COVID-19: HR Responds

COVID-19

Six HR leaders share how they are managing through a global crisis.

By Debbie Bolla

For organizations, employees, and the world at large, these are unprecedented times. As quickly as the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread across the globe, HR leaders responded, ushering their organizations with the needed resources to ensure employee safety, health, wellness, and productivity. HRO Today spoke with six HR leaders on how they are managing through the global crisis that is COVID-19. Great insight here—stay safe and lead on!

HRO Today: What policies have you put in place in response to COVID-19?

Jennifer Ho, vice president of HR for Ascentis Human Capital Management Software: Overall, we’re seeing these conversations highlight the importance of having a business continuity plan in place. Even though we already had a business continuity plan, reviewing and updating our plan was our number one priority early on and has supported our entire organization as the COVID-19 situation developed. It’s good to note that these plans are useful for several emergency scenarios, including wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes.

It’s important that our employees are able to reference all of our workplace policies via our online learning management system (LMS). Our platform provides our employees with a simple self-service method for quickly and easily finding consuming training material via the web or even on their mobile device. It has been a major resource for our employees over the last few weeks and continues to serve as a comprehensive, convenient way to reach our team no matter where they are, in real time.

John Murabito, CHRO for Cigna: We’ve been monitoring the coronavirus spread for quite some time, so once it became evident that the spread was beginning in the U.S., we very quickly instituted travel and meeting guidance that minimized face-to-face interaction unless business-critical in nature, and guidelines to help ensure that people who may have been exposed to the virus stayed at home during the potential incubation period. As of March 16, we also strongly encouraged all employees who are able to work from home to do so until further notice, and we’re working to deploy technology to employees who hadn’t traditionally had that ability before.

Laura Butler, senior vice president of people and culture for Workfront: We already had policies in place that gave us a foundation to build on as we respond to the coronavirus. Some of these policies already in place include unlimited paid time off, employee-issued laptops, Zoom for video conferencing, Slack for communication, and our own software, Workfront, for collaborating on getting work done.

Some of our new policies include:

  • 100 percent work from home;
  • all customer events have been moved to online platforms;
  • employee events, such as job interviews, new hire onboarding, and training, are now all online; and
  • travel restrictions are in effect in an effort for our employees to stay safe and healthy.

Peter Navin, CHRO for Grand Rounds: In order for us to be as customer- and member-centric as we are, we have had a business continuity plan already established that has enabled us to ensure the health and well-being of our teams.

As a healthcare navigator that covers over 5 million lives across 130 employers, we are following our robust plan to ensure we can support our ongoing business, customer, and member needs. We are taking all the steps to prepare for COVID-19 causing mass illness impacting various offices and regions. This includes shifting to daily executive and clinical meetings to adapt operational plans based on the latest CDC guidelines. We’ve tested our infrastructure for a full work-from-home strategy to support social distancing and continuity of care. And we have eliminated non-essential travel and chosen to not participate in large gatherings, like major industry conferences.

Ginny Angilello, senior vice president and CHRO for Covanta: Originally, we focused on implementing changes to business travel. We stopped all business travel between countries except the U.S. and Canada, and deemed that domestic business travel should only be for business critical reasons. Beginning Monday, March 16, less than a week after our travel changes went into effect, we mandated that all non-essential employees and non-essential contractors begin working from home.

Debbie Kemp, chief talent officer for MediaCom: We have been communicating with our employees multiple times a week about our policies and best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We have printed posters that are placed in very visible locations. We have cancelled all meetings with over 50 attendees, including our international women’s day event, as an example.

HRO Today: What services are you offering employees?

Ho: First and most importantly, we are allowing all employees use of our open time off policy to provide flexibility needed to take care of themselves and their families. With several childcare closures, school closures, and eLearning programs being implemented, we recognize this is going to put additional strain on everyone’s families. Our business continuity plan addresses these needs and how we can support our employees without disruption to our clients.

We are also encouraging employees to relocate office equipment, including monitors, noise-canceling headsets, keyboards, and other peripherals needed to ensure a suitable work from home environment .

Angilello: We are implementing some short-term paid time off policies for those who are ill or quarantined due to the virus and cannot work remotely for their job. We are also waiting to see how the federal government will support paid leaves and sick time. Unpaid FMLA will be a burden for employees who have to stay home with school-age children because schools are closed.

Murabito: Certainly, as a health service company focused on the mind-body connection, we’re strongly encouraging those employees who need additional support to utilize our employee assistance program. Understanding that many employees’ children are at home from school for an extended period of time, we’re also encouraging managers to think about their teams working at home in a more creative way than they have in the past. For example, granting flex hours or allowing children to be at home with the employee, so long as the work quality and caliber remains the same. We are also helping managers to better understand how to manage a team virtually if they haven’t done so before.

Kemp: To help the transition to remote work, we had a test work from home day. We are providing the opportunity to work from home whether or not employees are sick. We are also advising self-quarantine for those who may have been around someone who has or has not tested positive.

