How 4 companies accelerated change during the pandemic 🚀

How 4 companies accelerated change during the pandemic 🚀

For many industries, COVID-19 has been a lesson in rapid change. Last week at DX3, Canada’s retail, marketing, and technology expo, a roundtable discussion explored how four companies are staying relevant – and resilient – by accelerating projects, iterating roadmaps, and more. 

Here’s a look at how four companies accelerated change during the pandemic. (Hint: it’s all about their frontline employees!) 

Mastermind Toys launched a digital platform in 5 months

Sarah Jordan joined Mastermind Toys as CEO in January 2020 – and within two months, her stores were shut down coast to coast. “We were a retailer who did not have a contactless curbside option, and our website, our web experience was severely lagging our competitors,” explained Jordan at the DX3 roundtable. 

To catch up, Jordan and her team focused on the customer experience. “In the middle of a pandemic, we launched a brand-new digital platform. We did it in five months, from scratch, including all of the ecosystem around it, including a customer service platform, review platform; you name it. Everything was overhauled.” By Christmas, they were offering one-hour curbside pickup – with signature wrapping paper, no less. 

How they did it:

“Progress over perfection,” says Jordan. “Also, the employee experience drives the customer experience, and so for me the employee experience mattered in all of this.” For Mastermind, a big component of that was bringing employees into the decision process, and giving them space to collaborate and share ideas. 

“We want everyone to co-create with us; it’s one of the reasons why we rolled out Nudge. The biggest change is how empowered our frontline feels to provide ideas and best practices, and it’s been game-changer for us.” 

Nudge veered off its product roadmap to give brands what they needed

Nudge has spent a decade building the complete digital solution for empowering frontline workers and driving better business outcomes for companies – but when COVID-19 hit, the needs of Nudge’s customers changed. Fast. 

“We took our product roadmap, put it all out on the table and reoriented around our customers’ needs,” said Brennan Wilkie, Chief Revenue Officer at Nudge. “Courage means doing the right thing even when it’s hard. Or especially when it’s hard. And we saw a lot of businesses doing that, putting people before profit – their employees and their customers alike – but it changed the way they operated. So we reacted to this change.” 

The result? Nudge found new ways to help brands communicate and engage with their frontline workers, and stay nimble in the ever-changing pandemic reality. 

How they did it:

With so many of Nudge’s customers representing retail, food service, and other essential businesses, they refocused the product roadmap to focus on tools that would help teams navigate the rapidly-changing protocols and restrictions. For example, automated onboarding was developed to get employees ramped up quickly when businesses started reopening, and a task management feature was fast-tracked to help managers reinforce new, one-off and recurring tasks. 

“What do they need to strengthen their business, and how do we reorient what we do to best serve them?” said Wilkie. “It was a great challenge for us and one we’re proud of. It was the right, reactive move at the right time.” 

Sobeys did a last-minute overhaul of a launch two years in the making

The early days of COVID-19 were a flurry of activity for grocery stores. “The grocery industry became an essential service effectively overnight,” said Sarah Joyce, Senior Vice President of E-Commerce at Sobeys Inc. “Everybody just moved immediately in the same direction with agility and velocity in a way we never have before to react to the change around us.” 

But while they were implementing plexiglass, one-way aisles and senior shopping hour, the company was also prepping something else: Voilà by Sobeys, a large-scale robotic automated warehouse grocery home delivery service. “We were preparing for two years for the launch of a new business, and pretty much the entire launch plan changed in the final weeks,” said Joyce. 

“We had to talk to our suppliers about what product was actually available for us, given the constraints that they were facing. We had to change our delivery protocols so that we could have increased sanitation, contactless delivery, and all of the new important emerging safety protocols in that field. And then we had to change our entire marketing launch plan – the messaging, the channels – to reflect the mood of the nation and the state of the reality of where everybody was in and how we were going to reach them now compared to how we might have prior to the pandemic.”

How they did it:

“It was agility and it was empathy,” said Joyce. “Everything we were doing was on behalf of the customers and the teammates – and everything we were doing was as quick as humanly possible.”

