As businesses reopen across Texas, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that employees feel safe and confident about returning to the office.
I currently serve as CEO of ZT Corporate, a private equity firm with a large and diverse portfolio, and I continue to work with my team on innovative ways to support employees and their families during the pandemic. When this crisis began, I saw it as an all-hands-on deck moment that would require the public sector to step up and step in however we could to save lives and livelihoods.
For ZT Corporate, it wasn’t as simple as having everyone work at home indefinitely. Our portfolio of companies includes essential businesses like healthcare clinics, financial services, automotive dealerships, and more, all of which required our employees to either stay on the frontline or return before many others. It was imperative to me that our employees—1,150 across Houston and additional 500 in the tri-cities, Georgia, Florida, New York City, and Arizona—felt comfortable and safe as many of them came back to work.
Alongside Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, our team committed to responsibly and safely transitioning back to work. In mid-April, we secured testing through an independent, third-party healthcare provider that allowed us to offer voluntary and free testing to every employee. All of our employees had the option to receive an FDA-approved COVID-19 molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at a third-party location.
The cost was significant, but for us it was a no-brainer. We wanted to help our communities get tested and stay healthy, and to help our economy get on the road to a responsible recovery. We also wanted to be careful not to overwhelm Houston’s existing testing sites; by taking our employees to be tested at a third-party site, we were able to help the city and surrounding counties continue to receive testing in a timely manner. And we hoped that stepping up early would encourage other midsize to large companies to make testing available to their employees.
This campaign and promise to our employees did not come without its challenges. Along the way, we learned valuable lessons on how to successfully activate a project of this size when times are so uncertain. Here are the top three:
- Communication is key. Everyone’s roles had to be clearly defined to help bring this idea to life quickly and efficiently. By everyone doing their part, we were able to effectively communicate with employees the exact testing procedure that would take place. It was important to me that employees heard a clear and concise message from leadership, and that they felt reassured throughout every step.
- You need a nimble, ready-to-act culture. As an entrepreneur, I am no stranger to quick thinking, or to rolling up my sleeves to get the job done. I’ve surrounded myself with likeminded, nimble leaders who knew that this project would be on an escalated timeline and require all hands on deck. From the initial idea to the first employee test, we worked together to put a plan in place in less than two weeks. Our team is accustomed to moving swiftly, building consensus effectively, and implementing change. But this type of innovative thinking would have been impossible if our company culture wasn’t well defined before the crisis arrived.
- Fear of the unknown cannot hinder action. Moving forward with this idea was going to take a commitment and confidence in answers we didn’t have at the moment—and still don’t have now. However, we were willing to take the step forward and encourage the industry and economy take first steps as well. Waiting for someone else to tell us what to do wasn’t compatible with our culture or values. The financial commitment was daunting, but as CEO it is important to me personally that my employees know I care about them as they fulfill essential roles.
Initially, free COVID-19 testing for employees was primarily meant to protect the health and safety of our team as they transitioned back to work. But we soon realized that the benefits extended far beyond that. Having a fully tested workforce would instill confidence in our customers who interacted with our team at the car dealerships, healthcare centers, and other businesses we run. With the knowledge that employees had been tested, customers were able to feel comfortable walking in and receiving services.
The CEO role demands all sorts of balances and trade-offs, and never more so than through a global crisis like this one. Through the tragedies and loss of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m pleased to see other leaders stepping up and playing a pivotal role in helping the country move toward recovery—responsibly, sustainably, and safely.