Workforce Management

Learning from Hardship

Companies share how they are adapting to the continued challenges of COVID-19.

By Simon Kent

A few weeks before the turn of the year, there was a sense of optimism in the air. Vaccines were coming, the battle against COVID-19 appeared to be being won, and everyone was saying good riddance to the end of an awful year in the hope of a more positive 2021.

Whilst the emergence of new variants, lockdowns, and further restrictions have not entirely tarnished that hope, they have presented companies and HR with renewed challenges. But having already dealt with the massive upheaval caused by COVID-19 so far, is HR already set for what’s to come or is a new strategy required for the next stage of the pandemic?

“People are done with quizzes and virtual cocktail hours, so we’ve had to go back to basics and think about social psychology and what will work for people to get through this,” says Aaron Lamers, HR director for Northern Europe at General Mills.

Lamers and his team have identified three focus areas for the way ahead: time, space, and care. As part of this, the company has introduced “Free Form Fridays,” days when the afternoon -and once a month, the entire day -is free of formal meetings. They’ve also introduced well-being and safety initiatives, including access to childcare and meditation.

Crucially, the business is now focusing on the way teams work as well as individuals. The company is providing the tools, opportunities, and autonomy teams need to collaborate effectively. This is helping achieve targets whilst getting the flexibility everyone needs.

For example, a “prioritisation toolkit” helps teams have a clear understanding of what’s important for them to spend time on and what should take a back seat. Flexibility extends to where work is done; whilst employees have been returning to the office, the company is letting teams decide where work should be done and, ultimately, what the office is for.

According to Lamers, the changes and adaptations required to work through the pandemic have seen HR and other departments undergo similar transformations. “Our technology colleagues have been trying for a long time to have some of the technology we’re now using adopted,” he says. “COVID has taken us from doing that over five years to doing it in months. Similarly, we’ve been encouraging our managers to manage through outputs for a while, but because everyone is now working virtually, they have to do that -focusing on what’s critical and de-prioritising other things.”

The emotional well-being of workers is high on the agenda for today’s companies. The winter blues can be bad enough, but the downgrading of the usual festivities combined with new lockdowns and restrictions means that HR must ensure their mental health support is up to the challenge.

Chad Bennett, chief human resources officer for productivity tech company Wrike, says supporting employees as they work from home requires emotional considerations. “The inability to connect physically with others in an office environment could bring on feelings of isolation and anxiety for some,” he says. “The current health crisis is acting as an unprecedented experiment for organisations, testing their ability to create a remote employee culture that promotes health and well-being over bottom lines.”

Bennett sees video conferencing systems and collaborative working tools as key to giving this kind of support. “Organising regular video catch-ups can encourage employees to talk and help to establish a bit of a support network,” he says.

Bennett also advocates technology that gives real-time information, offering greater visibility across internal teams and departments. “This makes it easier to maintain virtual connections whilst also maximising transparency and versatility -two factors fundamental in enabling individuals and wider teams to manage workloads,” he says.

Schneider Electric has also placed well-being at the heart of its approach. With over 30,000 colleagues trained in well-being, including the company’s top 2,000 global leaders, Kelly Becker, zone president of U.K. and Ireland, says well-being fuels greater performance and enables people to be healthier, happier, and more focused and motivated.

“This has stood us in good stead to respond to the well-being challenges posed by local lockdowns, working from home, and the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

Technology has proved key to Schneider Electric’s ability to flex the support necessary for employees as they moved between the workplace and home. When the lockdowns first began, the company accelerated its own digital infrastructure to support remote working. Similarly, when local restrictions allowed staff to work from offices again, the company used proprietary return to work technology to make it possible alongside the demands of social distancing and ensuring safe air quality.

These internal initiatives have been shared with clients, recognising that what works for one business can be transferred to others. “We have engaged with several customers in the past year to bring awareness of best practices in managing building operations, and participated in facility interventions related to pressurisation, outdoor air, humidity and airflow management, and the installation of high-grade filters,” says Becker.

For Pets at Home‘s Chief People Officer Louise Stoner, adapting to COVID-19 centred on addressing the challenge of managing 15,000 colleagues in diverse roles across locations, including retail stores, a veterinary business, groom rooms, and the head office. This was complicated by the fact that as a pet care company, the retail store colleagues and vets were classified as key workers.

“Early on, the most important thing that we did was to engender an environment of trust and communication,” says Stoner. Daily videos were sent to every colleague to provide reassurance alongside updates on government guidance. A director buddy scheme was also introduced, which gave every director responsibility for a different area of the store from which they gathered feedback and provided advice and support. The success of this initiative has led to the buddy scheme now becoming permanent.

The past year has been one of disruption and hardship, but it has also been a learning experience for many within HR and beyond. The daily challenge of balancing work and life in the same space remains difficult. But having already established effective strategies, HR is still pushing the boundaries for better practices to support their workforce and help employees be their best.


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