Seven CHROs share the new realities of work and how the challenges ofÂ 2020 have driven them to make disruptive change.
By Debbie Bolla
âEmpathy, flexibility, and resiliency defined 2020,â saysÂ Kathie Patterson, CHRO of Ally Financial.Â Taking a closer look, Patterson couldnât be more spot-on.
As defined by Merriam-Webster:
- empathy is the action of understanding, being awareÂ of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing theÂ feelings, thoughts, and experience of another;
- flexibility is characterized by a ready capability to adaptÂ to new, different, or changing requirements; and
- resiliency is an ability to recover from or adjust easilyÂ to adversity or change.
HR leaders had to face the enormous challenges ofÂ the past year with these three attributes guiding theirÂ actions. Mai Lan Nguyen, senior vice president of HR inÂ North America for Schneider Electric, says COVID-19 hasÂ been a real-life test of resiliency, calling for organizationsÂ to reimagine the way business gets done. TechnologyÂ has been a game-changer in her company’s approach,Â allowing the business to stay connected while pushingÂ new ideas to fruition.
âWhile digitization was already a key part of our HRÂ strategy at Schneider Electric, itâs played a significant roleÂ in helping us start to shape the workplace of the future, toÂ brainstorm effective talent strategy and retention efforts,Â and to enhance the flexibility of our work policies.â
For example, Schneider Electric drew inspiration from theÂ gig economy and launched its âOpen Talent Marketplace”Â (OTM). OTM is an AI-driven platform that connectsÂ employees who are looking to grow their skills with short-termÂ projects. It also encourages mentorship within theÂ organization.
âItâs been a win-win for us,â Nguyen says. âParticipation inÂ OTM has been a tremendous success as weâve completedÂ more than 45,000 hours of work in the marketplaceÂ since its launch. Employees are being matched to workÂ on a particular assignment they find most intriguing,Â resulting in teams with a diverse mix of backgrounds andÂ experiences to find solutions.â
Virtual tech tools are also playing a major role in theÂ way organizations communicate and get work doneÂ remotely in the new normal. âThe use of Zoom for ourÂ meetings has had the most profound impact on ourÂ work and relationships,â says Kristin Johnson, CHRO ofÂ Edward Jones. âZoom has allowed us into our clientsâ andÂ colleaguesâ homes and lives, having met children and petsÂ and learned of hobbies that Iâm not sure I ever would haveÂ in the physical office environment. It has been amazingÂ to see how personal relationships can be forged andÂ sustained in the virtual environment.â
Remote work has also forced organizations to redefineÂ how they approach and embrace workplace flexibility.Â John Murabito, executive vice president and CHRO ofÂ Cigna, says the line between work and life has becomeÂ non-existent, with employees getting their jobs doneÂ from anywhere the house allowsâthe guest room, theÂ basement, and even the kitchen table.
âItâs really difficult to maintain work-life balance whileÂ dealing with some very intense personal responsibilities,Â coupled with day-to-day professional roles,â he says.Â This is where flexibility comes into play: âWeâve made aÂ conscious effort to work with our leaders to underscoreÂ the importance and expectation of flexibility with ourÂ teams. Maybe itâs non-traditional hours, job-sharing, orÂ taking the âemergency time-offâ we instituted for anyÂ COVID-related reason, but our message has been clear.Â Meet your teams where they are and work to addressÂ any roadblocks or barriers to help them do their work,âÂ Murabito explains.
That people-first approach resonates with organizationsÂ that are looking to support both the physical and mentalÂ well-being of employees during a very stressful time.Â âEvery person has a different set of needs and is dealingÂ with their own unique circumstances in their personal andÂ professional lives,â says Mike Fenlon, chief people officerÂ of PwC. âWhile PwC has long offered a number of flexibleÂ work options and care benefits, we realized that givenÂ the current environment, we needed to expand upon ourÂ existing offerings and that there is simply no one-size-fits-allÂ approach to meeting the needs of our people. â
To meet employees where they are during the pandemic,Â PwC provides benefits that run the gamut and include:
- employee-created work schedules through formal andÂ informal flexibility options;
- an emergency $2,000 childcare reimbursement;
- a six-month leave of absence option that allowsÂ employees to retain 20% of their pay; and
- increased mental health support offerings, including freeÂ virtual therapy sessions and mindfulness resources.
The circumstances of the pandemic also forcedÂ organizations to redesign the employee experience inÂ order to keep engagement levels high.
