Covid and corporate kindness: what does it look like?

Matt Dean




“Kindness unlocks our shared humanity and is central for our mental health. It has the potential to bring us together with benefits for everyone, particularly at times of great stress.”

Whether Covid-19 has a dramatic impact on how (and where) we work remains to be seen. Each one of us that has the power to bring about changes in how we work. That’s how society changes. 

Busyness has  been how we have lived our lives in the last decade. Busyness has  shaped our work patterns and interactions. Think about it: whenever you’ve asked a work contact  how things are,  invariably their response has included the word  busy!  Leaders I work with one to one always blame a lack of time for their failure properly to connect with their people. 

Following a period of enforced reflection, possibly one that has involved a focus on our own mortality, surely busyness's pre-eminent position in setting the tone is going to be threatened.  What will replace it? Kindness is certainly front and centre during the crisis. The NHS symbolises caring and kindness. A British Red Cross TV advert: what did you do?  has aired regularly in recent weeks – suggesting that it's  kindness that keeps us together and that  every kind act matters. 

  In a direct response to Covid-19 the Mental Health Foundation have announced that kindness (rather than sleep) will be the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 (from May 18th).  

I have been a corporate kindness advocate for the last decade and a half spent working in the sort of corporates and firms where compassion as a way of behaving is often in short supply.  In 2014 we recognised that the purpose of  byrne·dean  is kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces.  Last year my first book  The Soft Stuff was published, subtitled  reclaiming kindness for the world of work.  

I’ve thought long and hard about what kindness looks like, about what is actually required day to day to transform our workplaces.  I’m always at pains to point out that kindness isn’t about being soft: the hardest messages, involve honesty about performance and they are the kindest. But they’re often avoided.    

Giving my first keynote on kindness I was (inevitably) challenged to create a kindness tool. I did! It has three ascending levels. I don’t want to divulge the whole tool away in a blog, but please contact me if you want to see it. Broadly the levels involve displaying basic courtesy and manners (which surprisingly few people do), focusing on the impact you have and becoming someone with whom others want to share certain inner emotions. What’s most interesting to me is how this third level is suddenly more attainable in a Covid world; how we have been offered an opportunity to grasp the humanising moment. How many leaders will take this opportunity? 

My tool primarily focuses workplace interactions. It also touches on corporate decision making. Last year a stellar participant in one of my sessions encapsulated the current experience of decision making in many organisations.  In our sessions we ask participants to use two lenses: engagement  and risk. On being introduced to the lenses the participant said:   

"I think that here we are very good at  talking about  engagement, about how people feel. Right up until we take the decisions that impact on people. That’s when we put those red [risk] lens glasses on – we look at how much it will cost, at whether someone can sue us."  

That could have been said in so many of the places I'm working – certainly prior the massive humanising opportunity that Covid-19 represents. I fear that we’ll revert to that decision making too. That we’ll focus on consequences and the risk rather than on the emotional and human impact. It’s what we’ve been schooled to do, even though all employment problems are emotional problems.   

My keynotes are all about the choice we all have: to make that leap of faith – in how we treat others and the decisions we make about them. Why would you make that leap?  

I'm sure like many businesses our projected volumes crumbled in late February and early March. We're fundamentally a business that gets people together in rooms. That’s not ideal at the moment. We'd been here before though: in 2008/9 clients disappeared overnight, volumes crumbled to the same extent. The phone stopped ringing: sometimes for years.   

How did we get through? We focused on our mission and values, on treating the people well. I also got ill in 2009. I was out of the business for five or six months. On my return, one conversation with a colleague stands out. I thanked her for going above and beyond, for helping us get through. Her response was simple:  

"it's hardly surprising that people have stood up is it: you get back what you put in."  

That's the key. It’s byrne·dean’s simple core and it’s what we talk to clients about every day:  

  1.  If you want to  keep productivity high: trust people, focus on the soft stuff – on wellbeing, on looking after each other (on hope, honesty, humanity and shared pain) and on leadership that prioritises  individual connection, that focuses on the human impact of decisions.    
  2. If you want to  strengthen culture:  know your purpose and be guided by your values. Crises are defining moments for leaders and for values statements. It's easy to lose perspective in  a  crisis. The  people (and organisations) that do best begin with the end in mind and they don’t lose sight of it. What story do you want to be told? They’ll be telling it for a long time - how do you want to be remembered?  
  3. You will have to  cut cost. Focus on protecting what people value most and add value in low cost ways - with human connection.  People will probably have to go. Treat them with genuine respect, explain the fairness inherent in your process. Listen to what they say.   

At  byrne·dean  we've spent a lot of time developing our ideas in these three areas.  Please call us – we do genuinely love helping people within organisations who see the value in this stuff.