As you read this article, companies are having conversations in their Boardrooms about the cuts they need to make to survive the downturn. Executives are trying desperately to find ways to keep their people employed. They are discussing with management how to cut non-essential programs with an especially deep cut in the non-revenue-producing departments like human resources, finance and accounting, I.T., and communications and marketing. They are cutting free meals, employee incentive trips or programs, and training. They are looking at how travel costs, which moved to almost nothing, offset the cost of technology needed to keep everyone connected. But even with all these considerations, there will be a gap that exists. And the last stopping point will be what’s glaringly left—the people.

I know how this goes. I’ve been in those Boardrooms and I’ve had to help make these gut-wrenching decisions. These are difficult choices in normal times and become impossible in this environment when nobody knows when this will end and how long it will take to recover. The simple truth is that businesses must cut costs to contain the yet-unknown losses in revenue.

In the face of such mind-boggling complexity, I am calling on every CEO and employee to consider the choice rarely made, but the one that just might save our companies. It’s a choice that requires leadership to become joint partners of a “new deal” that demands sacrifice from everyone to preserve the whole. It’s a strategic choice we must make together to create a solution that empowers everyone to keep their jobs, do their jobs without further distraction, and ultimately win together. The choice: Asking your people to collectively take a pay cut to preserve intact the organizational structure and trust the company to pay it forward in big ways as the company recovers.

An Unprecedented Situation

If you think this idea is radical, you’re right. It’s why you don’t see this as a standard cost-cutting mechanism in companies. It requires unilateral agreement by employees willing to take the bet that their sacrifice will be returned in kind at a later date. It is not an easy discussion by any means. But an unprecedented time calls for an unprecedented solution.

Before COVID-19, businesses generally could determine within a margin of error the actions that needed to be enacted to dictate a course-correct. Companies usually have at least an idea of the monster they are slaying. But not this time. We don’t know if we will be back full force in three weeks or three months. We don’t know if our businesses will resume to normal now, in the future, or ever. We only know that businesses desperately want to survive with as little human disruption as possible.

So, while it may be controversial, it certainly isn’t impossible. Just look at the recent announcement from ESPN that top NBA executives are having their base salaries reduced by 20% for the foreseeable future. MLS and NASCAR have announced similar cuts as long as competitions are on hold, and CEO’s like Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Ed Bastian (Delta), and Tim Boyle (Columbia Sportswear) are taking big pay cuts or no pay during this time and are challenging others to take similar actions.

These CEOs understand that big savings come from big dollars. But while they’re on the right track, the answer needs to go deeper if this crisis continues beyond April, which appears to be the next hurdle to wrap our minds around.

Creating a “New Deal” Partnership

The foundational framework for such a shift requires input and collective buy-in from the employees and cannot be a top-down dictate. Consider this framework:

First, the company goes through its traditional cost-cutting exercise, scaling back everything that can reasonably be trimmed. After that, every employee takes an immediate pay cut, the amount of which is informed by the remaining delta. The cut applies to everyone from the CEO down to every employee except those who make less than a living wage (or thereabouts). Most companies have fairly clear breaks in pay groupings, and Human Resources can help establish which entry roles should be exempt.

Additionally, all employees would forego bonuses and raises for one full year. If a business is concerned that the length before a return-to-normal may exceed a year, you could negotiate a two-year extension or commit to a gradient return that increases as the company gets healthy. Everybody in the company would have to know the exact percentage pay cut in advance (the “give”), as well as the return (the “take”) they would receive from the company both now and in the future.

Employee Sacrifices

The immediate benefit to employees is that their job and health benefits would remain intact. But moving forward, businesses must offer something equally sacrificial that acknowledges the utter devastation this year will bring to families. This period will have lifetime consequences. Families will be playing financial catch up for years to come, and the levels of anxiety and depression will be extraordinary. That return could look something like this:

First, companies must let employees share in the gains after the storm. Employees need to know that if they take the hit on the front end, their rewards will come on the backend. This could take the form of a generous profit-sharing for all levels, stock ownership at broader distribution levels with accelerated vesting, or a robust stock purchase plan. It absolutely would need to include make-up bonuses or pay increases taken in stages that will not hurt a recovering company. In whatever form the financial makeup takes, it must ensure the employee, and not just the company, is amply rewarded as turnaround occurs.

Additionally, employers should offer continued flexible work and PTO policies. If there is anything that work from home is teaching us, it’s the humanness of all of us. We are getting glimpses into the sacred spaces of our co-workers and there is no question the stressors of this year will create strains that can only be addressed with an ongoing compassionate view. Our children will need our help. Our families will be recovering from jarring adjustments and change. Companies must finally open their eyes to the whole human and commit to work/life balance, work from home flexibility, and mental health supportive benefits and policies. We will learn how to become productive as we work from home. The distrust that has often limited flexibility policies has to be tossed out the window and replaced with a willingness to continue the experiment. How can we use technology to make work from home a greater part of normal corporate life?

Every Decision Must Accelerate Momentum

As you consider what this give and take should look like for your company, remember that there should be one common lens through which every potential business decision should pass: Does this create or kill momentum? Preserving the current structure and work rhythms of the organization is essential right now. Change is incredibly hard for people, and it’s already been heaped on too heavy as it is. When a layoff occurs, organizational changes (laden with new bosses, new reporting lines, and getting up to speed) can kill momentum for several months.

What I’m suggesting is not easy to do, but it minimizes change by keeping headcount intact. It is a gnarly labor negotiation to pull off even in normal circumstances. But we are in a time where acting in unison, free of independent agenda, is not optional. To succeed and win together, we must be of one mind.

This is a massive change, but if there is ever a time in our history where we need to find the capacity to create a true partnership between the company and its people, it is now. Leaders who are seeking employee engagement and a focused workforce cannot just have top-down deployment of decisions. The broader employee base can and most often will step up when the stakes are high, and they have a voice. This mutual give-and-take approach doesn’t just preserve jobs and minimize more department and organizational changes, it allows the humanness in each of us to shine through in a way that lets us all come out ahead in the end.