By Ammara Naeem, Senior HR Auditor,Top Employers Institute
By Ammara Naeem, Senior HR Auditor,Top Employers Institute

Leadership in a COVID-19 world

Courageous leadership has been a prominent topic as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded. Even before the current crisis, 94% of the 1 600 certified Top Employer organisations held their business leaders accountable for modelling expected behaviours in the workplace through their thoughts, words, and deeds. To lead by example – and to be seen to do so - has never been more important.

It is also a time when the definition of good leadership itself is on a journey. There is a clear move toward a more team-based approach to decision making. Leaders today are not only accountable to their shareholders, their executive peers and their KPIs, but also to those who work for them. Over 90% of Top Employers also make sure that their leaders are evaluated by employees as a key part of their development.

The following examples show how Top Employers have stepped up their leadership to help motivate and engage their people during the pandemic: 

PepsiCo (Germany): Leaders staying close to their teams

PepsiCo uses a transparent approach to leadership to keep its employees motivated and engaged during the crisis. Every Friday, its entire company in Germany gathers in a virtual “townhall” meeting. During these sessions, leaders give updates on the state of the business and its people. The leadership team also shares experiences around how it is dealing with the pandemic on a personal level and employees get the chance to ask questions openly. Teams are encouraged by leaders to meet for a virtual “wake-up” coffee every morning and try to stay in touch with each other – whether for business reasons or a quick catch-up in a virtual break.

Leaders (both local and global - and including the CEO) have put an emphasis on staying very close to teams in spite of physical separation. PepsiCo initiated a regular newsletter with the main news about the virus, new ways of working and guidelines as well as support for employees.

PepsiCo’s internal communication thereby is focused on transparency, support and an open dialogue. 

Akzo Nobel (Brazil): Not only what you say, but the way that you say it

Akzo Nobel in Brazil has been guiding leaders in the way they communicate with teams, as much as what they actually say. For example, leaders are being encouraged to opt for video conferencing or Facetime ahead of other forms of team communication and create WhatsApp groups for better social contact and communication within teams. And more virtual “face-to-face” meetings, especially for those employees living alone.

The length of those meetings is also changing. Leadership teams are breaking long meetings into shorter “bite sized” units to reflect the realities of working from home, as well as organising quick check-in/check-out sessions at the start and end of the day with the team of around 15 minutes. This latter format can be really helpful for staff to stay up-to-date and minimise isolation. The shorter length of meetings is also reflected in the way objectives are set, with leaders encouraged to set clear, short-term goals and encourage feedback in both directions.

Mitie (UK): Dedicated teams to tackle unique challenges

The agile response of Mitie’s UK leadership team is a great blueprint for others to follow. It has set up a national Critical Incident Team (CIT) to judge and act upon risks to individuals, and to react promptly and effectively to disruption when needed. The CIT includes senior management from its Cleaning, Security, Risk, Engineering, Energy and Landscaping operations, along with its internal infrastructure and operations teams. The Energy team, for example, is working with customers to optimise power usage for the many buildings with fluctuating occupancy rates.

SAP (Belgium): Leaders take the “pulse” of the workforce

SAP in Belgium are holding two meetings of their Crisis Management Team per week. Discussion areas include Life Safety, Assets, Business Operations and Reputation. In addition, there is one meeting of the Communication Task Force per week and two “Corona Express” meetings every two days with HRDs in the region. The objectives of these meetings are an exchange of good practices, content … and fun.

The need to take the “pulse” of the workforce has never been greater than when placed under the unique set of pressures created by the pandemic. So to assess the mood within the business, SAP leaders are running a special Pulse Check Remote Work survey across the business. This is a typical 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 their full yearly employee engagement surveys.

Wyeth Nutrition (China): A glimpse of post-pandemic leadership

Leadership has also played a vital role in a part of the world that is hopefully over the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak. Wyeth Nutrition invited China’s top management team to join a programme “Boss Online” on their second day of the back-to-work. This proved popular, with the programme attracting over 8 300 viewers and receiving over 3 600 comments. Leaders answered questions from the audience covering updated prevention measures as employees returned to work, the impact of COVID-19 on business targets and strategies for the rest of the year, as well as how to tackle more tactical day-to-day issues. Transparent communication between leaders and employees is helping to reinforce trust during this crucial phase of the return to “normality”.


In the current climate, there is a clear need for leaders to create a high-trust environment with employees through a more transparent, collective and positive style of leadership. The crisis has also meant a redoubling of the efforts of leaders to recognise the engagement and contribution of employees in their completely new work context. It has become more important to celebrate successes, listen carefully, show empathy and allow employees to have the right to express their personal feelings in what is clearly a difficult situation for all. And, when the current pandemic is over, we hope these positive behaviours will be retained and reinforced by leaders all over the world.