In other words: investing in their people was a crucial component to accelerating change. “Our teammates were the real heroes of the last year, and they continue to deliver exceptional customer experiences to the customers that are still coming in our stores or receiving our deliveries. They make all the difference.”

Marriott stayed relevant with new COVID-relevant offerings

When travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders brought occupancy from 80% down to 2%, Marriott International quickly shifted their focus from luxury events and corporate travel to creative new products geared toward current needs. For example, Work Anywhere with Marriott Bonvoy offers room packages for remote workers who need a break from their home office. They also focused on the contactless experience, like mobile check-in and mobile keys. “We needed to make sure we were keeping travellers feeling confident that, if they needed to travel, they would be safe. Or if they were considering travel in the future, we’d be ready,” said Laura Pallotta, Regional Vice President of Sales and Distribution, Canada, at Marriott International. 

Marriott also has an eye to the future. “We know the luxury segment is pent up,” said Pallotta. “We’ve already seen it in the U.S. with our luxury brands. They have missed major milestones in their family: birthdays, graduations, weddings, that kind of thing. They’re buying out suites; they’re spending a ton of money. So we’re definitely looking at how to make sure that we’re out in front of that customer.”

How they did it:

For Marriott, accelerating change started with listening closely to what’s actually needed, both now and in the future. Now, that means bleisure and staycations; in 2023 or 2024, that means a luxury boon. But beyond that, it goes back (again!) to the employees. “Mr. Marriott always says that if you take good care of your associates, they will take good care of your customers, and the customer will come back. So I think that’s really the foundation of our culture,” said Pallotta. 

 – – –

The biggest takeaway from this DX3 roundtable? Success starts with your employees. Especially during unprecedented times, investing in the employee experience is the first step in next-level customer experience, loyalty and more.  

3 strategies to activate your frontline while reopening

3 strategies to activate your frontline while reopening

As social distancing rules continue to be lifted, brands are experiencing the initial phases of recovery and opening their doors across the country. With customers starting to experience the “new normal”, it is clear that frontline associates are playing a more critical role than ever before, especially when it comes to educating customers on how to navigate the new in-location experience.

Experience-driven brands, including retailers, restaurants, and hotels, are being tasked with educating their entire workforce—existing, returning, and new. With government regulations, plus new operating procedures, they need to ensure employee and customer safety and satisfaction. The brands that will succeed in this new environment are those that are able to develop communication strategies that cater to the unique needs of these different employee groups while also inspiring them to exceed expectations. In doing so, brands can not only expect to successfully activate their workforce but also benefit from increased levels of performance across teams.

Multi-unit brands can start by providing associates with the information, inspiration, and insights they need to succeed under new market conditions. The strategies below outline ways brands can activate their workforce through accelerating frontline performance during location reopening and beyond.

1. Accelerate employee onboarding and recruitment

The speed at which your organization recruits and onboards associates during the initial phases of reopening will be paramount to long-term success. Brands that keep the lines of communication open with furloughed employees, ensuring they are engaged and connected to the brand, will be able to rapidly integrate waves of returning staff, in alignment with reopening schedules. Also, as operations continue to scale-up, brands will need to quickly hire new staff which they can prepare for by enabling returning associates to refer top talent from their own networks.

An effective re-onboarding campaign will ensure that returning associates have the information needed to get up to speed on new protocols and operating procedures. For example, with Nudge, brands are able to recognize and greet associates with a “Welcome Back” digital badge. This not only creates a welcoming atmosphere but also kick-starts a series of automatic, bite-sized communications that inform staff on operational changes and reinforces new behaviors.

For many, it is unclear who among the furloughed staff will be returning to work, so now is a good time to turn to your associates to boost recruitment. By tapping into employee networks, brands can rapidly scale their teams to access potential hires that may be great additions to the talent pool.

