providing comprehensive information to Starbucks field leaders, “including government data on confirmed cases and trends about COVID-19 and how that may influence decisions at the individual store level.” All of this was designed to give store managers what they needed to make good decisions regarding when and how to reopen.

Lessons for you

You may not have Starbucks’ resources, but you can learn two important lessons from the company’s strategy.

1. Make decisions according to local circumstances.

In addition to keeping pace with local authorities, pay attention to your customers. Are they being especially cautious? Are they keen on avoiding risk? You want to match your offerings to their behavior. 

(Additionally, the US Chamber of Commerce provides some excellent resources, insights, and analysis you should definitely be taking advantage of.)

Are your people hesitant to return to a central office? Make sure employees have the option to work from home. 

Are your customers cautious to return to your store? Make sure you have masks, disinfectant, and procedures ready for walk-ins.

The better you match employee and customer expectations, the more trust you’ll build.

2. Avoid micromanaging.

As a small business, you may only have one location, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do the same as Starbucks: Give your people the tools and freedom they need to make good decisions, without running everything by you.

If you focus on being a good coach, giving your people useful tools and guidance, and answering important questions, you’ll put your people into position to make your business a success.

Best Buy

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There are few retailers who performed as well as Best Buy in the early stages of the pandemic. The company was able to retain over 80% of its sales over the last six weeks of the first quarter of 2020—despite not allowing customers to enter their stores.

How did Best Buy do it?

First, they quickly shifted their operating model. Instead of customers browsing through stores as they normally would, they were encouraged to order online or via phone and then retrieve items via “curbside pickup.”

An additional key to Best Buy’s success, according to CEO Corie Barry, was to trust store managers and listen to their feedback. This feedback loop helped Best Buy employees to learn from each others’ mistakes. It also enabled Barry and her team to determine what processes needed to be tweaked. 

Lessons for you

As a business owner, it’s tempting to get caught hoping and dreaming that things will one day return to normal. 

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Instead of dwelling on imaginary scenarios, look at the situation the way it is today and do what you can to adapt.

Most importantly, be sure to get the feedback of your front-line employees. Get them speaking to each other. The more knowledge they can share, the more your business can benefit from the collective experience of your people.

LinkedIn

Has your company begun using video conferences for the majority of its meetings? 

How’s that going for you?

Last year, Jeff Weiner stepped down as CEO of LinkedIn, a position he held for over a decade. But before he left, he shared some precious advice for those who find themselves battling burnout as they are thrust into back-to-back Zoom meetings for much of the day.

“For those fortunate enough to have the opportunity to continue to work from the safety of their homes,” said Weiner in a LinkedIn post, “an astute colleague shared a valuable insight the other day: There are essentially no buffers in our schedules when working from home.”

Weiner continued:

“’Free’ time in between video calls is increasingly being absorbed by taking care of kids, caring for dependents, doing household chores, and myriad other ways in which people are jumping from one task to the next. Combined with all the uncertainty related to physical and economic well being, it can take a toll. Make sure to carve out real buffer time: to catch your breath, get some exercise, or whatever you enjoy doing that helps put your mind at ease. It not only benefits you, it will benefit all of the people that count on you as well.”

If Weiner’s comment resonates with you, you’re not alone. His post produced 30,000 reactions and almost 1,000 comments in just over 24 hours.

Lessons for you

“Buffer time” is a block of time in your schedule that serves as a buffer between meetings or other work. For those who care about maintaining their sanity while working in the virtual world, it’s not just a “nice-to-have.”

It’s an absolute must-have, especially as the pandemic runs up against the year mark.

Make sure to schedule buffer time between meetings in your calendar. You get to decide how you want to use it: to get some exercise, surf the net, or just sit and think. The important thing is that you recover: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Of course, you will always be tempted to squeeze in just one more meeting. To help prevent you from doing so, treat buffer time like an important doctor’s appointment or a special occasion—it’s non-negotiable.

“Whatever you do,” says Weiner, “just make sure you make that time for yourself—every day and in a systematic way—and don’t leave unscheduled moments to chance.”

Google

If you’re looking for a simple way to establish goodwill with your employees and help them avoid burnout, you might be interested in a this method from Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai:

He gave his people a free day off.

In an email to staff, Pichai explained:

“I know many of us have been running hard non-stop for a [sic] weeks now and may be experiencing some burnout. So, I also used TGIF [a companywide meeting at Google] as a chance to announce an official day off…”

“Take the time to do whatever you need to do to prioritize your well-being.”

At first glance, you might think this is a terrible idea. After all, if your business is struggling to survive, the last thing you need is to give people free time off.

But if you can schedule the time off so that essential business continues as normal, you can gain a huge return on investment—in the form of appreciative, well-rested, more motivated employees.

Lesson for you

By giving employees a surprise day off, you send a powerful message that says:

“I appreciate your work. And I want you to know that not only is it okay to unplug, it’s needed.”

Mark Cuban

Mark Cuban is a billionaire serial entrepreneur best known for his role as a Shark Tank investor and as owner of the Dallas Mavericks. 

Speaking to LinkedIn editor-in-chief Dan Roth, Cuban gave some unique advice to business owners:

Make employees owners, too—in the form of equity in the business.

Cuban says he’s been giving this advice for years. But it may be especially worth considering due to recent circumstances.

“Even if it’s a small private company that may never grow big, if you’re a dry cleaner, share,” said Cuban. “Your employees will work harder. They’ll recognize that they’re an owner. They’ll have a completely different perspective. And that benefits everybody.”

An additional advantage in giving your people part ownership, says Cuban, is that they’re more invested in contributing ideas for the good of the company.

“Now of all times, no CEO, no entrepreneur can do this alone. You need every single employee committed to helping you get through this. Recognize that. Reward them for it,” said Cuban.

“You don’t have all the answers. Don’t pretend you do.”

As business owners, you’ll need your people to go all in with you to help your business survive. So, take a page out of these companies’ playbooks and give your people the recognition, freedom, and rewards they’re craving.

Do so, and you’ll unleash the true power of your people—by encouraging them to become the best version of themselves.

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Updated: April 9, 2021

Justin Bariso
Justin Bariso Justin Bariso is an author and consultant who helps organizations think differently and communicate with impact. His book, "EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence," uses fascinating research, modern examples, and personal stories to illustrate how emotional intelligence works in real life.

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