WEATHERING THE PANDEMIC: How employers dealt with the COVID-19 forecast

Lightning via Unsplash

History shows that crisis breeds innovation. Venture for Canada has the unique privilege of connecting startups with young talent, and supporting their training. Since 2018 these connections have offered critical early career experience for young people, and they help build the capacity of new and growing companies. 

Incredibly this summer, amidst the dark clouds of the pandemic announcement and lockdowns across the country, Canadian employers hired our largest intern cohorts ever: 465 students this past Summer, and over 600 this Fall, more than doubling VFC’s participants in a single semester. 

Most were brand new to managing the team virtually. Since we had such a large number of employers hiring and managing virtually, we were curious: what was working? What wasn’t? What do they need? How did these employers approach management, productivity, and culture in this strange, new reality? Over 100 Canadian startups and SMEs shared their experiences with VFC, and a lot of light shone through. 



The forecast wasn’t great: employers were facing enormous challenges as business activities were limited or halted in support of the public health response. Between March – July 2020:

  • 75% moved to a virtual environment
  • 49% experienced a loss of revenue
  • 55% changed product launch timelines
  • 20% observed a decrease in team morale
  • 20% identified a loss in productivity

In the face of this disruption, you might expect to see businesses grinding to a halt with stressed staff and disjointed teams. Rather: 

  • 63% adopted new tools and technology
  • 50% created new HR policies
  • 25% discovered new markets
  • 25% increased staff to meet consumer demand



The employers who saw growth this spring were united in three ways: they over communicated with staff, they found ways to pivot quickly, and they roused the emotional resilience to redirect stress into motivation. We know that a mark of success is being able to use stress and anxiety to fuel productivity. Perhaps this is what we are observing here. 

Over 50% of our employers noticed improved communication with staff this summer. We found a high correlation between teams who placed an emphasis on communication and an increase in morale and productivity. 

“I had to rally our staff to believe in and become enthusiastic about [moving to virtual service delivery]. But when they “bought in”, the creativity and innovation was extraordinary.”

These employers spent more time with staff by increasing meeting frequency, prioritizing mental health and well-being, allocating work time for non-work activities and conversations, investing in new virtual tools to collaborate and be creative (like Jitsi and GroupMap), and emphasized training and learning. 

Plus, 27% of our employers found ways to innovate their offerings. We were lucky to support, among others:

  • PolyUnity, a 3D-printing technology company in Newfoundland, pivoted to manufacture face shields for front line healthcare workers.
  • 3D Planeta, an imaging software company in New Brunswick, developed an app for businesses that improves physical distancing for line-ups and gatherings of people in the retail, medical, service, and government sectors.



The profound changes presented by Covid-19 were taken by some as an opportunity to rebuild organizational culture. Valuing and prioritizing investment in staff supports the connectivity and trust required to be highly effective and productive. As we continue to work closely with small companies across Canada, we will continue to listen and build support to help these incredible employers who are working so hard to rise and shine.

Gina Patterson is the Director of Programs at VFC, with over 10 years of designing work-integrated...