2. Ensure consistent execution

As business operations return to a “new normal”, brands will need to ensure alignment across the frontline more than ever before, especially during phased reopening plans. For most organizations, frontline managers will be the first employees to return to physical locations and will likely take the lead on inspiring associates as they come onboard. During this time of transition, headquarters will need to ensure frontline managers are equipped with the right tools to streamline operations and effectively reinforce new practices to meet expectations.

With team-based task management tools, frontline managers can align their teams by providing associates with a clear understanding of operational expectations. Rather than assigning tasks from headquarters, organizations can empower frontline managers to drive execution by creating and monitoring tasks for each location they oversee. By quickly informing associates of best practices surrounding new policies, frontline managers can play a central role in meeting heightened customer expectations and maintaining a competitive edge.

3. Increase brand alignment

Finally, as operations continue to fine-tune over the short term, brands cannot lose sight of the brand-employee connection. This connection will be a driving force behind the new in-location experience and a key motivator for associates to meet heightened customer expectations. Aligning employees to your brand, while fostering a sense of community, will be imperative after a significant time of disconnect. As employees return to work, organizations can empower employees to become brand ambassadors by reinforcing their mission, vision, and values, also creating alignment across teams.

With the goal of fostering passionate brand advocates that create differentiated experiences in-store, brands should plan to continuously communicate how associates can succeed in creating memorable moments in the customer journey. Using open-forum communication channels, brands can take things a step further by also creating a culture of feedback and gathering ideas directly from the frontline on what can be done to improve the customer experience. Associate-facing technology can be especially helpful when it comes to furthering the brand experience, giving employees an outlet to discuss tips, tricks, and best practices from their own experiences, which can be shared amongst locations.

By successfully implementing strategies that support recruitment, onboarding, execution, and brand alignment as part of their reopening plans, retail, restaurant, and hospitality brands can expect to gain a competitive edge by successfully activating their frontline workforce. To see these strategies in action, watch our 45-minute on-demand webinar with Marc Galloway, VP of Store Operations at Soft Surroundings.

Required reading: resources to help you support your frontline during COVID-19

Required reading: resources to help you support your frontline during COVID-19

There’s a lot of noise out there right now with growing uncertainties around COVID-19 and what it means for business. These factors outside of our control have created many unknowns for individuals and businesses, especially the frontline workforce. To help you stay up-to-date, we’ve gathered best practices and tangible advice from industry leaders and publications on supporting your most valuable asset—your people.

1. To stay informed

Required reading: Leadership is most important in times of concern or crisis

It’s important to stay up-to-date and in-the-know during an ever-changing situation. That being said, it’s also important to prioritize useful and factual information. Be selective with the type and amount of information you read, and focus on reliable sources (like the World Health Organization and CDC). Having foundational knowledge allows for a more clear understanding of potential implications for the business and how they will impact your people.

2. To provide reliable communication

Required reading: Demonstrating care in times of crisis

Your frontline workforce relies on clear direction and consistent communication for inspiration in times of uncertainty. It’s critical that you communicate regularly and in ‘real-time’. Having an avenue that allows for instant communication (i.e. mobile messaging) is crucial in situations that are constantly changing.

During periods of rapid change, issue regular updates each step of the way outlining your organization’s response. Frontline associates will be empowered through information sharing and clear messaging. Remain available for any associate feedback or questions, and encourage it. Signaling to your frontline that leadership is there for them adds a level of trust and camaraderie.

3. To be decisive

Required reading: Leading through COVID-19: Making smart decisions amid uncertainty

With a constantly changing situation, it can be daunting to make big organizational decisions without a clear picture of how it will impact the business. Although indecision feels safe short-term, in times of uncertainty, employees look to leadership for reassurance and security. Make the best decisions that you can right now and address important policies and procedures.

In times of crisis, certainty in decision-making magnifies employee trust, which in turn, dials down anxieties. The more pressure you’re under as an organization, the more intentional you must be to stay strong in turbulent times.

4. To show appreciation

Required reading: Coronavirus response: People first, economics second

Your people bring your brand to life, so let them know you appreciate and support them! Show your frontline that you value them by prioritizing their personal well-being in all circumstances. Developing the attitude of “we’re all in this together” builds a sense of shared purpose, community, and belonging. Rewarding and recognizing on-going contributions by employees is an important way to deepen connections in the organization.