âOver the course of the pandemic, we quickly saw anÂ opportunity to improve the way our employees experienceÂ the DocuSign culture,â says Chief People Officer JoanÂ Burke. âWe reimagined our onboarding experience,Â created cohort groups for employees to connect, andÂ challenged ourselves to think creatively about how weÂ reinforce inclusion. We have been pleased to see that ourÂ engagement scores during this period continue to remainÂ very high.â
Joining a new company while working remotelyÂ can present some obstacles, so DocuSign acted veryÂ thoughtfully to ensure newly hired employees feelÂ connected to the company culture. To enhance virtualÂ communications, new hires have their own communityÂ via a Slack channel and the companyâs internal platformÂ âDocuSign Learning.”
âAdditionally, we created a 24-hour virtual Zoom coffeeÂ break so that employees from all over the world have theÂ opportunity to join the platform and meet in a friendly,Â low pressure way,â she says.
In a new virtual reality, leadership and employee supportÂ is more important than ever, and managers are a crucialÂ piece of that puzzle. For DocuSign, investing in peopleÂ managers is key to helping employees work to their fullestÂ potential.
âItâs been important to find new ways to support ourÂ managers with new tools and new resources so that theyÂ feel comfortable leading in this remote environment,âÂ explains Burke. âFor instance, one of our programs focusesÂ on helping managers understand the power of tailoringÂ motivation and rewards to what is meaningful to theÂ individual. In other words, one size fits one.â
With no timeframe for the pandemicâs length, GibsonÂ Smith, chief people officer of Avionos, led with the futureÂ in mind. âAll of the programs we put in place were focusedÂ on longer term approaches versus quick hits or quickÂ wins because we wanted to make sure we created someÂ structure of new normalcy for the long haul,â he explains.
A sense of normalcy is clearly something employees seekÂ out during times of uncertainty. To offer that, AvionosÂ developed cross-team groups called âPeople Opting to DoÂ Somethingâ (PODS) with the goal of providing supportÂ and collaboration tools for employees across the country. The purpose of these PODS is multifold, including:
- creating a heightened sense of engagement;
- reducing isolation;
- increasing general comradery;
- developing social bonds;
- offering regular cadence for check-ins; and
- creating small communities within the largerÂ organization.
With the pandemic proving how agile and adaptableÂ organizations can be, some newer approaches are likely toÂ stick around. âI think flexible schedules will be ingrainedÂ into most organizations as the norm now,â Smith says.Â âBalancing onsite and distributed environments will be aÂ discussion topic for leadership moving forward.â
Murabito agrees. âIn the past, there were some rolesÂ that we felt couldnât âor shouldnâtâbe done at home.Â That theory no longer applies as the vast majority of ourÂ employees are working at home now and have been sinceÂ last March. Itâs been a good lesson for us to learn. OurÂ internal surveys tell us that employees really value theÂ flexibility that comes with working at home and largelyÂ want to continue to work this way in the future. So now,Â our challenge is to figure out how best to enable that andÂ continue to build and enhance our workplace culture andÂ connectedness.â
DocuSign is zeroing in on a culture of inclusion inÂ anticipation of the shift to a hybrid modelâa blend of in-officeÂ and remote workersâonce office spaces completelyÂ reopen. âThereâs a need for HR to rethink, and helpÂ managers rethink, how we get work done and with whatÂ tools while engaging and empowering employees,â BurkeÂ explains.
For a hybrid model to be successful, she says organizationsÂ should continue leveraging tools like Slack and Zoom andÂ reimburse employees for the expenses that come withÂ working from home. But good execution will depend onÂ HR leaders’ ability to keep the lines of communicationÂ open. With that in mind, feedback from regular employeeÂ engagement surveys can help guide strategy.
âAs we look ahead, we will take our learnings from thisÂ year and continue with an employee-first approach acrossÂ the board, regardless of where theyâre working,â she says.
Ally Financialâs Patterson says that moving forward,Â employees will expect more flexibility in their jobs andÂ companies will need to adapt. âWe firmly believe in theÂ powerful, positive cultural impact that having employeesÂ in facilities together brings,â she explains. “Ally is notÂ a company that will go fully virtual. We get too muchÂ energy, creativity, and efficiencies from the collaborationÂ that can only happen face-to-face. But we will need toÂ approach things with our employees in new ways thatÂ make it easier to balance personal demands with that ofÂ the business, ensuring Ally is a place people want to work,Â where they can grow and develop both personally andÂ professionally.â
Nguyen believes digitizationâs impact will continue in 2021,Â shaping how organizations grow and retain talent. âTheÂ acceleration of digitization and automation will drive usÂ to innovate more and therefore prompt organizationsÂ to reskill and upskill existing talent,â she says. âFromÂ my view as an HR leader, this means nurturing a cultureÂ of continuous learning and formalizing ongoing talentÂ development programs as the vertical career progressionÂ model of yesterday falls to the side.â