HR leaders reflect on the lessons learned during the height of COVID-19 and share three ways the world of work has been permanently impacted.

By Marta Chmielowicz

Over the course of a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down. Schools and businesses shuttered as strict social distancing guidelines fell into place. Travel and morning commutes became a thing of the past. Eighty-eight percent of employees turned to their laptops to continue working in newly remote jobs, according to a Gartner survey. And the Department of Labor reported that over 20.5 million workers lost their jobs in April alone as companies floundered, sending the unemployment rate to a devastating 14.7 percent.

Now, as the first wave of the pandemic passes, businesses are gearing up to open their doors once more -but many complications remain. From maintaining employee safety in the workplace to supporting workers as they balance work and childcare, employers have a greater responsibility than ever before. And HR is at the forefront, faced with the challenge of developing new workforce strategies in a world that will never be the same again.

“This crisis has accelerated the imperative to build a technology-enabled, agile workforce and processes -and a culture that can pivot and adapt,” says Mike Fenlon, chief people officer of PwC. “We really won’t go back to ‘normal’ as we once knew it, but rather will see an evolved reality where things look very different. For HR functions, this is an opportunity to accelerate culture change and the adoption of remote work arrangements and flexibility.”

So, how will the massive disruption of this global health crisis impact the world of work? Ironically, HR leaders indicate that this period may usher in a healthier workplace where leaders are more conscious of employee well-being; agility and flexibility are the norm; and workers feel strongly connected to their company culture.

Be Well, Work Well

Today more than ever, the future of work is the future of worker well-being. With the growth of the digital economy, the difficulties of managing work-life balance, and the stresses and uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees’ mental health has become top of mind for business leaders.

“In times like these, we’re reminded that ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ are not separate spheres of experience; rather, they’re deeply interdependent in how we show up -and how we show up for each other,” explains Fenlon. “HR leaders should lead with empathy, given that we are all juggling new situations that require understanding and support. We must focus on how we can continue to build trust and foster a culture of caring despite the challenges and disruptions still ahead.”

Katy Avila, vice president of HR at shipping logistics company Worldwide Express, says that the health crisis has opened her eyes to the importance of harmonizing work and life into a holistic employee experience. Her company has reworked its employee well-being program to support workers’ mental health needs, proactively providing easy to understand resources to help employees manage the emotional and financial impact of the pandemic.

From sharing remote work best practices via email to introducing weekly virtual meetings and activities with department heads, Worldwide Express has ramped up its communication practices to reassure employees and encourage them to remain connected to the organization.

PwC has also prioritized employee well-being, enhancing its existing benefit offerings to fit the needs of the current crisis. Fenlon says that some of the organization’s key initiatives include:

  • virtual individual and group mental health coaching;
  • enhanced crisis childcare and eldercare support;
  • employee-led discussions on topics such as living alone and feeling isolated, leading and inspiring virtually, homeschooling, and work; and
  • tips on protecting time and engaging with remote teams.

Marriott Vacations Worldwide followed suit, covering 100 percent of medical, dental, and vision insurance premiums for associates who went on furlough, according to Mike Yonker, executive vice president and CHRO. The company also leveraged its Workday platform to provide resources on health and wellness, mindfulness, managing stress, exercise, distant learning for children, professional growth, and leadership development.

But even companies that lack the resources to offer such wide-ranging benefits can take significant steps to ease the burden on their workforce. Tammy Heller, senior vice president and CHRO of Perspecta, recommends that organizations offer opportunities for employees to support each other. For example, Perspecta’s voluntary paid time off sharing program allows employees to help their colleagues by donating PTO while providing a confidential way for others to accept help. The response has been overwhelming; to date, nearly 5,400 hours have been donated. She also suggests that HR leaders focus on trust and flexibility as a well-being tool.

“Many of our employees are working parents or caregivers who are trying to balance many competing professional and personal demands throughout the day (and night),” she says. “It may be easier for some employees to work in the early morning or late at night to get the job done versus the middle of the workday. I am a firm believer that demonstrating trust and empowerment by giving employees the space and flexibility they need to balance all of their competing priorities will pay off in results and will ultimately create a more committed relationship with their employer.”

Although the risks of the pandemic seem to be abating, these well-being measures will need to continue as workers contend with constant uncertainty and evolving social distancing guidelines.

Pivot, Pivot, Pivot

Whether it’s freezing hiring, furloughing workers, or reimagining job responsibilities, the COVID-19 outbreak has forced most companies to adjust to dramatic changes to their operations -starting with the switch to fully remote work. Luckily, working remotely is nothing new, and many companies already had a policy and infrastructure in place that they could scale to meet the current needs of their workforce.

PwC’s journey to remote work began in late 2019 with its $3 billion “New World, New Skills” investment into the tools and technologies needed to enable a “digitally fit” workforce. And the forward-thinking initiative is paying off.

“While we didn’t do this in anticipation of a crisis, we’re seeing dividends because of it: Our people have adopted the tech skills and digital mindset that allows them to work remotely while maintaining high levels of quality and productivity and continuing to meet client deadlines even amid uncertainty,” says Fenlon.