Butler: We launched an intranet microsite so that employees have easy access to evolving resources. It seems nearly every day, sometimes multiple times a day, there is new information and action being taken with different requirements. It is important people have a “one source of truth” to go with the latest information.

We are reinforcing our employee assistance program because mental health is vital, especially in times like this. Virtual yoga and other virtual gatherings have begun at a grassroots level to maintain connection to one another and we are promoting those across our internal communication channels.

Navin: We are fortunate to have 100-plus clinicians on staff, including a CDC-trained epidemiologist as part of our clinical leadership, to bring clarity and scientifically accurate information to our employees. Our employees also have access to our service, what we like to call “Grand Rounds for Grand Rounds,” where they can call our care coordinators or speak with a clinician for any questions or clinical concerns. Grand Rounds is always committed to providing rapid responses and caring with empathy, but this is especially important during this challenging time.

HRO Today: How is it impacting hiring?

Murabito: Now more than ever, our customers and clients are relying on us to help them through this uncertain time. Hiring demands remain strong throughout the organization and we continue to attract and hire talent across the company. To keep our employees and prospects safe, we have shifted from in-person to virtual career events in locations where we conduct high-volume hiring, and we have significantly limited in-person interviews and are no longer allowing employees or candidates to travel for an interview to comply with the directives we’ve given our own employees.

Angilello: We are reviewing all open positions and determining how to keep the interview process going through video and phone interviews. Roles that require facility visits before they can be finalized will be postponed for now. Also, new hires with upcoming start dates are being reviewed to see if it is possible to onboard them while we have non-essential employees working from home.

Navin: We are a growth company, so our hiring efforts will continue as planned. During a time like this, we are hyper-focused on our business continuity plan and ensuring our current employees are healthy and have the tools they need to remain productive.

Kemp: Thus far, there has been no impact on hiring. That being said, we are implementing video interviewing as standard practice.

Butler: It has caused us to re-prioritize the headcount we are adding, but we do not have a hiring freeze.

HRO Today: What advice would you give other HR leaders to manage through this crisis and others?

Ho: Most of the recommendations for how to conduct business during the COVID-19 pandemic are associated with common business best practices. We recommend ensuring that your organization or business has a plan in place—one that you and your team can easily reference if and when the need arises. We encourage everyone to remain up to date on the COVID-19 situation, but the key is to deploy common sense as it relates to your business.

As businesses plan, they should take a practical approach when implementing company-wide precautions or policies as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is wise to embrace flexibility where possible and avoid trying to plan for every possible scenario and policy. The key is to have a plan that can be applied to a number of situations, quickly and with practicality. Understand what it takes for your business to run efficiently as you may experience staff availability and scheduling challenges.

Identify resources and make plans for employees to be leveraged across departments or determine whether it’s possible to operate at different locations. For remote work, time tracking and management tools can be leveraged to better gauge employees’ work without micromanaging them or compromising productivity.

Communication tools like instant messaging and group chats should be regularly utilized to enable information flow for all employees. This helps to keep employees aligned with executive leadership and engaged, especially when working remotely. It also provides employers a channel to communicate frequently and ahead of what’s going on. Performing brief surveys will help organizations understand how employees are adapting to the new and evolving work practices.

It’s also a good idea to revisit your company’s PTO and leave policies to allow for potential exemptions and leniency in these kinds of situations. In doing so and communicating current policies and changes to policies related to the COVID-19, employees will have the assurance that they won’t be penalized for taking needed sick time, which will also help protect your company and minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Kemp: Be proactive and over communicate. In times like these, employees want to know what the company is doing and that they care about the health and well-being of the employees.

Murabito: If you don’t communicate, you will have to deal with rumor and conjecture, which will greatly impact employee morale and commitment. We stood up an internal microsite very quickly and we’ve used that as the central source of truth for all of our U.S. employees. That has allowed us to communicate with, but also engage with, our employees in a two-way dialogue. It’s also helped us understand what types of questions were on their minds and how best we could react and respond.

Butler: Ensure executives are still visible in the business to all employees, and that they are being authentic, transparent, and calming. Employees want to know their role and know that their role matters. Help employees understand how their role is important to the business and ties back to strategic company goals.

Angilello: The most important thing is to stay calm and present a calm front to employees. Also, communicate, communicate, communicate. We originally planned to communicate once a week, and have moved to an as-needed basis because information and situations are changing rapidly. We also set up an internal communications website that all employees can access for the most up-to-date information. Finally, be flexible and exhibit empathy—this is an extremely stressful time with much uncertainty. We need to make sure we as leaders are caring for ourselves and ensuring that our employees are taking care of themselves and their families.

Navin: HR leaders must have an enterprise view of the organization and prioritize these three most important things: your employees’ health, business continuity, and company performance. We are in a unique moment in time where economic uncertainty is high, and fear and misinformation is widespread. Examine your practices to ensure they’re always aligned with your priorities and make adjustments as things evolve. Don’t try to move too quickly either; move mindfully and take the time to make fully informed decisions.


Editor’s note: This feedback was given at press time at the end of March.

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Posted March 30, 2020 in Workforce Management

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