When Business as Usual is Unusual, What Do You Do?

DFJ Growth
DFJ Growth News
Published in
4 min readJul 9, 2020


By Carol Wentworth, Marketing Partner, and Jen Kodner, Talent Partner

When state-ordered lockdowns forced an abrupt shutdown across much of the nation, businesses scrambled to manage through the COVID-19 health crisis and transition their operations online. But there was no playbook to help figure out the best strategy in a world suddenly turned upside down by the pandemic. Nothing — not the great financial recession in 2007–09, the 2000 dot-com bubble and bust, or even the Great Depression in the 1930s — had prepared us for what was to come.

Instead, it has been a time for constant improvisation as organizations discover through trial-and-error what works and what doesn’t. We wanted to find out more about what was happening on the ground, so we turned to Katie Uhlman (Head of Global Communications, Patreon) and Nurit Shiber (Chief People Officer, Sisense), to hear how they are navigating through this transition.

As they considered the intricacies of moving all staff online overnight, they each offered tips during our leadership webinar series.

Remember Your North Star

Patreon did the impossible. With the cancellation of South by Southwest (SXSW), the Patreon team took nine months of rigorous conference and concert planning and in nine days turned it into a dynamic and highly curated live stream event watched by 21,000 people. They did it all from their respective homes.

Katie Uhlman (Head of Global Communications, Patreon)

“When I say that we’re adaptable and fast-moving, that’s basically an understatement,” says Uhlman. “We were asking people to literally turn on a dime in the middle of a global pandemic.” The team accomplished their goal by staying in very close contact throughout each day where there were ups, downs, and a lot of unknowns.

According to Uhlman, “There were a lot of times when you saw Slack messages along the lines of, ‘What are we actually doing right now and does this matter?’” But the team knew it mattered and that it especially mattered for the Patreon creators. Being a purpose-driven organization compelled the team to pull together and focus on the big picture. Their commitment resulted in not only a memorable event; the team also raised more than $42,000 in donations for their creators which Patreon matched.

The team successfully took three days of content planned for SXSW and turned it into three hours of programming. “The dry run was a technical disaster, but for some reason on the big day, nothing went wrong,” says Uhlman. There were four panels going and many different Zoom sessions. “It was definitely chaotic but people were so engaged and it was exactly what we hoped to achieve.”

More Meetings of the Minds? You Betcha

All participants in the webinar agreed that in order to maintain continuity and informed decision-making, it’s essential for the heads of different corporate functions to meet on a regular basis. Even if you don’t think you have anything specific to talk about, get together — if only to ask — what’s needed now? It’s extremely helpful and contributes to an overall positive team spirit across the company.

Nurit Shiber (Chief People Officer, Sisense)

How you communicate is also important. “It’s critical for leaders to demonstrate what I call human-centric leadership and be very visible. We need to lead with empathy in everything we do,” says Shiber.

At Sisense there’s a weekly CEO video that’s distributed to the team. “As a leader, if you’re having a bad day it’s okay to say you’re having a bad day. It actually legitimizes others to tell them how they’re doing. We’re all on this roller coaster together,” says Shiber. It’s not always easy, but leadership isn’t easy.

Prioritizing Well Being and Wellness

The first thing Shiber did at Sisense was to provide employee wellness support via Zoom. “We discovered there’s a lot of loneliness right now and it’s been shown scientifically that affects the immune system,” says Shiber. And of course, it also affects productivity. So in lieu of all the social interactions previously held in the office, the team shares announcements once a week over Zoom. “Finding a “space” for employees to gather and talk with each other is really important,” says Shiber. Sisense also launched a program giving every employee access to a personal coach to help them maneuver life and work events. Another successful initiative that Sisense has been practicing is companywide self-care days, where everyone takes a day off, to promote wellness and work-life balance.

Communications and HR: Time to Lock Arms

Having trust in your company and the people around you has never been more important. The HR and communications teams must work together to send a uniform message with an empathetic tone in all internal messaging. Companies need to make sure their teams are regularly updated with the latest information.

Uniting HR and communications can help ensure that employees are informed every step of the way through the crisis. Misinformation can be a morale-killer and so the best way to combat it is by sharing the facts and showing your commitment and support.

Interestingly, research shows that employer communication is the most credible source of information about COVID-19.