HR leaders reflect on the lessons learned during the height of COVID-19Â and share three ways the world of work has been permanentlyÂ impacted.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Over the course of a few weeks, the coronavirusÂ pandemic turned the world upside down. SchoolsÂ and businesses shuttered as strict social distancingÂ guidelines fell into place. Travel and morning commutesÂ became a thing of the past. Eighty-eight percent ofÂ employees turned to their laptops to continue workingÂ in newly remote jobs, according to a Gartner survey.Â And the Department of Labor reported that overÂ 20.5 million workers lost their jobs in April alone asÂ companies floundered, sending the unemployment rateÂ to a devastating 14.7 percent.
Now, as the first wave of the pandemic passes,Â businesses are gearing up to open their doorsÂ once moreâbut many complications remain. FromÂ maintaining employee safety in the workplace toÂ supporting workers as they balance work and childcare,Â employers have a greater responsibility than everÂ before. And HR is at the forefront, faced with theÂ challenge of developing new workforce strategies in aÂ world that will never be the same again.
âThis crisis has accelerated the imperative to build aÂ technology-enabled, agile workforce and processesâand a culture that can pivot and adapt,â says MikeÂ Fenlon, chief people officer of PwC. âWe really wonât goÂ back to ânormalâ as we once knew it, but rather will seeÂ an evolved reality where things look very different. ForÂ HR functions, this is an opportunity to accelerate cultureÂ change and the adoption of remote work arrangementsÂ and flexibility.â
So, how will the massive disruption of this globalÂ health crisis impact the world of work? Ironically,Â HR leaders indicate that this period may usher in aÂ healthier workplace where leaders are more consciousÂ of employee well-being; agility and flexibility are theÂ norm; and workers feel strongly connected to theirÂ company culture.
Be Well, Work Well
Today more than ever, the future of work is the futureÂ of worker well-being. With the growth of the digitalÂ economy, the difficulties of managing work-life balance,Â and the stresses and uncertainties of the COVID-19Â pandemic, employeesâ mental health has become top ofÂ mind for business leaders.
âIn times like these, weâre reminded that âpersonalâ andÂ âprofessionalâ are not separate spheres of experience;Â rather, theyâre deeply interdependent in how we showÂ upâand how we show up for each other,â explainsÂ Fenlon. âHR leaders should lead with empathy, givenÂ that we are all juggling new situations that requireÂ understanding and support. We must focus on how weÂ can continue to build trust and foster a culture of caringÂ despite the challenges and disruptions still ahead.â
Katy Avila, vice president of HR at shipping logisticsÂ company Worldwide Express, says that the health crisisÂ has opened her eyes to the importance of harmonizingÂ work and life into a holistic employee experience. HerÂ company has reworked its employee well-being programÂ to support workersâ mental health needs, proactivelyÂ providing easy to understand resources to helpÂ employees manage the emotional and financial impactÂ of the pandemic.
From sharing remote work best practices via email toÂ introducing weekly virtual meetings and activities withÂ department heads, Worldwide Express has rampedÂ up its communication practices to reassure employeesÂ and encourage them to remain connected to theÂ organization.
PwC has also prioritized employee well-being,Â enhancing its existing benefit offerings to fit the needsÂ of the current crisis. Fenlon says that some of theÂ organizationâs key initiatives include:
- virtual individual and group mental health coaching;
- enhanced crisis childcare and eldercare support;
- employee-led discussions on topics such as living aloneÂ and feeling isolated, leading and inspiring virtually,Â homeschooling, and work; and
- tips on protecting time and engaging with remoteÂ teams.
Marriott Vacations Worldwide followed suit, coveringÂ 100 percent of medical, dental, and vision insuranceÂ premiums for associates who went on furlough,Â according to Mike Yonker, executive vice presidentÂ and CHRO. The company also leveraged its WorkdayÂ platform to provide resources on health and wellness,Â mindfulness, managing stress, exercise, distant learningÂ for children, professional growth, and leadershipÂ development.
