CHRO Amber C. Kennelly shares how her organization pivoted due to the pandemic -and ways the business has changed for the better.

By The Editors

The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to be more agile and flexible than ever as they responded to unprecedented business disruption while maintaining fluid operations. HR teams carried a heavy weight, taking on the burden of navigating the transition to remote work and soothing employee anxieties in an uncertain climate. Here, Amber C. Kennelly, CHRO of insurance brokerage HUB International, shares how her organization managed the shift to remote work while maintaining employee engagement and well-being.

HRO Today: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business operations, talent acquisition, and talent management strategies?

Amber C. Kennelly: We were able to quickly shift our 13,000 North American, generally office-based employees to a virtual, remote setting in less than one week. With more than 450 offices of different sizes and in many different geographies across North America, we needed to quickly evaluate technology infrastructure, hardware deployments, system stability, video solutions, and telephony. These became some of the most critical to-do items, along with the creation of a cross-functional “Pandemic Response Team” (PRT).

Comprised of risk services, legal, HR, IT, procurement and real estate, communications, and claims team members, the PRT began building a COVID-19 toolkit that would become so valuable to our leaders, employees, and clients. As the COVID-19 situation evolved, the COVID-19 toolkit was deployed on our intranet for our local leaders and HR teams to provide up-to-date information on our guidelines, training, communications, reintegration planning, and office assessments. Even now, weeks and months later, the PRT is still updating tools and resources in the toolkit for our employees and clients as regulatory bodies and governments update guidance, requirements, and shelter-in-place guidelines.

Once we stabilized our virtual teams and completed forecasts given what we were seeing with respect to economic conditions, we felt better able to make decisions going forward. We virtually onboarded any new employees that were in process and held off bringing on other new employees (except essential roles) for a period. In the early COVID-19 days and even now, we have utilized a common sense and flexible approach to problem-solving, focusing on employee safety and client support.

In areas we were hiring, talent acquisition involved virtual interviews, virtual onboarding, and virtual training. While this was a new exercise for us, like with everything around us, we adapted to these new circumstances.

Thankfully, we did not experience any major staffing disruptions and were able to focus significant energy on supporting our employees and clients in this very dynamic and uncertain environment. In a pulse survey conducted during COVID-19, we learned that 90 percent of the employees who took the survey responded positively to “even when working virtually, my team does a good job of staying connected on our work.”

HRO Today: Have you had to pivot your employees’ job responsibilities to fit changing business needs? If so, how did you manage the transition?

Kennelly: While the work that we do in serving clients and supporting our employees didn’t change, the way that we are doing this work during COVID-19 has shifted significantly. Pre-COVID-19, our teams would regularly meet with clients and prospects in person to discuss and consult on their needs and then work with the service team in our offices. With COVID-19, we have shifted to an entirely virtual workforce. Our teams have leveraged Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and GoToMeeting to maintain connections with clients and teams.

In addition to shifting the way we connected with our clients and with each other, we also quickly mobilized our internal experts and digital marketing team to produce and make available resources and tools to address any concerns.

HRO Today: What communication strategies are you leveraging to keep employees up to date on changes?

Kennelly: We began a regular leadership communication cadence early in March. We created weekly corporate communications, calls or emails, from either our CEO, myself, or a few of our other corporate function leads. Given our highly localized approach, we had not done regular company-wide calls with our employees before this time. We’ve learned from employees that this steady, predictable flow of information has been much appreciated.

In addition to these corporate-wide communications, our local leadership also adopted a cadence of regular communications with their teams to share critical updates. In fact, in a pulse survey conducted during COVID-19, 89 percent of employees who completed the survey responded positively to “I am getting the right amount of communication from leadership at my local HUB,” and 89 percent of employees agreed that “local Hub leadership shares timely information when I need it.”

Additionally, I have been leading weekly Zoom calls, one for our U.S. HR team leadership and one for our Canadian HR leadership, to share, update, connect, and discuss any topics that this “frontline” team needs. We also use these calls as opportunities for other leaders -IT, legal, or risk services, for example -to provide updates to the HR team, which then shares with its local operations teams. And during the few calls where we did not have a full agenda of COVID-19 updates, the team members would catch up with each other, learn more about their families (and pets), and enjoy each other’s company. These calls have been incredible in building our HR community and keeping our team connected on the quickly evolving and changing COVID-19 landscape. Some members of these teams have shared with me that they feel like they know each other better now than they did pre-COVID-19!

HRO Today: What are you doing to ensure employee well-being and retention during this uncertain time?

Kennelly: Employee safety and mental well-being have been very front of mind for us during COVID-19. We have created several ways to support our employees, including:

  • created a regular and predictable communications cadence, with a very transparent and authentic tone;
  • curated mental, physical, and financial well-being materials for our employees on a custom Percipio channel;
  • worked with our employee benefit carriers to explore additional offerings, resources, or flexibility that might be valuable to our employees, including things like telehealth options, deadline extensions, carryover allowances, grace periods, or making additional advisors available;
  • hosted webinars to support our employees on our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) journeys to create room for and have safe conversations, learn more about allyship, and engage in conversations with their children on these topics;
  • regularly communicated with our employees about the employee assistance program and offerings available to them; and
  • equipped our HR teams with information on flexible work arrangements, so if an employee wants to discuss options, we are prepared to engage with and support them.

In addition to these well-being items, we also piloted a “HUB Summer Camp” program to develop and invest in our employees this summer. Many of the sessions of our camp are intended to be a bit lighter and fun, while some are focused on timely topics of interest. For example, sessions include mindfulness, yoga, sharing sales stories and experiences, how to deliver feedback, financial wellness, allyship, leveraging your strengths, classic boardgames, and many others.

To retain our employees, we undertook a few carefully developed cost management efforts to get in front of economic uncertainty. By taking these steps, our goal has been (and continues to be) to ensure we have no corporate-led reductions in force or layoffs through COVID-19. By making relatively smaller adjustments, we are working to ensure that we are able support all our employees through this tumultuous time.

Tags: CHRO-Focused Article, Employee Engagement, Magazine Article, October 2020, Talent Management

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