How Southwest Airlines helps employees to be the face of the brand, even behind a mask

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan August 20, 2020
Laurie Winters, Senior Director of Culture and Engagement at Southwest Airlines, explains how employee feedback and insights are helping the carrier to ride out COVID-19 turbulence.

southwest airlines
(Southwest Airlines)

Among the sectors most dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, the travel industry has been one of those hit most hard - and Southwest Airlines has been no exception. As Laurie Winters, Senior Director of Culture and Engagement at the airline told the recent Qualtrics Work Different event, this has led to a need to re-think how the firm operates: 

With the unprecedentedly low load factors on our flights, coupled with the absolute unpredictability of the virus, we needed to adjust very quickly. Many of our customers needed us to fulfil our purpose to connect them to what's important in their lives. After all, people needed to return home to care for loved ones and travel to temporary medical assignments. 

One manifestation of how the airline has responded is with its Southwest Promise, published in May to promote the measures taken to keep passengers safe, including personal protection and wellness, disinfection and cleaning regimes onboard planes and in airports and measures to support social distancing, such as limiting passenger numbers, changing boarding and deplaning routines and using mobile boarding passes on smartphones. 

But there’s another vital constituency, Winters reminded the Qualtrics audience, that of the Southwest Airlines employee base: 

We truly believe that if we take care of our employees, they in turn will take care of our customers. Other companies in our position immediately start thinking about downsizing. In our 49 year history, we have never had a layoff or furlough, and our executive team has made it very clear to our employees that that would be an absolute last resort. Have we been in a crisis? Yes. So that’s even more reason to do everything we can to support our employees. We view ourselves as a family and when times are hard, families take care of each other. 

The actions taken during the current crisis actually build on work begun some time ago, she explained: 

A couple of years ago we mapped out our employee journey and when we began feeling the impacts of COVID-19, we turned to that journey to make sure we're thinking through all of the moments that matter. Working cross functionally we've tackled many challenges along our journey very specific to this time, such as creating bite-sized Virtual Learning, loaning resources to put people where they are needed and give employees new opportunities, equipping leaders with best practices for leading remotely, providing employees with new resources whether equipment and best practices for working remotely, PPE for our frontline staff or new physical distancing policy. We also rolled out Microsoft Teams in a matter of weeks for better virtual tools. 

The employee journey has changed, she noted: 

With fewer flights, we needed fewer employees. So we quickly began offering voluntary time-off options. With many employees on extended voluntary time off, we're actually starting to look at what we need to do to on-board them when they return. We've also offered a generous voluntary separation package since we believe it's going to take us time to get back to those pre COVID flight schedules. In normal times, we celebrate our retirees and style, but how do we handle off-boarding now that we can't do things in our typical fashion? So we've put together no cost, tender-based recommendations that leaders can use to thank their departing employees for their service. We've also developed new processes for returning equipment and packing up workspaces. We've created tutorials for knowledge transition so that work doesn't go unsupported after separating employees leave.


In all of this, there’s been a desire to listen closely to the employees, again a push that had been put into play earlier in the year with a new survey strategy delivered with Qualtrics. But COVID meant this too took on new dimensions, explained Winter: 

We had to pivot quickly. It simply felt out of touch. Instead, we let the situation and our employee journey guide us. We had our first survey out in a matter of weeks. In March and April with our headquarters employees and then our frontline [staff], we focused on overall sentiment, leadership communication and confidence, and health and safety. In June with our headquarters campus leaders, we focused on remote work productivity, leadership support and return-to-campus sentiment. Now, our focus has also expanded to include diversity and inclusion and hospitality. We've also created an exit survey for those who are voluntarily separating. The insights we've gained have helped us quickly pinpoint specific areas of focus, such as things we need to do to better equip our leaders, as well as serve as key inputs into things like our future remote work policy. 

This ‘adapting to COVID’ approach has  created demand for more insights across the organization, she said: 

Knowing that employees have different need all along their journey, in 2018, we developed our version of personas. We call them working styles and mindsets. We have five working styles that represent our employees, based on how and where they work, and our initial mindsets represent where people are in their career. When it became clear that COVID-19 impacts wouldn't be going away anytime soon, we decided to put a COVID lens on this work to address our very specific employee needs during this crisis. For example, our ‘in the air’ working style is specific to our pilots and flight attendants. In the working style we have demographic information, unique needs, pain points and improvement opportunities, as well as culture, communication and return-to-campus considerations. We've also included insights from our survey work to focus on the actual sentiment. 

It’s also meant updating thinking to accommodate new realities, she added: 

We’ve created new mindsets based on the state of COVID and the state of the company. For example, an employee might be a challenger when it comes to COVID, possibly they don't agree with the need to wear a mask, but they might be in a different mindset about the state of the company. For each of these new mindsets, we've developed a view that shows a representative quote, a definition and actions leaders can take to help employees who may be in that mindset. And we're using all of this to design new solutions for pain points, identify specific training and communication needs, and better equip our leaders.

With the pandemic still inflicting a great deal of pressure on the travel sector and likely to continue to do so for some time, it’s been a challenging time for Southwest Airlines. But Winters reckons that employees have risen to that challenge: 

Our regular [company quote] reads, I am the face of the brand. But when taking the COVID lens, we added to it to reflect the current time - I am the face of the brand, even behind a mask. Those four little words encapsulates so much about the current time and the importance of continuing to deliver great service with heart.