But even companies that lack the resources to offer suchÂ wide-ranging benefits can take significant steps to easeÂ the burden on their workforce. Tammy Heller, seniorÂ vice president and CHRO of Perspecta, recommendsÂ that organizations offer opportunities for employees toÂ support each other. For example, Perspectaâs voluntaryÂ paid time off sharing program allows employees to helpÂ their colleagues by donating PTO while providing aÂ confidential way for others to accept help. The responseÂ has been overwhelming; to date, nearly 5,400 hoursÂ have been donated. She also suggests that HR leadersÂ focus on trust and flexibility as a well-being tool.
âMany of our employees are working parents orÂ caregivers who are trying to balance many competingÂ professional and personal demands throughout theÂ day (and night),â she says. âIt may be easier for someÂ employees to work in the early morning or late atÂ night to get the job done versus the middle of theÂ workday. I am a firm believer that demonstrating trustÂ and empowerment by giving employees the space andÂ flexibility they need to balance all of their competingÂ priorities will pay off in results and will ultimately createÂ a more committed relationship with their employer.â
Although the risks of the pandemic seem to be abating,Â these well-being measures will need to continue asÂ workers contend with constant uncertainty and evolvingÂ social distancing guidelines.
Pivot, Pivot, Pivot
Whether itâs freezing hiring, furloughing workers, orÂ reimagining job responsibilities, the COVID-19 outbreakÂ has forced most companies to adjust to dramaticÂ changes to their operationsâstarting with the switch toÂ fully remote work. Luckily, working remotely is nothingÂ new, and many companies already had a policy andÂ infrastructure in place that they could scale to meet theÂ current needs of their workforce.
PwCâs journey to remote work began in late 2019 withÂ its $3 billion âNew World, New Skillsâ investment intoÂ the tools and technologies needed to enable a âdigitallyÂ fitâ workforce. And the forward-thinking initiative isÂ paying off.
âWhile we didnât do this in anticipation of a crisis,Â weâre seeing dividends because of it: Our people haveÂ adopted the tech skills and digital mindset that allowsÂ them to work remotely while maintaining high levels ofÂ quality and productivity and continuing to meet clientÂ deadlines even amid uncertainty,â says Fenlon.
Perspecta was also ahead of the curve. Thanks to itsÂ existing telework and alternative work arrangementÂ policy, the company was able to scale its approachÂ rather than work around the clock to build one fromÂ scratch. As a result, Heller says that the vast majority ofÂ her workforce has been able to telework and continueÂ to support customers without major interruptions inÂ their workflows.
But no matter how prepared, even Perspecta had toÂ deal with some operational disruption. The companyâsÂ first priority following the start of the pandemic was toÂ find new assignments for its employees whose customerÂ sites were closed with no ability to telework.
To that end, Hellerâs team spearheaded an enhancementÂ to the core internal mobility program âFamily First,âÂ calling it âFamily First Rapid Response.â
âThe program was designed to help these employeesÂ secure shorter-term billable teleworking assignmentsÂ during the COVID-19 crisis,â she explains.
Worldwide Express also had to pivot certain jobÂ responsibilities to keep its workers employed andÂ engaged, Avila saysâparticularly for the recruitmentÂ and sales staff. Recruiters who once focused on specificÂ positions pivoted to recruiting for the organization as aÂ whole, while sales personnel took on customer accountÂ management roles.
âWe were able to reallocate individuals in theÂ organization and enable them to be productive,â sheÂ says. âPeople were excited to still be productive in aÂ different way, and it alleviated concerns that they wouldÂ be laid off or furloughed.â
But pivoting job roles successfully requires an increaseÂ in learning and development activity. That is whyÂ Perspecta offered employees the opportunity to pursueÂ strategic technical certifications and complete trainingsÂ targeted toward the specific needs of this crisis, such asÂ virtual collaboration, leading remote teams, and forgingÂ ahead with resilience.
Worldwide Express also introduced trainings toÂ ensure effective leadership and talent management,Â with particular emphasis on successful check-ins andÂ managing virtual teams.
Jacobsen Construction has followed the lead as well,Â refocusing its leadership development content onÂ dealing with change and becoming more self-aware,Â and offering online workshops on managing virtually,Â says Peggy Stone, executive vice president and directorÂ of HR.
