One10 developed a Work Your Way program five years ago that allows employees to set their own schedules and workspace — whether it's the office, home or a coffee shop.

"Our commitment to trust, respect and fairness allowed us to develop this program that was not only equitable for all employees but leads to highly effective business outcomes," said Bob Miller, CEO of the brand marketing firm with a workforce of 179.

So when COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. in March and states including Minnesota enacted stay-at-home orders, One10 had already conquered one obstacle that many other companies faced. That allowed its leaders to focus on the economic disruptions that the pandemic caused.

The pandemic put company officials across the state and nation into crisis-management mode as the theme of the year turned from growth to uncertainty, testing leadership across the board. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day added another layer of uncertainty as a national conversation on equity has emerged.

The upper hand that Top Workplaces winners might have in a crisis-management situation is that they have a culture that values communication and employee innovation, according to this year's employee surveys.

That culture is fundamental to building a business that can be innovative and growth-driven, said Mary Grove, a Minnesota venture capitalist and keynote speaker for the Star Tribune Top Workplaces event on June 24. Grove spent 15 years at Google, six of them as a leader of its entrepreneurship program.

The disruption caused by the pandemic — and the more recent push for racial justice after the death of George Floyd — is a chance to enhance a company's workplace culture, basing it on innovation from the ground up and data-driven tracking.

Teamwork and communication have been harder than ever as companies have switched to telecommuting, but "muscle memory" is strong and the lessons can be used to build a new structure as offices reopen, Grove said.

Many leaders among Top Workplaces' special-award winners also see this as a window of opportunity to improve both themselves as managers and their workplaces.

"If you don't already, show your human side with employees. Crisis situations are stressful and may result in difficult business decisions," said Miller, whose company ranked 41st among midsize businesses on the Top Workplaces list. "Continue to make employees feel valued and appreciated as you remind them you are doing the best you can with their well-being at the center."

Listening to others

Jerry Baack, CEO of Bridgewater Bank and winner of one of this year's leadership awards, said that during a crisis, it is essential to have a vision for your organization and be transparent about what the goals are, prioritize action steps, clearly assign responsibilities and always reward success.

A positive attitude also is important, even though tough business decisions or conversations might be ahead, he said.

Now more than ever, he said, it is important for an organization to let everyone have a voice, said Baack, whose bank ranked 29th on the list of midsize businesses.

"I am just one voice in this organization, and I am also human. I am a white male in a leadership role, so I will be honest when I say I have a lot to learn," he said. "I am one person, and not an expert when it comes to pandemics or race relations. I like to think my leadership style of people-first means I am taking this time to listen to others."

Through these talks, and with the communication skills learned during the pandemic and economic downturn, companies can inform a culture of both inclusion and innovation.

"Fundamentally that boils down to two things: trust and transparency," Grove said. Companies must trust employees and give them the power to try new things that may fail.

"If it doesn't work, make a course correction," she said.

The key is doing what must be done in the crisis, communicating in a straightforward way, and then finding opportunities for the future in what may seem a morass.

"COVID-19 and the equity discussions around George Floyd are opportunities to do better and be better. Instead of focusing on the negativity, let's look for opportunities to be better leaders, better partners, better parents, better co-workers and just better people overall," said Evan Francen, CEO of FRSecure and winner of the leadership award for small businesses. "Let's hope we don't waste these opportunities to effect real and positive change."

An organization needs to be responsive to employees' needs, for example in crisis times making sure they have the support structure both at work and at home to be the best worker they can be, Francen said.

That care comes first, but not at the expense of taking a hard financial look at the business as well, he said. A company needs to check how much cash is on hand and then come up with a plan for stability in the short term. It also needs to assess if it can deliver what was promised to clients. For the long term, brand equity is important as is an assessment of whether the market for products will change.

Francen believes his servant-leadership style of managing, based on his religious beliefs, has helped him do the hard work while keeping his staff and customers front of mind.

Values front and center

Paul Blom, CEO of Right at Home, which is this year's "Doers" award winner, said a servant-leadership philosophy also has helped him navigate COVID-19, especially since the home-care agency's employees were deemed essential workers.

His employees counted on him and his team to provide the most accurate information about the virus and how to protect themselves from it. Blom said procuring personal protective equipment from the beginning was key to his employees' trust, as well as "overcommunicating" the most recent updates.

The unrest following George Floyd's death added more immediate issues for Right at Home, because some of its caregivers and clients lived in the area around Lake Street, the epicenter of looting and violence in the week after Floyd's death.

Making sure that access was safe, transportation was solid and employees and clients had what they needed are key in a situation like that, he and other leaders said.

In a crisis, an organization's values move to the front and center, said Sean Chuah, regional director of operations for Panda Restaurant Group, winner of the special award for "Clued-In Senior Management."

Panda's philosophy nationally is "people first," and that translates to putting both employees and customers at the forefront of decisions. Relying on that was a clear direction for Panda during both the Great Recession and the pandemic, Chuah said.

"I learned that regardless of the situation, always focus on the fundamentals of our business," he said.

Some of Panda's locations shut down because of stay-at-home orders meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Panda did not furlough anyone, and in regions where restaurants stayed open, the company invested $25 million for enhanced pay and benefits and safety measures at the restaurants.

"During times of crisis, leading with care is essential to ensure people's well-being," Chuah said.

People first

Retail consultant J.L. Buchanan, which won the "New Ideas" special award, has been a "results-only environment" for more than 10 years, said interim CEO Lana Jones. That means the company evaluates employees on what they do, not where they are, which helped when its employees had to start working from home and changing the way they interacted with clients.

"Put your people first and trust them," she said. At the same time, an organization in a crisis needs to reduce as much fear and anxiety as possible through good communication and a strong mission.

In that vein, as a business adjusts to the reality of any downturn, it needs to avoid "ready-fire-aim," meaning it needs to make sure that short-term adjustments aren't detrimental to long-term goals, Jones said.

"Be transparent, collaborative and caring. People are smart, intuitive, and know what is happening in times of crisis," she said. "Bring them into the discussions and decisions as much as possible. Even if they are personally impacted, and may certainly not like the outcome, they will understand how you got there."

J.D. Harris, CEO of information technology firm Ascent Solutions, winner of the "Values" special award, also stressed that a company cannot undercommunicate during times of crisis.

"The biggest lesson I learned from the Great Recession that I've leveraged now is that we need to be very planful for all scenarios, good and bad, growth or otherwise," he said. "However, we also need to make decisions based on what we know today — not on ­speculation for the future. So far, that has served me and Ascent well and helped us to not over-rotate one way or another."

If you plan for both positive and negative scenarios, a firm has room to make sound decisions in a crisis, to "breathe and make a plan" instead of panic, Harris said. Those decisions must be based in stark facts, and leadership must continue to push people toward their specific goals.

"We underestimate too often how intelligent and motivated our teams are," said Harris, who adheres to data-driven evaluation.

A crisis, if managed in people-centered ways, can bring out the best in employees to lead a company forward, said Bridgewater Bank's Baack.

And as companies evaluate future workplace policies, employees and leaders alike will know they can speak honestly about what works best for them.

"I have learned that I was not meant to work from home," Baack said. "While I love my kids and my wife, I really like my office and the energy of our team. I'm counting down the days to the opening of our new corporate center on Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park and getting our team back together under one roof."

Catherine Roberts • 612-673-4292