How To Be (or Become) Human-Centered in a Crisis

How To Be (or Become) Human-Centered in a Crisis

How To Be (or Become) Human-Centered in a Crisis 2560 1707 Diana Sonis

Originally, this was meant to be a different post. We wanted to celebrate companies that matter to our daily lives; those meaningful, human-centered businesses that make an impact in their local communities and the world at large.

Then, the world went to sh*t. COVID-19 happened.

As we watched our clients and other businesses across industries struggle to comprehend what COVID-19 means for their business operations, supply chains, and most importantly their people (customers and employees), we noticed a visible line in the sand between businesses who are human-centered in a crisis and those who’ve been reluctant to implement these in the past.

Winners are emerging, even as they’re hurting.

Human-centered, meaningful businesses are faster to take care of their employees and customers in every possible way. They:

Connect with their customers and employees on a deeper, emotional level as they communicate faster and in approachable, human language.

Relax entrenched policies, procedures, and processes faster when in crisis. Human-centered businesses put “what needs to be done right now” ahead of “what we always do.” They prioritize the humans surrounding their business ahead of time.

Understand their place in the larger ecosystem. The leaders of human-centered companies understand that they’re a part of both an internal ecosystem (the insular world of their business operations and the dynamics of their employees) and an external ecosystem (the larger outside world in which their company lives including their local community, their industry, and the world at large). One caveat here: it’s really hard to start doing this in times of crisis when emotions are running high. But, because these leaders practiced being human-centered before COVID-19, they are prepared and proactive. A reactive mindset is a dangerous thing.

Pivot their operations with agility toward new, innovative ways of making money, even while the physical world is at a standstill. Some businesses that depend on foot traffic or in-person revenue streams are quickly able to provide online, remote, or curbside services.


Because they’ve been human-centered for so long that they immediately know how to be human-centered in a crisis. These businesses know what their customers and employees need. They are able to deliver not just the product, but a dose of comfort and delight in trying times.

Say it, but also do what you say.

Most companies have put out (somewhat generic) statements of solidarity. That’s cool. It’s nice that management understands how difficult this time might be on their customers and employees. But, being human-centered in a crisis goes a step beyond the “required.”

Let’s take a look at what we mean here:

One example is Goettl Air Conditioning and Plumbing, a leading provider of HVAC and plumbing services in the Southwest United States. The company is spending $1.5 million to install Ultra Violet (UV) germicidal lights in the homes of more than 600 employees. CEO Ken Goodrich announced:

“Our technicians are putting their own well-being and safety second to serve their communities,” said Goodrich. “I want them to know how much we appreciate their unwavering dedication and bravery by giving them a product that will hopefully provide their own families with invaluable peace of mind during these uncertain times.”

Should a company be spending right now? Maybe not. But, this is long-term, proactive thinking here. If the company doesn’t take care of its employees, there is no company to operate. The appreciation is not just lip service; there is concrete action to back it up.

Another example is Lodge Bread Company. The company committed to serving their local community in Los Angeles as much as they can without putting their employees or customers at risk. Much of their business depends on people visiting the shop. They, like many retail businesses, are especially hard hit in this new social distancing world. Yet, look at some of their (very human) communications throughout this ordeal.

“We are here for you, full bore and ready to go – you can count on us. We will run out of stuff, but attempt to look cool at doing so.”

“Thank you for granting us a week tof getting our minds together and allowing our teams to re-group.”

Lodge Bread company eventually decided to close their doors for the time being. Not because there is a lack of customers beating down their door for bread, but because of the need to pause and reassess how to continue without compromising the physical or mental health of their people. Smart.

How can you implement human-centered practices ASAP?

If you have yet to adopt a human-centered approach in your company, here are some ideas for quick wins:

1. As much as possible, use your core business capabilities to respond to a crisis. Divert some operations towards creating things needed on the frontlines; masks, protective clothing, donated food, or even free services for the people who must go out to work. You’ll generate so much goodwill in the eyes of your customers, employees, and the society at large that your business will be reaping benefits for years to come.

For example, 3M is donating the necessary equipment to fight COVID-19 and educating the public on the difference between respirators and masks. LVMH quickly shifted from making luxury perfume to producing hand sanitizer for French hospitals.

2. Think empathy, instead of costs. We can’t emphasize this enough. How a company treats its employees in normal times is important. How a company treats its employees during a crisis, however, is a true test of its mission and purpose. Lyft, a car-share service whose drivers are contractors, has committed to providing financial assistance to its drivers should they test positive for COVID-19 and/or quarantined.

3. Communication is key. Be human. Strong brands have a strong brand image. The guidelines that come along with that are often rigid. While “brand voice” is important, stepping out of the polish of everyday to show vulnerability makes your business relatable, and therefore human. Humanity inspires customer loyalty in the long run. See the Lodge Bread Company example above.

4. System problems require system solutions. Notice where systemic breakdowns are in your business during this time of crisis. Where are the gaps in proactively responding to the needs of customers and employees? The time to think about customer experience gaps was before this crisis hit. But, it’s not a lost cause. Be proactive now. Notice where systems are breaking down, and work on rebuilding them to be more human-centered and stronger when the next crisis hits.

We are all hurting right now.

There is a lot of collective pain on a personal level. We’re not good at social distancing, nor are we the best at spending ALL of our time with our closest family members. Every day is groundhog day for us all.

If you’re a business owner or manager, you also have to figure out how to move forward in an environment not seen since the 1918 Spanish Flu. Some days you’re on fire, and other days it feels like solving critical problems is the last thing you’d like to do. We empathize. It’s a lot.

Take one step at a time. You can do this. We will get out of it. Not tomorrow, but eventually. And, as a business leader, you have a choice.

You can stay the course, business as usual. You will scramble again when another crisis hits. But, at least the boat is not rocking in a time of great uncertainty. No need to make changes. You’ll probably be fine.

Or, you can look at this unprecedented time as a time of unprecedented opportunity. Instead of scrambling to understand what needs to be done, followed by generic actions no one resonates with, you can take immediate, proactive action by implementing and adhering to human-centered operational practices at ALL times.

Assess your business with a sober, awake mindset. Take the steps towards making your business essential, meaningful, human-centered, and one that deserves loyalty in good or bad times.

We can do better than merely adapting to a new environment — we can thrive by shaping it.

And, if you run into questions about how to be human-centered in a crisis, we got you.

About the author

Diana Sonis

Diana is a passionate believer in holistic, 360 strategy and design, with extensive expertise in UX Design, CX Design, Service Design, and the Design Thinking methodology.

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