Research identifies organizational resilience factors

​When COVID-19 hit the world in 2020, some organizations fell to their knees, closing their doors and laying off employees. Others have been able to weather the storm of a pandemic. Why have some been able to better survive – and sometimes thrive – in the face of adversity?

A study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Gap International published on June 14 found that having prepared leaders who can quickly assess the implications of the crisis, act quickly and engage key staff members and their networks was essential to help organizations overcome the challenges of the pandemic. Research also found that employees can cope better with stress and change when their supervisors and work groups practice inclusivity.

“A resilient organization can sustain the workforce in a crisis and protect staff and stakeholders,” said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of SHRM. “The best leaders have responded to obstacles with next-level ingenuity – their organizations not only survive, but thrive.

“Leaders can protect their employees and their companies by engaging in timely and continuous communication, removing barriers to employee empowerment, and ensuring their cultures reinforce collaborative and adaptive behaviors.”

The Organizational Resilience results are based on a March survey of 620 senior US leaders.

Resilient organizations have the resources to deal with emergencies. Employers were more likely, for example, to have people working in risk or crisis management. They had strong internal social networks: employees knew where to turn for help, and other people were available to replace them if key workers were unavailable.

Organizations were assigned to one of four categories measured by productivity, finances and employee attitudes before, during and after the pandemic:

  • The prosperous. These businesses performed better after the pandemic compared to their pre-pandemic levels.
  • Persists. They showed little to no change.
  • Survivors. These companies have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
  • Decline. They were functioning less well compared to their pre-pandemic level.

Findings on employee resilience are based on a March survey of 1,007 U.S. employees in professional and non-managerial positions. Employee resilience was rated as low, medium, or high, based on a behavioral measure.

The keys to organizational resilience

Among the factors shared by resilient organizations:

  • Leaders were more likely to make information and expertise accessible to employees and decision makers and to get feedback on the effectiveness of their actions in responding to the pandemic.
  • Leaders broke down bureaucratic barriers, engaged employees to implement change, and more effectively coordinated the functioning of the organization to introduce change.
  • Leaders were more likely to empower employees to use their knowledge in new ways and recognize original thinking.
  • Leaders actively listened to issues before the pandemic hit, had plans for unforeseen situations, and put those plans into practice.
  • Leaders practiced inclusive decision-making and supported inclusive cultures.

By setting standards to value differences, leaders were likely able to draw on diverse experiences and ways of thinking. Inclusive cultures foster a sense of belonging, which can help employees support each other and convince employees to stay with the organization during turbulent times.

Perhaps surprisingly, changing products or services in response to the pandemic did not promote resilience, the report found, nor did the remote or hybrid workforce. There was no evidence that organizations were more resilient whether any of these factors were present or not.

Other factors played a more influential role in an organization’s resilience, according to the report.

“From these results, we see that various companies have changed products and/or services in response to the pandemic. However, the changes do not always equal success,” said Katrina Merlini, researcher, thought leadership, at the SHRM Research Institute. “This is not necessarily surprising, as researchers have estimated that approximately 70% of organizational change efforts fail.

“Changes are more likely to be successful,” she added, “when they are compatible with the culture of the organization and when there are strong change leaders at the helm.”

Keys to Employee Resilience

Employees who worked for supervisors who practiced inclusivity and who worked in inclusive groups may feel more supported, “fostering their coping skills,” the report suggests.

“[Employees] may be more inclined to express their unique ideas and contributions regarding better ways to adapt” when they have a supervisor and work group that appreciates their uniqueness.

Access to team members and social resources, such as communication platforms like Slack, has also contributed to employee resilience during the pandemic. This access fostered camaraderie, allowed workers to share their personal experiences, and provided an outlet for colleagues to help co-workers manage increased workloads, the researchers suggest.

That’s not surprising, said Alex Topakbashian, vice president of Gap International and head of the company’s Breakthrough Diagnostics practice.

“When leaders and teams actively strengthen their relationships, as research shows, they are well prepared to deal with the unexpected,” he said. “Our experience suggests that when we are not faced with the pressure of an externally generated crisis, camaraderie can even serve as a platform to create resilience that propels the organization forward beyond normal and daily results.”

Empathy from leaders also contributes to employee resilience, according to the report. Leaders who understand and care about employees can “mitigate the effects of adversity,” the researchers noted.

But being resilient, they pointed out, does not rest solely on the shoulders of employees or leaders. Resilience must be encouraged and cultivated through organizational culture and resources and through the behavior of the work group and supervisor.

“We may not be able to predict with certainty the next major adverse event,” the researchers conclude in the report. However, these findings “could help senior leaders prepare for and weather the impact of future adversities.”

Aubrey L. Morgan