Photo by Mathias Jensen on Unsplash


With the ongoing public health crisis, co-op leaders — like other business leaders — have faced the enormous challenge of navigating a major economic downturn, while balancing the health, safety, and needs of staff and members. 

With economies re-opening and things returning to (some kind of) normal, leaders have important decisions to make and lessons to learn. 

Here are three strategies to consider as we make our way through the economic recovery.

1. Invest in your people

People should always come first. Good leaders know this. During a worldwide health crisis, a people-first strategy is the only way to make it through.

For co-ops, this means three areas of your HR policy may need a review. The most obvious is safety, but mental health and increasing flexibility are two other important aspects of a policy that may need revision.


One of the most immediate lessons from the pandemic was the importance of frontline staff in essential service sectors. Across Canada, co-ops in these sectors implemented new health and safety measures to keep their staff and members safe. They invested in physical guards, no-cash policies, and personal protective gear, like masks and hand sanitizer.

With a “new normal” in place, adapting and communicating your plan for managing everyone’s safety is critical. Ample signage, staff training, and empowering frontline employees to voice concerns are three solid tactics for setting expectations for both staff and customers. 

Mental Health

But safety is more than avoiding a virus. Recent months have been stressful and supporting mental health has become another pressing issue. Ensuring help is available is good practice — and the right thing to do.  Access educational programs, provide resources for staff, and help cover some of the cost of accessing mental health supports. 

Increased flexibility

For some co-ops, social distancing has meant spending more time working from home. Although working from home isn’t for everyone, and face-to-face meetings are important, the pandemic has shown we can be more flexible without things going off the rails. Embrace this flexibility and re-evaluate workplace requirements — especially as staff struggle with childcare and transportation. 

But how to do this? 

Start by reviewing your Human Resources plans. Identify new ways to support staff and members with the tools they need. Investing in staff’s physical and mental well-being and finding ways to support members will pay dividends through a healthier workplace and business overall. 

2. Put your money where your mouth is

Leadership sometimes requires sacrifice. Many businesses have laid off staff, while others accessed support programs like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy or the Canada Emergency Business Account. Some have shown ingenuity and innovation in the face of the crisis.

Given the circumstances, reviewing revenue distribution is important.

Most co-ops’ bottom lines have been impacted, and creating a profit is going to be a hurdle. In many cases, this cost is shared between any staff and the co-op’s owners (members). 

For example, a co-op’s board and leadership may waive a portion of their compensation to help pull the business through. To keep a co-op afloat, staff may take short-term salary reductions. For larger co-ops, front-line staff risking their health to provide an essential service may deserve a better wage. Perhaps shifting profit distribution to those employees rather than a dividend payment or executive bonus is a good option.

Taking a financial cut or joining the frontline at a time when people are struggling goes a long way to show that leaders and the people who rely on them are in this together.

3. Plan for the Future

Not surprisingly, a leader should lead. Leading means taking risks, making hard decisions, listening carefully to all stakeholders and experts, and creating a plan for the future.

Perhaps the clearest lesson from the pandemic is how easily businesses can be disrupted. Many businesses pivoted quickly, while others continue to struggle or have closed. Those doing well adapted. And they had a structure that allowed for this flexibility.

For co-ops, being flexible and adapting quickly can be a challenge. So, keep risk management strategies, business plans, and policy manuals up to date and do what you can to account for a disruption. 

Frequent, clear communication of these plans to relevant stakeholders will also help leaders build the trust they need to respond to and move past the crisis.

You’re not alone

Of course, you don’t need to work through these challenges alone. We’re all in this together and support is available from a wide variety of sources including governments, economic development agencies, Chambers of Commerce, and Community Futures to name a few.

For co-ops, Co-operatives First has resources designed to help boards and managers better identify risks, create policies, and update plans. To compliment those resources, we also have a Board Basics workshop that outlines board roles and responsibilities, and how to make better decisions as a group. 

Take advantage of the many resources available. But, if you need direct support, don’t hesitate to contact us.

This article was inspired by a fantastic panel discussion hosted by the Governance Professionals of Canada: “The ‘New Normal’ in Governance: Managing Shifting Board Priorities in COVID Times and Beyond” which you can access here