Close contact with customers is the entire point of Cassie Sampson’s East Village Spa in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. She and her long-tenured staff of 20 provide massage therapy, facials, body waxing, and other types of hands-on personal care that were derailed by the shutdowns and social distance of the pandemic.

This has been Sampson’s toughest year as a business owner, a fact somewhat alleviated by her close relationship with staff. She’s candid with employees about her spa’s overall revenue picture, she says, which helps when she makes difficult or unpopular decisions, such as not quickly reinstating lucrative services out of caution for her team, though regulations would allow them.

“Employees trust I make hard decisions for the right reasons, and I’m trying to keep this business alive and afloat for the long term,” she says. “So they’re willing to accept some short-term sacrifice.”

Meg Burdick can empathize as a human resources specialist and freight claims manager for Soniq Transportation and Warehouse in Kent, Washington. She helped oversee a wave of temporary layoffs among a staff of 50. Soniq, an essential business, kept rolling through the early months of the pandemic as employee health concerns spiked.

“Letting people know the layoffs were temporary, plus an overall transparency and sense of working together, has made us a stronger team,” Burdick says.

Transparency and clear communication are the kinds of trust-building practices that have seen businesses through this tough time.

The challenge: How can a business build a better work culture to help sustain morale, ingenuity, and productivity through a crisis?

Amy Friedrich, president of U.S. Insurance Solutions for Principal®, often hears from leaders about the benefits of connectivity with employees.

Family and work are two main hubs in our lives for establishing close connections, she says, and too often the latter lacks deliberate and consistent nurturing of its culture.

“Intentionally building a work culture--a set of behaviors, practices, and beliefs--to increase connectivity, can help make employees happier and lessen fear and uncertainty,” she says. “And that leads to better work.”

Business owners must strike the right balance between acknowledging fear and anxiety as valid reactions to a crisis, Friedrich adds, and offering employees a confident path forward with ample reassurance.

Some insights into building an intentional and improved work culture

  • Communicate consistently with employees. Soniq’s proactive employee education on evolving health guidelines helps reduce fear, Burdick says, as delivery drivers interact with dozens of clients daily.
  • Consider the emotional impacts on staff. The pandemic has left many employees scrambling to arrange alternative child care or even home schooling, among other challenges to work-life balance. Finding ways to help them meet these challenges reduces stress and boosts morale.
  • Be transparent. This has been one of Sampson’s top lessons of 2020. “If you’ve been laying that groundwork, when times are hard, people trust you,” she says.
  • Empower employees to help guide work culture. One of Soniq’s employees suggested forming the business’s first diversity and inclusion committee--noteworthy for a small trucking firm that, unlike a large corporation, isn’t replete with a long list of specific committees. The owner agreed, and the committee is taking shape amid our heightened national conversation on racial justice.
  • Focus on what you can control as a business leader. Sampson says that it took her a while to get her own emotions under control and fully accept that she couldn’t influence the course of the pandemic. “I have had to learn to survive and thrive within the situation we’re dealt,” she says. “I need to manage my own anxieties, try to look for opportunities, and get excited about the enforced creativity.”

What’s next?

  • Reach out to your trusted business financial professional, or seek one through Principal.
  • Check out our resources to help businesses through this challenging year.


The subject matter in this communication is educational only and provided with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, investment advice or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other advisors on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, investment or accounting obligations and requirements.

Sonig Transportation and Cassie Sampson are not an affiliates of any company of the Principal Financial Group.

Insurance products and plan administrative services provided through Principal Life Insurance Co. Securities offered through Principal Securities, Inc., 800-547-7754, member SIPC and/or independent broker-dealers. Principal Life, and Principal Securities are members of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, Iowa 50392. 

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