Perspecta was also ahead of the curve. Thanks to its existing telework and alternative work arrangement policy, the company was able to scale its approach rather than work around the clock to build one from scratch. As a result, Heller says that the vast majority of her workforce has been able to telework and continue to support customers without major interruptions in their workflows.

But no matter how prepared, even Perspecta had to deal with some operational disruption. The company’s first priority following the start of the pandemic was to find new assignments for its employees whose customer sites were closed with no ability to telework.

To that end, Heller’s team spearheaded an enhancement to the core internal mobility program “Family First,” calling it “Family First Rapid Response.”

“The program was designed to help these employees secure shorter-term billable teleworking assignments during the COVID-19 crisis,” she explains.

Worldwide Express also had to pivot certain job responsibilities to keep its workers employed and engaged, Avila says -particularly for the recruitment and sales staff. Recruiters who once focused on specific positions pivoted to recruiting for the organization as a whole, while sales personnel took on customer account management roles.

“We were able to reallocate individuals in the organization and enable them to be productive,” she says. “People were excited to still be productive in a different way, and it alleviated concerns that they would be laid off or furloughed.”

But pivoting job roles successfully requires an increase in learning and development activity. That is why Perspecta offered employees the opportunity to pursue strategic technical certifications and complete trainings targeted toward the specific needs of this crisis, such as virtual collaboration, leading remote teams, and forging ahead with resilience.

Worldwide Express also introduced trainings to ensure effective leadership and talent management, with particular emphasis on successful check-ins and managing virtual teams.

Jacobsen Construction has followed the lead as well, refocusing its leadership development content on dealing with change and becoming more self-aware, and offering online workshops on managing virtually, says Peggy Stone, executive vice president and director of HR.

Communication is Key

With an increase in uncertainty comes a necessary increase in communication. “Reinforcing to your people that ‘we’re in this together’ should be a top priority,” says Fenlon. “We are all navigating these new circumstances, and this isn’t easy for anyone. As leaders, we need to provide clear, transparent, and consistent communication to our people -explicitly anchoring our decisions and guidance in our values.”

Avila of Worldwide Express says that her company begun by increasing written touchpoints with team members, ensuring leaders remain visible and vocal, and conducting employee engagement pulse surveys. She emphasizes the importance of gathering employee feedback and using those perspectives to shape decisions.

The company’s five-question pulse survey measures things like confidence in leadership ability, the long-term future of the company, and perspectives on communication and engagement initiatives. The results are analyzed and reviewed by a COVID-19 task force of team leaders and addressed by the CEO in 30-minute town halls that include an update on the business and organizational changes in response to the pandemic.

Jacobsen Construction also increased the frequency and content of its communications. “[We have introduced] everything from a ‘COVID-19 Support Center’ to virtual training to reduce stress and anxiety,” says Stone. “Our communication team has done a great job of providing daily updates on the impact of the crisis to our industry and our community. We have also been conducting pulse surveys and share the results and connect the results to actions we have taken. We are taking care of each other.”

According to Heller, other viable communication platforms include company intranet platforms, social media networks that foster two-way communication, and virtual meetings like the company’s lunch-and-learn series.

Communication has to extend to furloughed members of the workforce as well. While Marriott Vacations Worldwide has built an engagement strategy that includes things like CEO messages, FAQs, intranet communications, webinars, open mic sessions, and personal and professional well-being guides, the company’s HR team has also developed communication strategies for the unique needs of workers who have been furloughed or whose hours have been reduced.

“Particularly for our associates on furlough, we wanted to continue to make sure they felt like they were still an important part of the team, so we’ve established a way to stay connected with them through Workday by communicating with them on a weekly basis,” says Yonker. “We use a lot of video from our leaders which helps with engagement. Also, providing resources for ‘moments that matter’ are really important to us, such as training on how to navigate the unemployment process and assisting associates locate short-term, temporary job opportunities.”

In addition to these efforts, Marriott has made efforts to maintain optimism across its workforce by leveraging internal and external social media campaigns that show the bright spots and silver linings during this difficult time, from community outreach to caring for first responders.

Stronger Together

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has done major damage to the economy and the lives of millions of people, but it has also served as an accelerator of one of the greatest modern workplace transformations. How and where people work, shop, exercise, learn, and communicate will be forever changed -but it could be for the better.

By focusing on employee well-being, leveraging honest and transparent communication, and remaining agile and quick to pivot, organizations can create lasting positive change that will extend far beyond the current crisis.

According to Avila, an effective company response to this moment in history can create significant employee loyalty, a stronger company culture, and a more connected workforce. “People appreciate the extent to which we’ve tried to keep the team intact in the organization and the way we’ve prioritized frequent, transparent, and forthcoming communication. We’ve created memory equity and loyalty there. People also realize they have a lot of autonomy in terms of how some of the jobs can be redesigned and the work can be reallocated in the organization.”

How can HR leaders set themselves up for success beyond this crisis? Yonker said it best: “Stay focused on your core values, be open to new ways of working, always keep your associates and their well-being at the core of your decision making, and remain flexible.”


Tags: CHRO-Focused Article, Culture, June-2020, Magazine Article, Risk & Compliance, Workforce Management

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