After two and a half challenging years, the path to survival for embattled startups is becoming clear. Two key concepts stand out in this process: flexibility and resistance. Together, they underpinned successful workplace initiatives that responded creatively to pandemic constraints – and even flourished under difficult conditions.

Lessons Learned for Startup CEOs

With 20/20 hindsight, some of these pan-pandemic recommendations may seem obvious. However, even lean-structured startups and their typically out-of-the-box thinking must still tread carefully through the minefield of doing business in a world that’s still wondering what comes next.

Here are some lessons learned by founders and CEOs who steered their businesses skillfully through more than two years of Covid-triggered constraints:

1         People Before Profits: If there could ever be a benefit from a global pandemic, it’s that workers had time to reassess their priorities. No longer willing to be treated as mere human resources, people are more focused on pursuing an even work-life balance. Commuting time, child and elder care, and housing costs are being factored into the work x wage equation for perhaps the first time, at the societal level.

Action: Smart managers are flexible enough to retain staff by responding to employee needs, and regularly checking how they feel, either in person or through brief questionnaires.

2         Supportive Corporate Culture: As businesses large and small start to call their employees back into their workplaces, many people are finding it hard to transition from the comfort and safety of their homes to harder-edged business settings. Unchanged since March 2020, offices, stores, and other workspaces may now feel unfamiliar, unsafe, and even unwelcoming.

Action: Sensitive managers address this issue promptly by ensuring that all working areas are compliant with national and local regulations, installing additional equipment (screens, air purifiers) as needed, and keeping staff informed of these improvements.

  • Privacy and Personal Space: Never high priorities in traditional workplaces, privacy, and personal space are two invisible benefits of working from home that can be sorely missed when surrounded by chattering colleagues and demanding customers. Setting aside a quiet area where employees can slip away for solitary mental-health breathers (in contrast to high-contact water-cooler breaks) shows respect for their individual self-care needs.

Action: Sympathetic managers appreciate the importance of self-care in high-input situations like busy workplaces and understand that workers may need unscheduled downtime to decompress in a quiet corner.

  • Encourage Collaboration: Returning to the workplace either full-time or on a hybrid basis may involve meeting new colleagues and building new creative networks and workflows. Mutual cooperation and across-the-board collaboration are needed to build up firm foundations for future initiatives that underpin innovation.

Action: Shrewd managers encourage teamwork and offer generous praise for all creative input, while encouraging healthy competition among everyone involved, encouraging everyone to explore new ways of working together.

  • Keep Clear Lines of Communication: Vital for corporate growth, communications must always be a two-way street in any business that is aiming to grow. Far more than just performance appraisals or pep talks on topping targets, two-way communications provide priceless input on how a company is viewed from the other side of the screen or counter.

Action: Skillful managers know how to provide constructive feedback that fosters personal growth among their staff while listening and absorbing feedback and even venting from employees, vendors, and customers.

  • Always Prepare for the Worst: When the pandemic emerged, it hit hard and fast. Few, if any businesses were properly prepared to shut down their premises and shift to remote work overnight, with many barely aware of the technologies that would let them do so. Today, climate change is boosting the likelihood of natural disasters by magnitudes undreamed of only a few decades ago. Rising temperatures are increasing the frequency and severity of natural disasters, with frightening potential for destroying assets and disrupting operations, supply chains, and distribution networks.

Action: Prepare a scalable Emergency Plan with instant crisis responses, building resilience on pre-established risk baselines. Although another global pandemic is statistically unlikely in the foreseeable future, fossil fuels, pollution, and uncontrolled urban expansion are triggering a steady stream of natural disasters with widespread effects.

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Looking Beyond the Bottom Line

Far-sighted CEOs are well aware that business is going to be different from now on. The traditional nine-to-five Monday -through-Friday workweek has been shattered – and proven unnecessary, in many cases. The new office has become a place for teams to meet sporadically, focused on solving specific problems that have already been discussed remotely and explored individually at home.

Compared to a couple of years ago, employee expectations have shifted completely. If not feeling respected and recognized by management, today’s workers will not hesitate to find other jobs that are more supportive. An innovative (and economically feasible) way of showing acknowledgment and confidence is to provide employees with cross-training options – which is also useful for responding to emergencies.

Emotional Intelligence vs Crunching Data

Managers are now having to shift their approach to running a team. Rather than monitoring clock-ins and measuring outputs, they are instead listening closely to workers about every aspect of their lives. Not taught in business schools, emotional availability is today a crucial skill for running a successful business.

Zoom sessions interrupted by kids, pets, and partners have been constant reminders to everyone that nobody’s personal life is on hold during working hours. Consequently, employees returning to their workplaces must be assured that their round-the-clock safety and well-being are top corporate priorities because happy workers are the fastest path to satisfied customers.

Takeaway: Compassion and understanding are more important than ever for managers eager to keep their staff content and their businesses thriving. This is why a new word is now firmly embedded in the startup business lexicon: empathy.