Companies share how they are adapting to the continued challenges ofÂ COVID-19.
By Simon Kent
A few weeks before the turn of the year, there was aÂ sense of optimism in the air. Vaccines were coming, theÂ battle against COVID-19 appeared to be being won,Â and everyone was saying good riddance to the endÂ of an awful year in the hope of a more positive 2021.
Whilst the emergence of new variants, lockdowns, andÂ further restrictions have not entirely tarnished that hope,Â they have presented companies and HR with renewedÂ challenges. But having already dealt with the massiveÂ upheaval caused by COVID-19 so far, is HR already set forÂ whatâs to come or is a new strategy required for the nextÂ stage of the pandemic?
âPeople are done with quizzes and virtual cocktail hours,Â so weâve had to go back to basics and think about socialÂ psychology and what will work for people to get throughÂ this,â says Aaron Lamers, HR director for Northern EuropeÂ at General Mills.
Lamers and his team have identified three focus areas forÂ the way ahead: time, space, and care. As part of this, theÂ company has introduced âFree Form Fridays,â days whenÂ the afternoonâand once a month, the entire dayâis freeÂ of formal meetings. Theyâve also introduced well-beingÂ and safety initiatives, including access to childcare andÂ meditation.
Crucially, the business is now focusing on the way teamsÂ work as well as individuals. The company is providingÂ the tools, opportunities, and autonomy teams need toÂ collaborate effectively. This is helping achieve targetsÂ whilst getting the flexibility everyone needs.
For example, a âprioritisation toolkitâ helps teams haveÂ a clear understanding of whatâs important for them toÂ spend time on and what should take a back seat. FlexibilityÂ extends to where work is done; whilst employees haveÂ been returning to the office, the company is letting teamsÂ decide where work should be done and, ultimately, whatÂ the office is for.
According to Lamers, the changes and adaptationsÂ required to work through the pandemic have seen HRÂ and other departments undergo similar transformations.Â âOur technology colleagues have been trying for a longÂ time to have some of the technology weâre now usingÂ adopted,â he says. âCOVID has taken us from doing thatÂ over five years to doing it in months. Similarly, weâve beenÂ encouraging our managers to manage through outputsÂ for a while, but because everyone is now working virtually,Â they have to do thatâfocusing on whatâs critical and de-prioritisingÂ other things.â
The emotional well-being of workers is high on theÂ agenda for todayâs companies. The winter blues can beÂ bad enough, but the downgrading of the usual festivitiesÂ combined with new lockdowns and restrictions means thatÂ HR must ensure their mental health support is up to theÂ challenge.
Chad Bennett, chief human resources officer forÂ productivity tech company Wrike, says supportingÂ employees as they work from home requires emotionalÂ considerations. âThe inability to connect physically withÂ others in an office environment could bring on feelingsÂ of isolation and anxiety for some,â he says. âThe currentÂ health crisis is acting as an unprecedented experimentÂ for organisations, testing their ability to create a remoteÂ employee culture that promotes health and well-beingÂ over bottom lines.â
Bennett sees video conferencing systems andÂ collaborative working tools as key to giving this kindÂ of support. âOrganising regular video catch-ups canÂ encourage employees to talk and help to establish a bit ofÂ a support network,â he says.
Bennett also advocates technology that gives real-timeÂ information, offering greater visibility across internalÂ teams and departments. âThis makes it easier to maintainÂ virtual connections whilst also maximising transparencyÂ and versatilityâtwo factors fundamental in enablingÂ individuals and wider teams to manage workloads,â heÂ says.
Schneider Electric has also placed well-being at the heartÂ of its approach. With over 30,000 colleagues trained inÂ well-being, including the companyâs top 2,000 globalÂ leaders, Kelly Becker, zone president of U.K. and Ireland,Â says well-being fuels greater performance and enablesÂ people to be healthier, happier, and more focused andÂ motivated.
âThis has stood us in good stead to respond to the well-beingÂ challenges posed by local lockdowns, workingÂ from home, and the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19Â pandemic,â she says.
Technology has proved key to Schneider Electricâs abilityÂ to flex the support necessary for employees as they movedÂ between the workplace and home. When the lockdownsÂ first began, the company accelerated its own digitalÂ infrastructure to support remote working. Similarly, whenÂ local restrictions allowed staff to work from offices again,Â the company used proprietary return to work technologyÂ to make it possible alongside the demands of socialÂ distancing and ensuring safe air quality.
These internal initiatives have been shared withÂ clients, recognising that what works for one businessÂ can be transferred to others. âWe have engaged withÂ several customers in the past year to bring awarenessÂ of best practices in managing building operations, andÂ participated in facility interventions related toÂ pressurisation, outdoor air, humidity and airflowÂ management, and the installation of high-grade filters,âÂ says Becker.
For Pets at Homeâs Chief People Officer Louise Stoner,Â adapting to COVID-19 centred on addressing the challengeÂ of managing 15,000 colleagues in diverse roles acrossÂ locations, including retail stores, a veterinary business,Â groom rooms, and the head office. This was complicatedÂ by the fact that as a pet care company, the retail storeÂ colleagues and vets were classified as key workers.
âEarly on, the most important thing that we did was toÂ engender an environment of trust and communication,âÂ says Stoner. Daily videos were sent to every colleague toÂ provide reassurance alongside updates on governmentÂ guidance. A director buddy scheme was also introduced,Â which gave every director responsibility for a differentÂ area of the store from which they gathered feedback andÂ provided advice and support. The success of this initiativeÂ has led to the buddy scheme now becoming permanent.
The past year has been one of disruption and hardship,Â but it has also been a learning experience for many withinÂ HR and beyond. The daily challenge of balancing work andÂ life in the same space remains difficult. But having alreadyÂ established effective strategies, HR is still pushing theÂ boundaries for better practices to support their workforceÂ and help employees be their best.