Six steps for mobilizing employees during periods of uncertainty

At the outset of a crisis, interactions between an organization and its employees automatically shift, taking on a more official tone and occurring more frequently. Messaging is delivered top down. Communications become one-way, fact-based, and rooted in science. Formal channels are embraced. Leadership becomes overtly focused on crisis management and business stability.


However, as organizations evolve along the crisis curve, attention will be refocused on employee engagement and internal culture (to support necessary organizational change). Employee mobilization in a time of crisis will require leadership to define and reinforce an employee’s role within the organization as a contributor to the broader community that’s in crisis.

The need to engage employees as contributors of culture versus receivers of information is based on two foundational truths for both organizations and their people:

For a majority of employees, their relationship with work has changed
Life becomes a matter of necessity and work can be seen as a distraction from other important responsibilities that are highlighted during a crisis.

Crisis builds community
This community extends far beyond the immediate context of your organization.

Below are six key steps that organizations should consider when engaging employees to build a meaningful internal culture and community in times of crisis.


Step 1
Define your organization’s role in the crisis.


Every organization has something fundamental that it can credibly give to its community during uncertain times. Declaring what this is will create an overarching strategy and set the direction for employee engagement.


Determining an organization’s role requires leaders to make decisions across four critical dimensions:

Employee well-being
Focus on helping employees through periods of significant distress and change.

Business well-being
Focus on sustaining or improving business under new conditions and contexts.

Internal priorities
Focus on introducing changes to maintain employee engagement and efficient operations.

External focus
Focus on engaging with the world outside of the organization to provide needed support.


The way an organization balances these dimensions helps clarify its role when responding to a crisis.

Many organizations will have to tap into multiple roles to serve their diverse employee groups. As there is no one-size-fits-all solution, it’s important for leaders to take stock of what they are uniquely equipped to provide.

Step 2
Identify what stage you are at within the overall lifecycle of the crisis.


After a role is identified, it’s time to manage things in a “new” state of normal. This step contextualizes your role as it evolves alongside the crisis (see image A) and helps to clarify how employees should be engaged throughout.


Questions to consider across the lifecycle:

  • How will response efforts be removed, or perhaps extended following a resolution?
  • What does recovery look like?
  • What “new world” will employees and the broader community encounter next?
  • How can your organization provide stability, reassurance, and hope throughout the stages of resolution and recovery?
Step 3
Understand how different types of employees are experiencing the crisis based on the current stage.

An organization and its employees live together in a state of fluid change. Consequently, the crisis experience for all individuals involved shifts alongside perceptions about the past, present, and future. A simple mapping of employees across key categories allows organizations to define their future role based on the reality of their employees’ current situation.


Sample map developed for COVID-19:

Step 4
Mobilize and support employees by defining their purpose as a contributor to the organization’s chosen role in responding to the community in crisis.

Once an organization identifies its role and understands its people, it can then begin to mobilize employees around a shared mission with clear responsibilities and tactical responses.


They must come up with a direction that activates the organization’s role, then rally staff around delivering key programs based on their needs and available skillsets. Staff are looking for clarity and a tangible role to play based on how the organization chooses to respond.

Front-line staff
They are often an organization’s most at-risk population, and are perhaps in greatest demand. Leadership must encourage these staff members to raise emerging issues, provide cover for vulnerable colleagues, and be the organization’s eyes and ears to influence and inform change.

Support staff
They lay the foundation for “new normal” activities. They operationalize priority initiatives and workstreams based on programs that are required for the organization to play out its role within the community.

Displaced staff
They should manage business-as-usual tasks as needed, but are often an untapped resource that many organizations can utilize to deliver on its chosen role in new and novel ways.

Step 5
Clearly outline the actions, activities and tactics that employees should invest in so they may deliver in line with their purpose.

Actions, activities, and tactics used to mobilize employees during a crisis will be dependent on the role your organization adopts to service the broader community.


Sample ideas based on dominant organizational roles:


For organizations that adopt the Provider role, this might mean reorganizing certain displaced staff into “task forces” to work on creating, launching, and delivering support programs to fellow employees or to the public.

Security Programs
During a time of crisis, employees fear for their health and their financial security. Programs designed to support these two essentials help to create clarity and stability in a time of great uncertainty.
Task Forces
Everyone can play a role in a crisis - even if that role is to simply be there for others. Task Forces mobilize employees around a shared mission that, when directed well, reinforce a sense of internal unity.
Program Accelerators
Back-end systems are designed for business, not a crisis. Establishing an Accelerator for work on crucial initiatives that get employees involved in rebound efforts for the organization.

Those taking on the Connector role can work progressively with partners to share resources and collaborate on mutually beneficial solutions.

Partner Alliances
Crises create inefficiencies and opportunities throughout the economic system. Forming strategic alliances with others around compatible needs and sharing heartens collective resilience.
Digital Entrenchment
Many employees are going to be displaced, and work and life will be pitted against one another for attention. Timely digital services (e.g. education, entertainment, healthcare) provide intermittent balance during a crisis.
Transition Programs
Changing how and where you work means staff will be in a routine state of transition. Establishing clear transition programs as people move between places, spaces, and experiences is critical to maintaining a sense of stability and continuity.
Long-Termist organizations can look inward and encourage employees to take time to improve back-end systems, processes, and customer-facing products and experiences.
Crowdsourced Initiatives
Internal crowdsourcing platforms are a great way to engage staff in surfacing improvement initiatives. Leaders can use these as a way to collaboratively solicit, prioritize, and build teams for new solution development.
Moonshot Programs
R&D efforts should be reinforced, not disengaged, during a time of crisis. Displaced staff are a great resource to rally around more experimental ventures that have the potential to boost an organization's post-crisis competitiveness.
Channel Shifts
Distribution and engagement channels become of increasing importance during a crisis. Staff can be re-allocated to focus efforts exclusively on developing new capabilities, processes, and experiences for the channels that matter most.
Those adopting the Adapter role can rally staff around solving emerging customer needs. We’ve seen this happen globally as organizations are adjusting typical business practices to play out their role in the community.
Asset-Out Innovation
Crises often paralyze organizations into seeing their capabilities through the lens of pre-crisis norms. Leaders from the most adaptive organizations re-assess existing assets to find new use cases for them in a new kind of business-as-usual.
Challenge-Based Innovation
Crises are an accumulation of many small challenges that, together, create systemic change. Fast-moving organizations identify emergent shifts and rally employees around discrete challenges to grow the business one step at a time.
Customer Panels
Crises are a time for accelerated engagement, not disengagement, with customers. Establishing a reliable customer panel means keeping a consistent pulse on diverse needs as they emerge.
Step 6
Sequence your activities to create the right impact for the right people at the right time.

Leaders must select and design the right activities for impact, but they must also be achievable and sequenced in the appropriate order based on who needs what the most at which moment. Context becomes a great compass for navigating which initiatives are most appropriate to pursue at what time, however an organization’s role sets the guardrails and creates a sense of purpose during times of great uncertainty.