Take time to prioritize and care for your people in this unpredictable situation. The ability to keep the frontline workforce engaged, empowered, and connected will ultimately impact the outcomes of this crisis. We will get through this together.

4 tips for better frontline worker crisis communication

4 tips for better frontline worker crisis communication

During unprecedented times of crisis, there’s no leadership playbook to follow. New definitions of the workday, combined with endless streams of unnerving news can be the cause of anxiety and distraction among staff. As an organization with employees directly affected by these uncertain times, the anchor for your workforce is strong communication.

The most important factors of good employee communication during a time of crisis rely on a few key foundational elements.

1. Establish psychological safety

Everyone needs to know that they will be taken care of and are supported. Without this basic pillar, employees can’t perform in their roles. Establishing the bedrock of safety is paramount, where executives, and management all need to actively listen with empathy, allowing all organizational members to be heard if they have concerns or feedback. Being supportive allows people to feel secure, safeguarding them to progress to the other subsequent stages.

2. Communicate with structure and clarity

Crises by very nature can cause panic and uncertainty. This can be counteracted with a communication approach that is clear and concise. Giving people direction where and how they should proceed has been the hallmark of many health and government organizations. There can be no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation, so being direct is of utmost importance.

3. Reinforce meaning

As the world starts to abide by the principles of social distancing and self-isolation to curb the impact, some organizations are required to maintain operations and are critical to supporting communities and society. Continually reinforcing the purpose they are serving can bring a great deal of purpose and individual fulfillment.

4. Highlight and celebrate the impact

Performing during uncertain times is stressful and taxing. Organizations should sincerely take the time to highlight and recognize the unsung heroes and contributors. The ability to showcase these unique moments will have a lasting positive for employees within it. For an organization, having a digital and/or physical community of peers that are seeing and feeling the impacts in near-real-time provides an incredible bonding experience, one that will endure as businesses rebuild.

How to deliver bad news: 3 CEO statements that stand out

How to deliver bad news: 3 CEO statements that stand out

As the world continues to enforce social distancing measures during the COVID-19 crisis, multi-unit brands are shutting locations and having to articulate extremely difficult decisions that have directly impacted the livelihood of employees. While no amount of corporate communications training can make delivering these messages less difficult, some stand out as particularly noteworthy examples of leading in a crisis.

Danny Meyer, Union Square Hospitality Group

The bad news: Closure of all restaurants. After several days of keeping employees on payroll, USHG made the difficult decision to lay off hourly and salaried employees.

Excerpt of CEO statement on USHG corporate website:

“In the 35-year history of Union Square Hospitality Group, this is, without a doubt, the most challenging period any of us has ever encountered as leaders. Reconciling who we are as a people-first company with this brutal moment is nearly impossible… We’ve always endeavored to put our people first, and so to conduct such a massive layoff of our cherished colleagues today leaves me gutted. Never could I have fathomed a time where the only path forward would be to lay people off so they can receive unemployment, while this company fights to see another day when we can return to our full staffing levels.”

Why it stands out: This statement in its entirety is particularly heartbreaking and is clearly the hardest thing Meyer has ever had to write. What it does is convey transparency on the agony of the decision and the path forward, while outlining USHG’s relief fund for those affected by layoffs. Meyer also put forward a video message, allowing him to speak directly to employees in an even more authentic way.

Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott

The bad news: Marriott is closing properties and furloughing affected employees.

Excerpt of CEO message from Marriott twitter video:

“I can tell you that I have never had a more difficult moment than this one. There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates—people who are the very heart of this company—that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”

Why it stands out: Described by Inc. as a “powerful lesson in leading during a crisis”, there is nothing about these 6-minutes that is sugarcoated. Sorenson’s statement has been called a masterclass in leadership, and not just because he announces forgoing his salary and cutting the executive team’s by 50%. Again, video as a medium delivers the gut-wrenching message with the humanity it requires, balancing the delivery of the decisions Marriott has had to make.

