On March 10, 2020, Terracon’s leadership team arrived in Houston, TX for the first safety leadership team meeting of the year. Watching the seriousness of the threat posed by COVID-19 increase by the hour, Terracon made the decision to be one of the first major engineering firms in the U.S. cease normal in-office operations and begin closing offices for all but critical personnel to slow the spread of the virus. By the morning of March 11, CEO Gayle Packer had made the decision to direct most of the company’s 4,000 employees to transition to working from home. Packer appointed Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Mike Yost to head up the newly-formed COVID task force, which for the last 15 months has guided the organization through a breakneck pace of change never before been seen in the 55 years since the company’s founding.
Pandemic response is certainly different from other fast-paced initiatives. Deep-seated fear of the unknown provides unusually strong motivation for people to listen to and act on guidance handed down from above. “When we were speaking, everyone was paying attention,” Yost notes. “The circumstances gave us a mandate at those early stages.” For better or worse, other efforts to change organizational culture facing less novel risks are more likely to be met with resistance. Still, response to COVID-19 was a proving ground for many organizations attempting behavior and culture change on an expedited timeline and we would do well to take forward lessons learned not only for future pandemic responses but also for other less-enormous behavioral safety initiatives.
Keys to success
- Work from shared values. As the leader of a team charged with steering a ship that was already moving fast and still picking up steam, Yost is clear that Terracon’s company values were key to keeping the task force on the same page, especially in early stages. “This is why it’s so important to name your values before something like this happens,” he observes. Even though values only came up explicitly for the first time when the company started communicating the “why” behind new policies and protocols to employees, Yost credits them as the philosophical foundation for the entire response strategy. For Terracon, an employee-owned company with more than 200 offices across the U.S., this meant the primary goal was keeping people safe and keeping them employed. Though it was sometimes a challenge to balance those two aims, it was far easier than navigating an indeterminant list of unspoken and possibly unshared priorities. Terracon’s long-standing commitment to safety also meant that at least one thing stayed consistent when the rest of the world was thrown into tumult: “We had the value of safety baked into our DNA so our emergency response was a confirmation of things we had been doing for years. That was a huge advantage.”
- Look two steps ahead. As days turned into weeks, the race was on to anticipate and plan for each scenario before it played out in real time. “Nobody had gotten COVID yet,” Yost observes, “but we knew someone was going to.” The task force at Terracon worked through a list that Yost started on a simple yellow legal pad, striving to communicate a response plan to people before an inciting incident. This effort was mostly successful and where it was not, there was a strong focus on parlaying lessons learned into a new plan which was shared immediately to prevent others from facing that same scenario without one.
- Maintain constant communication. Terracon’s Executive Committee went from meeting once every 6 weeks to meeting twice each week, just one of several key decision-making groups that stepped up their frequency of meeting. Thanks to this change, Yost and his team were able to go from plan to leadership buy-in to execution in a matter of days instead of weeks or months. The process wasn’t without misfires, but the cadence of communication made it possible to move much more quickly under urgent circumstances. Additionally, while it’s unlikely the twice-weekly cadence will continue in perpetuity, Yost anticipates a lasting increase from once every 6 weeks.
- Try all-company town halls. Getting all 150 offices on a call at the same time allowed everyone to hear a consistent message right from the source and kept the ongoing pandemic response a priority, even after case rates passed their peak. Calls focused on giving people the actionable information and acknowledging uncertainty where it persisted at any given time. It also provided assurance that people were working on solutions to their future problems, even if the solution was not yet figured out, so the offices knew they wouldn’t have to figure it out on their own. Terracon hasn’t gone more than two months without an all-company town hall since March 2020. Most calls are followed by office hours the next week where subject matter experts were available to answer questions about the message from the prior week.
- Work from data. Like most organizations doing their best to keep up with changing guidance at local, state, and federal levels, Terracon adjusted protocols as our understanding of COVID and its contagion dynamics developed. This meant moving away from emphasizing wiping down desks or door handles and focusing instead on mitigators for airborne contagion. Summarized in three words: mask, distance, time. More than 200,000 projects completed with only around 10 suspected onsite transmissions was proof that wearing masks, keeping distanced, and limiting time spent around others were effective in preventing the spread of the virus. Those metrics served as evidence for established mitigators even when those same protective measures started to get politicized—“Look, this is keeping us safe, so that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
- Prioritize transparency. “Very early on, we got comfortable telling people ‘If we don’t know, we don’t know,’” Yost says. Even when it might have been easier to hazard a guess to give people some sense of a date for a return to the office, for example, leadership resisted the urge to guess when they couldn’t truly predict. They opted instead to make clear the missing steps or pieces of information which, once in place, would support progress towards a decision point and providing assurance that as soon as the company had an answer or solution, they would know. This prevented the degradation of trust and morale that comes with changing timelines and served as a reminder to the organization that the task force was not some impersonal omniscient force but was made up of real people doing their best with limited information.
Even with all these strategies in place, Yost characterizes COVID response as a massive exercise in figuring out which parts of the equation to hold tightly and which to let be looser. Following the model made popular by Peters and Waterman, tight elements are characterized by clear directives from leadership which outline requirements and invite very little input from the rank and file, whereas loose elements require more critical engagement and leave room for discretion where and when the rubber meets the road. Balancing the loose and tight properties of organizational change is a tall enough order even on the best of days and it was made all the more complicated by the need to navigate the breakneck speed of change. In practice, situations of great uncertainty start with very tight directives, which can become looser as more data becomes available. Yost and his task force recognized early on that they needed to start tight while most people were still reeling from the shock and fear of the growing pandemic, but that it would be important to loosen up and ask employees for more critical engagement so that plans dreamed up at corporate headquarters could be calibrated and refined to local operational contexts. Loosening the system helped to generate buy-in and allowed for the self-direction and self-correction needed to stay agile and sustainable.
As much as “unprecedented” seemed to be the word of 2020, the successful methods and strategies created under the pressure of a novel threat are not niche. Working from shared values, looking two steps ahead, maintaining constant communication including all-company town halls, working from data, and prioritizing transparency are all relevant to other efforts to foment organizational change, especially on a tight timeline.