Americans Impacted by COVID-19 Look for Corporate Leadership and Empathy

The economic shock of COVID-19 is being felt by American workers and retail investors as the country registers 17 million applications for unemployment and absorbs painful stock market losses.

Workers and investors alike are looking for corporate leadership to act decisively to survive the crisis, while positioning their companies for economic recovery. A recent survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by APCO Worldwide offers insights for business leaders and communicators as they work to navigate the weeks and months ahead.

More than half of American workers (53%) have already seen negative effects of the downturn, including layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and wage freezes, reorganizations and shifting employment statuses. Ten percent of employees at large businesses, and a whopping 25% of employees at small businesses, are not confident their company will survive the drop in sales and stay in business.

With these numbers, it is not surprising that six out of 10 workers (62%) are in favor of their employer seeking relief from the federal government’s $2 trillion economic stimulus package.

It is an understatement to say corporate leaders are in a difficult spot. They have to be agile in balancing and communicating different priorities, while demonstrating business leadership and empathy.

Americans expect businesses to do what it takes to maintain their strength and ability to serve customers, while pursuing market opportunities. But in the near term they also expect companies to safeguard employees and help their communities. The goodwill they build now could help later on: three quarters of Americans (74%) said the way a business treats its employees during the COVID-19 pandemic will influence their purchasing decisions.

The public recognizes that actions will be needed to stabilize and rescue impacted industries, and to restructure or find buyers for businesses that are financially distressed. However, nearly one in three (28%) say they haven’t received communications about their employer’s plans to respond to the economic downturn. Communication with employees is critical for keeping a motivated and committed workforce at a time when companies need all resources performing at their best.

It’s also important for companies to keep in mind that employees and consumers have also been hit by a stock market downturn that is devastating personal savings in retirement nest eggs, brokerage and college savings accounts.

Four in ten Americans (41%) with a 401(k) or other investments think they will recover over time but will need to scale back their future expectations; 27% don’t think their long-term future will be affected, but 15% are worried their nest egg may never fully recover.

Most believe an economic recovery that brings back jobs after the pandemic will have the most impact on rebuilding their finances. One-third (33%) believe it will take 12 months or less to recover and another third (32%) think it will take one or two years.

For businesses, that means leaning into value-conscious offerings and flexible service models, while innovating for what people are going to want and need in the “next normal.”

Public companies also need to work hard to deliver a clear message about downside protection and upside potential to analysts and investors: what the company is doing to preserve financial health now, and where it is prioritizing resources to restore value and capture new market opportunities.

Organizations follow the leader, especially in times of crisis. CEOs and C-suite executives need to set the tone at the top and communicate the importance of living the company’s values when it counts most. They need to lead by example, acting with empathy towards stakeholders who are being impacted by an unprecedented situation, and work to create inclusive growth in the difficult recovery ahead.