Communication is Key
With an increase in uncertainty comes a necessaryÂ increase in communication. âReinforcing to yourÂ people that âweâre in this togetherâ should be a topÂ priority,â says Fenlon. âWe are all navigating these newÂ circumstances, and this isnât easy for anyone. As leaders,Â we need to provide clear, transparent, and consistentÂ communication to our peopleâexplicitly anchoring ourÂ decisions and guidance in our values.â
Avila of Worldwide Express says that her company begunÂ by increasing written touchpoints with team members,Â ensuring leaders remain visible and vocal, and conductingÂ employee engagement pulse surveys. She emphasizes theÂ importance of gathering employee feedback and usingÂ those perspectives to shape decisions.
The companyâs five-question pulse survey measuresÂ things like confidence in leadership ability, the long-termÂ future of the company, and perspectives onÂ communication and engagement initiatives. The resultsÂ are analyzed and reviewed by a COVID-19 task force ofÂ team leaders and addressed by the CEO in 30-minuteÂ town halls that include an update on the business andÂ organizational changes in response to the pandemic.
Jacobsen Construction also increased the frequency andÂ content of its communications. â[We have introduced]Â everything from a âCOVID-19 Support Centerâ to virtualÂ training to reduce stress and anxiety,â says Stone. âOurÂ communication team has done a great job of providingÂ daily updates on the impact of the crisis to our industryÂ and our community. We have also been conductingÂ pulse surveys and share the results and connect theÂ results to actions we have taken. We are taking care ofÂ each other.â
According to Heller, other viable communication platformsÂ include company intranet platforms, social mediaÂ networks that foster two-way communication, and virtualÂ meetings like the companyâs lunch-and-learn series.
Communication has to extend to furloughed membersÂ of the workforce as well. While Marriott VacationsÂ Worldwide has built an engagement strategy thatÂ includes things like CEO messages, FAQs, intranetÂ communications, webinars, open mic sessions, andÂ personal and professional well-being guides, theÂ companyâs HR team has also developed communicationÂ strategies for the unique needs of workers who haveÂ been furloughed or whose hours have been reduced.
âParticularly for our associates on furlough, we wantedÂ to continue to make sure they felt like they were stillÂ an important part of the team, so weâve establishedÂ a way to stay connected with them through WorkdayÂ by communicating with them on a weekly basis,â saysÂ Yonker. âWe use a lot of video from our leaders whichÂ helps with engagement. Also, providing resources forÂ âmoments that matterâ are really important to us, suchÂ as training on how to navigate the unemploymentÂ process and assisting associates locate short-term,Â temporary job opportunities.â
In addition to these efforts, Marriott has made effortsÂ to maintain optimism across its workforce by leveragingÂ internal and external social media campaigns that showÂ the bright spots and silver linings during this difficult time,Â from community outreach to caring for first responders.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has doneÂ major damage to the economy and the lives of millionsÂ of people, but it has also served as an accelerator ofÂ one of the greatest modern workplace transformations.Â How and where people work, shop, exercise, learn, andÂ communicate will be forever changedâbut it could be forÂ the better.
By focusing on employee well-being, leveraging honestÂ and transparent communication, and remaining agile andÂ quick to pivot, organizations can create lasting positiveÂ change that will extend far beyond the current crisis.
According to Avila, an effective company response toÂ this moment in history can create significant employeeÂ loyalty, a stronger company culture, and a moreÂ connected workforce. âPeople appreciate the extentÂ to which weâve tried to keep the team intact in theÂ organization and the way weâve prioritized frequent,Â transparent, and forthcoming communication. WeâveÂ created memory equity and loyalty there. People alsoÂ realize they have a lot of autonomy in terms of howÂ some of the jobs can be redesigned and the work can beÂ reallocated in the organization.â
How can HR leaders set themselves up for successÂ beyond this crisis? Yonker said it best: âStay focusedÂ on your core values, be open to new ways of working,Â always keep your associates and their well-being at theÂ core of your decision making, and remain flexible.â