We are now five months into the public health and economic crises brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now increasingly clear that businesses must adapt to the possibility of a year-long disruption of work.

The Road to Returning to Work Starts with Empathy



Published August 26, 2020 by Iain Fitzpatrick

8 minute read

We are now five months into the public health and economic crises brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now increasingly clear that businesses must adapt to the possibility of a year-long disruption of work. The next several months will likely feature less or, in some cases, no in-office time, reorganized production and distribution facilities, redesigned ways of interacting with customers, curtailed travel, and more. During this time businesses must prepare the workplace for a future that is rushing toward us. Lenin’s famous comment, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,” has resonated with us all recently.


“If there’s any benefit to COVID—it’s brought people together that never talked to really learn together. The rapid sharing of information, [is something] none of us have ever seen before in healthcare.” – Dr. Jim Merlino, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer of the Cleveland Clinic

Over the course of two months, Archetype and the National Center for the Middle Market (NCMM) hosted three roundtables with 58 senior leaders from 20+ middle market organizations from different industries and geographies. Organizations within the middle market often have to deal with the same or similar challenges to those of larger organizations, but with the resources of smaller ones. The COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, has presented uniquely difficult challenges for this sector. The goal of our discussions was to bring together these organizations, helping them share what is working now and discuss with experts, like Dr. Merlino, how to prepare for what’s coming next.

These roundtables were set up as peer sharing events. In keeping with the values of both of our organizations, the events were transparent, fully incorporating the multiple experiences and perspectives of a wide spectrum of leaders.


A strong and consistent initial theme was the extent to which companies managed to pull together “tactical and now” solutions. Organizations all over the country moved quickly and decisively to secure the safety of their employees and continuity of operations. As we bring our employees back into the workplace, creating a plan for regular COVID testing and/or symptom screening upon arrival to work is an absolute necessity.

Several companies have begun investing in various medical technologies to take employees’ temperatures and software to track employee health. Furthermore, they have begun to review and update workplace protocols regarding masks in the office, vacation days, flexibility, etc., to address employee concerns ahead of time. Some employers have also started working on redesigning office space in order to promote social distancing, particularly offices with open spaces.

While we live in a country juggling varied state and local protocols, leaders across the spectrum of conditions faced the need to “get it done” –and got it done. We connected offline with Ray Fabius, leader of an Archetype portfolio company and GE’s Chief Medical Officer during the SARS outbreak in 2002. He shared the perspective that the complexities faced in the rapid transition to remote working are nothing compared to those of returning people to the workplace. Leaders should look for experts in the field of health management that can help guide them.

As more employees return, while some choose to or must stay home, creating a cohesive workforce out of both in-person and virtual employees will prove to be a difficult challenge. To combat this challenge, there are two things you should consider according to the leaders who joined our discussions:

  • Create a task force to gather employee feedback and concerns. This allows you to have a deeper understanding of specific anxieties and issues that need to be addressed to make your employees feel comfortable about the return to work.
  • Don’t be afraid of missteps. Developing protocols and programs requires a trial and error mindset to figure out which tactics work best for your team internally. As long as you are transparent, your team will thank you for the efforts you are putting in.


The economic impact of COVID is undeniable and potentially not even fully realized yet. The pain from this recession could be felt for years to come, and businesses should be ready for this to be a central point of operations long after the lockdowns are over. Furthermore, NCMM has found that more than half of the middle market sought and received government and private-sector financing. Employers have critically evaluated high-cost areas and have begun to research potential alternatives. A consensus from our discussions showed the following actions have proved valuable to businesses regardless of size or sector.

  • Evaluate your space needs, and where possible, negotiate with your landlords on rent. The virtual era has suddenly given tenants more leverage for their office spaces, facilities, warehouses, and more.
  • Spend time on identifying the highest financial pain points and see what new solutions the market has to offer. Finding innovation partners like Archetype, or another organization, can help you speed up growth despite a reduced capacity.

According to NCMM’s COVID-19 and the Middle Market: 2Q 2020 study, mid-market companies were operating at 67% of capacity as of early June 2020. The average time executives expect it will take to be back at full capacity rose from 4.6 months in March to 6 months in June. Despite this downturn in capacity, some leaders are hyper-focused on keeping up to date on what unique challenges their employees are now facing. Retaining exceptional talent in a virtual work environment is going to be exceedingly important as the barrier of work location breaks down for almost every business. Employees and applicants now have more opportunities than ever before. Being aware of how your employees are feeling and operating will help combat the potential cost of finding new talent.


The core principle expressed, throughout all of our discussions, was the need to design with empathy to discover innovative ways to meet employee needs and those of the business. That is, for leaders to truly put themselves in the positions of colleagues at all levels and customers of all kinds.

Leaders recognized that a financial-only approach to the new reality is a path to value destruction.

They saw that putting employees and customers first, listening, and responding to their needs as the way to create the energy, momentum, investment, commitment, productivity, and loyalty needed to thrive going forward. Keeping employees engaged and motivated to create value for your business will require diligence and ensuring productivity standards may require adaptations including new software and planning strategies. A recent IBM study of 25,000 workers found that 54% would like the opportunity to work remotely full time and a Gartner survey reported that 74% of companies plan to permanently increase remote working post-pandemic.

Plan for what your workforce needs. Not only is this the smart and right thing to do – to do otherwise is to ignore reality. We are not going “back to normal,” new or otherwise; we are going forward to something different. NCMM’s research shows that more than 80% of middle market executives expect to make significant and long-lasting changes in how they organize their work, workplaces, and the ways they interact with customers. That certainly will include more remote work. But it will be equally important for companies to reconcile remote work with the value of sharing knowledge and ideas “at the water cooler,” as we used to say. Company cultures will need to address the fact that remote work may be possible for only a fraction of a workforce. Hiring, onboarding, teaming, learning—all these are elements of culture that are critical to value-creation for customers and need to be accounted for while planning.

Some unique, community-building approaches that leaders have adapted for this virtual environment are things like hosting virtual happy hours for employees and even sending care packages with beverages and artisanal snacks. In addition, employers have begun to develop productivity strategies by introducing various challenges, investing in productivity software with metric dashboards, and sprint planning. A few key trends we noted from our discussions were:

  • Frequent communications regarding workplace response and plans in many formats keep employees engaged.
  • Hosting virtual events to provide a social outlet for employees has been successful. Employees learn more about each other and connect by inviting spouses and children to join in.
  • Decisive leadership is valued, but only when combined with empathy and understanding.

The principle that the pandemic has shown us is the need to accentuate our humanity.


So what do we do with this – how do you win the future? Every business is at a different step in the process. Some organizations are still handling the “get this done” need to make sure employees feel safe. Some executives are seeking how to utilize this time to innovate and are looking for ways to grow despite limited capacity. All organizations are focused on how to retain their talent and maintain the culture that has made them so successful. What’s clearer today than ever before is that empathy shapes innovation for employees as well as for customers. Those companies that use this value to design innovative hybrid physical/digital workplaces, products, and cultures will reap the short and long-term benefits for their business and its people.