How Culture Can Lead During a Pandemic

Jeff Byard

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, culture matters.

Effective emergency management begins and ends with good planning, and our work at Team Rubicon is no exception. We recently published our international emergency operations plan and have linked some of our core operational doctrine on our website. Yet, plan as we might, new and unforeseen challenges and opportunities will always emerge, disrupting the most carefully built plans.

Like most organizations and companies, the past few weeks at Team Rubicon have entailed a deep focus on COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. Beyond the clear public health threat, the coronavirus has begun to deeply impact how we, as a disaster response organization, can operate. Perhaps not surprisingly, an infectious disease outbreak of this magnitude was one we had not factored for.

How does Team Rubicon find a path forward in a time of unpredictability? What steps have we taken to ensure the safety of the communities in which we live, work, and serve and support our volunteers and staff? We lean on our culture.

We’ve built an organizational culture around seven core principles that, while flexible in application, were intentionally designed to be directional in times of uncertainty. Instead of building policies on the fly and reacting in the moment, we’re applying the same principles we do to all of our work to guide our overall response, while ensuring we’re remaining nimble to the challenges posed by COVID-19.

Mission First; Greyshirts Always:

Get the job done, but never forget about the people who are doing the work.

Team Rubicon always stands ready to respond to our communities’ needs during a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. To that end, we have developed policies and procedures focused on the ability to continue to serve disaster-impacted communities, while actively mitigating risk and exposure to COVID-19 for both the communities themselves and responding volunteers. We’ve proactively limited travel and events, but have continued to run local trainings and responses, putting trust in our volunteers’ abilities to assist, even with limited resources, scope, and personnel.

Step into the Arena:

Find ways to support, even if it means leaning in further than usual.

TR staff and volunteers live in the arena every day – we constantly look for new ways to lean in to serve and support communities affected by disaster and humanitarian crisis. While the COVID-19 outbreak affects the standard ways we look to serve, we’re actively identifying opportunities to assist communities via remote support instead of in-person hammer-swinging.

Furthermore, for the past several years we’ve been investing in building centers of gravity in 300 cities across the US. We hypothesized that groups of volunteers who live in the same community could respond as a unit to whatever crisis their hometown faces. Now, as we look to potentially decrease volunteer deployments across the country, we’ll have to turn to the men and women already in the arena and find ways to support local volunteers even more than usual.

Everyone Has a Role, Know It:

Take the time to examine how your role and the roles of those around you change during times of uncertainty and use it as a growth opportunity.

In a complex and rapidly changing environment, setting clear lanes and expectations means everyone has a part to play. That defined role that may be different than usual, but it’s guaranteed to help move the mission forward.

We’ve built a cross-functional working group that meets twice a day to discuss COVID-19, its impacts, and our responses. While we might fill roles familiar to regular positions, we’re also forced to operate outside traditional lanes. It provides opportunities for deeper collaborative work and allows effective sharing of ideas outside of typical work silos.

Get Shit Done:

Don’t let obstacles prevent work from being accomplished but identify how work gets done needs to change.

One of our most commonly applied cultural principles is always stronger when paired with a qualifier: Get shit done safely and correctly. Now is not the time for headlong charges into the unknown simply to get the task accomplished. Operate with the knowledge of how your actions will impact your team and those around you. If the coronavirus prevents you from doing your task normally, then it’s time to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

Change your Socks:

It’s critical that, in addition to taking care of our communities, we also take care of ourselves.

Getting proper rest, taking a breather, raising a hand when you need help—these are all core to operating at your best and ensuring you don’t burn out. So, with coronavirus in mind, it’s doubly important to apply this cultural principle in two ways: · First, follow all preventative measures as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and your local authorities. The best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus is by first making sure you are not a potential carrier. So, take these steps to reduce your risk and the risk of spreading the virus in all daily activities:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • For more information, please visit or

Secondly, recognize the coronavirus will have unintended impacts on day-to-day operations. Don’t force activities or programs simply to stay on schedule—use potential downtimes or revised schedules to examine what other priorities can be focused on.

Adults Only:

Level heads prevail. Don’t think certain rules or precautions don’t apply to you.

For better or worse, we have a culture of individuals who are wired to push through whatever obstacle may be in their way. And while this can be beneficial in a start-up environment or while responding to disasters, it’s a dangerous mindset during a pandemic—no individual is immune from COVID-19, so even if you’re not a rule-follower, take the recommendations of the WHO and CDC seriously.

  • If you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, please contact your healthcare provider and reduce contact with others.
  • Do not engage in Team Rubicon in-person events if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.
  • All Team Rubicon events present a risk, especially those in which Greyshirts share billeting, food preparation areas, and hygiene areas.
  • As reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), individuals at highest risk for severe disease and death include people over 60 years of age and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer.
Your Mother’s a Donor:

Finding positive outcomes from potential negative impacts

As with any industry, we’re expecting COVID-19 to have unexpected impacts on our financials. How will this affect philanthropic giving? As large corporations implement work from home policies, could large institutional gifts be delayed? Will the stock market’s volatility affect individual giving?

Even with our most bearish projections on giving, the coronavirus is also affected our burn rate on our current financial runway: we’ve already delayed or canceled travel and large in-person events and we know we may need to limit our footprint in responding to disasters in affected communities and countries. So, even if giving slows down during the outbreak, we also expect to see less of a spend rate compared to our more “blue sky” operational and training spending.

We’d be foolish to think the coronavirus won’t impact how we work and how we serve. But we’d also miss a tremendous opportunity to use this moment as a chance to examine how we operate and where we can improve. We’re fortunate to fall back on a strong yet flexible organizational culture that allows us to get to “yes” ensuring we’re still operating as best we’re able, but still finding ways to grow amidst uncertainty, all while doing our part to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on ourselves and our communities.

Read More Stories