Susan Kelliher of Chemours and Susan McGarry of Marlette Funding share best practices for leading an organization through a crisis. Connect Delaware had the opportunity to chat with them about what they did to prepare their workforce for future emergency scenarios, and how it helped them navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch the full interview here, or read the synopsis below.
1 . Form a Crisis Planning Task Force
Chemours launched a crisis support team upon the first news of COVID-19. They had written site-specific pandemic plans in place and the COVID19 team is a subset of an overall crisis management structure put in place in October 2019. Their early start was essential, as they have global operations, including in China and the U.S. The crisis support team consisted of leaders in operations, safety, health services, and communications as well as regional and country leaders to ensure clear communication and collaboration.
This task force managed the company’s response to the virus, and made recommendations to senior leadership. Kelliher mentioned that this enabled the organization to be proactive instead of reactive. “No decisions were made in response to fear or the media,” said Kelliher. Their task force relied on data from the CDC and the World Health Organization, and other leading experts. They leaned on step-by-step guidance from these authorities, which allowed them to maintain operations and serve customers while at the same time ensuring the health and safety of their employees around the world.
“No decisions were made in response to fear or information from the media” – Susan Kelliher
Kelliher says that a company any size would benefit from forming this kind of task force to plan for the future, and recommends hiring outside contractors if necessary.
Marlette Funding, a smaller firm with two locations in the U.S., also had a crisis plan in place before the pandemic.
“The prep work started a long time ago. During our growth period, we hired someone dedicated to set us up to be successful for disaster recovery and continuity of our business plan,” says McGarry.
The pandemic response was an actual part of our testing/training. We simulated a scenario where our Chief Information Officer (CIO) died due to a pandemic. As a result of their simulations, Marlette’s Crisis Planning Taskforce knew exactly what to do when faced with a real pandemic. Immediately they ramped up communications across the crisis team, which included daily calls (including weekends) where they monitored news, and local reports. They also had a private Slack Channel where they shared new info almost hourly.
2. Include the Company Core Values in Crisis Communications
When you’re in crisis mode, employees need to be receptive to management’s decisions.
“Our employees were on board with our crisis response and management because it’s part of our ethos,” says Kelliher. The chemical company often works with dangerous materials and equipment. Safety is always a priority, and this mindset served them well through COVID-19.
Safety and risk mitigation were the major themes of all company correspondence. Chemours conveyed this messaging to employees specifically through video to communications.
“Myself, the CEO, COO were all on camera, and these communications were deployed to employees. There is no substitute for that human connection.”
Having senior leadership communicate in that way sent volumes to employees. “Our workforce was highly receptive because we were highly engaged,” said Kelliher.
Marlette Funding took a similar approach, where senior leadership was candid and compassionate. They were honest and said “we are hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.” Because they expressed concern and vulnerability in their communications, their workforce was highly receptive to changing policies and the communications did not ensure panic. Now the employees are more engaged with providing helpful feedback for the whole organization. They participate in weekly surveys, and virtual focus groups.
“Our employees are excited about changes because they can take what they learned during this time and continue with it in the future. This [crisis] pushed us and now we can open up new avenues for the future.” – Susan McGarry
3. Respond in Phases (If Possible)
Fortunately, most of Marlette’s team was already set up to work remote 1-2 days per week. However this didn’t apply to their call center, and they needed to move quickly towards a 100% work from home environment.
They did this by sending entire departments home one day at a time to test the hardware, bandwidth and other network strains. They also made large investments in equipment to empower their teams, said McGarry.
“Our tech group and helpdesk team was great. We purchased over 200 additional monitors, docking stations, and other equipment. This gives employees full functionality at their home and better simulates their current desk setup at their office.”
Even before that, they had made strides towards promoting a clean work environment. Shared food in the breakroom was swapped for prepackaged foods and individually wrapped snacks.
Chemours’ preparations started very early. The first phase of response came through increased sanitation efforts. In all facilities (office and plants) they enforced new sanitation schedules and all surfaces were cleaned twice a day.
Many of their office staff took advantage of their flex work policy and began social distancing early by working in their home offices. However, in the plant environment, most employees don’t have the flexibility to work from home. So Chemours implemented an “ABC policy.” The C level employees were classified as nonessential. They designated a trigger point where it became essential to reduce the headcount in their facilities. They decided to send all C level employees home with pay. At the same time, they implemented social distancing policies within the plants and began to implement external temperature checks for employees upon entrance to the buildings.
In addition, they developed a special pay policy, giving employees 14 days of paid leave if they were quarantined, or cared for family members who are quarantined. This is a benefit they offered and communicated via video.
4. Provide More Value to the Team
Marlette looked for creative ways to provide additional support to their team. Beyond sharing news and updates about the virus, they shared resources on how to homeschool and tips for working remotely.
They hired the KiwiCo to send out age-appropriate care packages for kids. The kits included STEM, arts, and other early learning activities. McGarry said this “brings more levity their day and shows we are thinking about them.”
They’ve also found ways to celebrate success and have fun. Formerly, they’d celebrate employee birthdays at the office. Now they surprise team members by sending gifts and cards directly to their home.
“It’s the little things that show we care about them as people. Not just about profitability and business development.” – Susan McGarry
At the senior level, they show a lot of appreciation for the team’s flexibility and encourage each other to share pictures of “furry friends” and home workspaces. They even created a Slack channel where people can share tips for working remotely.
The call center employees are now working from home and are encouraged to share that with customers on the phone and tell them why. There’s no need to stress about the dog barking in the background.
“We are all getting to know each other better, our family, our animals, our home offices.” – Susan McGarry