Covid-19 revisited: Leadership

5 minutes read
By Ammara Naeem, Head of Client Success, Top Employers Institute

Covid-19 has placed business leadership under scrutiny as never before. The severe disruption generated by the pandemic has heaped pressure on leaders to motivate and engage employees through adversity. Prior to the pandemic, however, leadership within many organisations had already been changing. Our research shows that there had been a clear move towards a more team-based approach to decision making among the vast majority of more than 1600 Top Employers organisations worldwide.

Leaders were already being held accountable for developing team behaviours and receiving feedback from employees as part of their own development. Covid-19 simply accelerated these trends, and this article looks at what leaders working for our Top Employers did to mitigate its effects, what they learnt along the way, and how they adapted to a remote working environment.

Which initiatives worked well when it came to supporting and training leaders through the pandemic?

PepsiCo in Germany put a big emphasis on people staying close to each other, despite the obvious physical separation. Among many initiatives it:

  • Set up new ways of working across the organisation to help leaders and teams to find a healthy work routine, through initiatives such as “meeting-free Wednesday mornings”.
  • Held webinars to help leaders with processes and topics such as performance management and giving and receiving feedback during a pandemic.
  • Broadcast webcasts every fortnight for the leadership team to answer questions from employees.
  • Ran virtual events to bring together the organisation as one team on key strategic issues.

AkzoNobel in Brazil guided leaders in the way they communicated with their teams. This was shown by the way it:

  • Provided a guide for leaders to promote the need for an inclusive and respectful workplace.
  • Offered webinars on the digital tools available to leaders for best-practice communication.
  • Ran workshops on the topic of resilience.
  • Established guidelines for the start and end of the working day, guaranteeing an hour and a half of rest and meals with no scheduled meetings.
  • Introduced mental health workshops and mindfulness sessions.

Mitie’s leadership team in the UK also provided a great blueprint for others to follow. It set up a national critical incident team (CIT) to help its leaders and teams judge and act upon risks to individuals and to react promptly and effectively to disruption when needed. The CIT included senior management from across the businesses, along with its internal infrastructure and operations teams.

What have you since done to improve your leadership programme and how did you apply learnings? 

PepsiCo in Germany has now gone virtual in its approach to leadership development and therefore consolidated all initiatives into one holistic virtual leadership development programme. It established a community of people leaders on its learning platform and implemented a virtual global mentoring programme accessible via an app. Additionally, PepsiCo has made more use of virtual networking opportunities and coaching circles to enable knowledge and best practice sharing among leaders – regardless of where they work from: home or office.

To improve leadership intelligence as it went along, SAP in Belgium committed to taking the “pulse” of its workforce on a more frequent basis. The need to do this had never been greater than when under the unique set of changes created by the pandemic. To assess the mood within the business, SAP leaders ran a special Pulse Check Remote Work survey across the business. This has been a common feature of Top Employers worldwide – even before the pandemic took hold, over half (55%) were consistently conducting “Pulse” surveys or “Mood” barometers of this sort, in addition to yearly employee engagement surveys.

At AkzoNobel in Brazil, leadership development programmes have been upgraded to digital versions. Many modules have been broken down into smaller elements or “nudges” to cope with new leadership scenarios. Several new virtual facilitators at AkzoNobel have been trained in these new formats. In addition, monthly content has been curated alongside a digital newsletter that consolidates leadership and management best practice. Finally, leadership training modules for three skills areas (resilience, emotional intelligence and digital) have been introduced and developed.

What does your organisation’s long-term remote working policy look like for the future and anticipated return to the workplace?

Wyeth Nutrition in China gave us an early insight into what a post-pandemic remote working policy could look like for leaders. It invited its top management team in China to join a programme “Boss Online” on their second day back at work. This proved popular, with leaders answering questions from the audience as employees returned to work, the impact of COVID-19 on business targets and future strategies, as well as how to tackle more tactical day-to-day issues. Transparent communication between leaders and employees helped to reinforce trust during this crucial phase of the return to “normality”.

PepsiCo in Germany has implemented a new mobile working policy, based on survey input received from employees. This gives its employees at headquarters the chance, with the agreement of their manager, to work a minimum of 3 days and a maximum of 5 days a week remotely. However, this is voluntary - if employees prefer to come to the office 5 days a week this is still possible.

AkzoNobel in Brazil has had a formal home office policy of 2 days per week in place for its admin employees in Brazil since 2019. The ongoing presence of Covid-19 in Brazil and regular disruption to working life has resulted in the business considering reviewing its policy to make it more flexible. The business has also recently opened its new headquarters for South America, with additional seats now available to enable employees from our other business units to work there.


There has been a clear need for leaders to create a high-trust environment with their teams during the pandemic. Even in those countries where the pandemic is now abating, there is no reason why the gains made from new leadership initiatives, the adjustments made along the way and the adaptation to a largely remote working environment should not continue to be realised and improved upon.

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Covid-19 revisited: Leadership

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