Emily Powell, Owner and CEO, Powell’s Books

The bad news: Indefinite closure of stores and staff layoffs

Excerpt of CEO message from Powell’s corporate website:

“I have always described Powell’s as resilient: lumbering sometimes, full of quirks and personality, but always resilient. We are having that resilience tested as never before. As you all know, we made the decision, with only a small amount of time to act, to close all of our stores over the weekend. We felt we could not wait a moment longer for the sake of the health of our community. We had hoped to find some way to consider this a short-term closure. Today, only one more day out from that decision, we now understand what we all must face: an extended, difficult period of significant measures to protect public health.”

Why it stands out: Emily Powell’s words are genuine and reflect a true affinity for her community and employees who were the heart and soul of the business. Her commitment to “keeping Powell’s alive for the next generation of readers and writers” delivers one authentic message to a number of audiences at once. The beloved bookstore has long been a cultural fixture of Oregon and the brand’s character jumps off the page.

The global pandemic has tested the leadership and crisis communication of CEOs in ways they simply had never been trained for. Those who have delivered their message with clarity, honesty, and empathy have stood out as leaders who understand the value of effective communication when finding the right words are nearly impossible.

Practicing empathy: 3 ways to connect with your frontline workers

Practicing empathy: 3 ways to connect with your frontline workers

Modern business leaders would agree that empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—is a key ingredient to effective employee communications. However, in times of crisis, demonstrating empathetic leadership can be challenging, with external pressures and internal stressors getting in the way of supporting those who need it most—your frontline employees.

During times of unexpected change, marked by looming uncertainties for the future, frontline employees will likely experience new and intense feelings in their everyday lives—while at work and beyond. Practicing empathy can go a long way to establish trust and loyalty with your staff, ensuring they feel connected to the organization and reassured while employed (or while waiting to come back to work).

As a business leader, there are a variety of ways that you can foster empathy across the business and empower your frontline teams during times of uncertainty. Below we have outlined the three types of empathy, which business leaders should practice in times of crisis:

1. Cognitive empathy (Think)

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. This type of empathy is also referred to as “perspective-taking”, which is simply the practice of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. As your organization chooses how to adapt to internal or external pressures, it is important to understand how the people on the frontlines of your business are impacted and imagine what it might feel like to be in their situation. Using a “perspective-taking” approach to empathy, business leaders will be able to improve decision making and create people-first strategies in times of need.

2. Emotional empathy (Listen)

Emotional empathy, which is also known as affective empathy, is the ability to share the feelings of another person. This type of empathy helps people build emotional connections and provides an opportunity to understand how someone feels. When navigating periods of change, your frontline staff will need an outlet for expressing their feelings and look to leadership for validation that what they are going through is difficult. Business leaders that can genuinely display emotional empathy, by actively listening and ensuring frontline employees feel heard, will be able to develop deeper levels of openness, trust, and, ultimately, loyalty across their workforce.

3. Compassionate empathy (Act)

The third type of empathy takes things a step further, going beyond understanding others and sharing feelings. Compassionate empathy, also known as empathic concern, is all about action and taking the necessary steps to help people however we can. That being said, there is no one “right way” to demonstrate compassionate empathy towards your frontline employees. Depending on the situation, individuals, and emotions, certain types of compassionate empathy may be more or less appropriate. When demonstrating empathic concern, the two most important considerations should be (1) what your frontline employees want and need, and (2) whether any action you take will benefit them directly.

Overall, while demonstrating empathy is an important skill for any modern business leader, it is most important in times of crisis. When your organization is being impacted by factors that are outside of your control, remember you can control how you respond to your frontline teams. Take interest in what your frontline employees are thinking, feeling, and experiencing, and your organization will be able to develop a reputation for being caring, trustworthy, and supportive—in good times and bad.

Proven ROI of 484%

Forrester Consulting's Total Economic Impact™ study found a 484% ROI with Nudge!*

*over three years.