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How Home Depot built out its HR response to COVID with Workday

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 14, 2021
Home Depot's 400,000 associates present an HR management challenge at the best of times, but once COVID struck, the complexities increased...

Home Depot
(Home Depot )

The COVID crisis has created additional pressures and challenges for employers in terms of supporting their workforces. US DIY institution Home Depot has tapped into Workday to assist in managing its way though the disruption from an HR and Payroll perspective. 

Home Depot has around 2,300 stores, mostly in the US, complemented by a Canadian and Mexican presence, with an average store typically employing between 150 and 200 associates. In total, the firm boasts nearly 500,000 people on its payroll. In-store associates are primarily paid on an hourly rate, while there are a number of distribution centers which employ all full-time associates. Finally there’s a store support center, based at corporate HQ in Atlanta. 

Managing all of that would be a big enough HR challenge at the best of times, but since the onset of the pandemic, the complexities have inevitably increased, particularly in the first months of the crisis. Or as Scott Smith, VP Compensation, Benefits and HR Operations, Home Depot, puts it: 

That March and April timeframe was crazy for all of us.

The HR operation at Home Depot consists of a number of key elements - HR tech, HR reporting and analytics, an HR Shared Services team and a Payroll team. Back in late 2019, pre-COVID, Smith took the lead in rolling out Workday cloud solutions to add to the mix. As events have transpired, it was a timely strategic move by Home Depot. 

COVID response

When the pandemic struck home in March 2020, Home Depot took a couple of immediate actions from an HR policy perspective. It granted two weeks incremental paid time off to every frontline associate in the company, reasoning that it didn’t want employees to feel forced to come into work at a time when little was known about the virus. For associates who fell into a high risk category -  such as those with chronic medical conditions or those that were over a certain age - a further incremental four weeks were granted. 

But Home Depot needed to keep up-and-running with demand for product soaring, as locked-down customers took the opportunity of ‘house arrest’ to embark on that long-planned, but never actioned home renovation project that they’d talked about doing for years. That meant that the retailer needed a workforce on the frontline, notes Smith, and that need brought its own challenges: 

A lot of people have spent a lot of time at home. They have not been spending money on things like vacations and going out to eat, so they've been spending money on their homes and we've seen that in increased sales in 2020. So we needed those associates who were willing and able to work, to be able to come into work. We wanted to encourage them to do so. We also wanted to recognise that they were in there every day, helping our customers on the frontline. What we did was put in a temporary weekly bonus program.  Associates who worked a certain number of hours were paid additional bonuses above and beyond the regular pay, between $50 and $100 per week.

But cash is one thing; employee trust that it was safe to be in the workplace was another, which led to the rollout of measures such as pre-work health screenings, on site temperature checks, face coverings and plexiglass shields.

Workday implementation

Home Depot’s Workday deployment went live at the end of December 2019 with the rollout of HCM, Payroll, Compensation and Talent modules. Learning and Recruiting were to be left until a later date on the basis that it would have been too much change to manage if everything had been done at once. 

The implementation began in Canada, where Home Depot’s business operation is smaller - 30,000 employees vs 400,000 in the US. This had benefits in terms of the wider rollout as it provided the chance to get through “growing pains” in a smaller, more controlled setting than going live across all three countries where the firm has a presence at once. 

For the implementation overall, there were a number of guiding principles that shaped the Workday implementation, explains Smith:

One was that we were going to design the system and configure the system and configure the associate experience from the associate back, rather than from subject matter experts forwards. So rather than my comp team saying, 'Here's what it needs to look like', it was like, 'No, what does an associate think that the process needs to look like?’ and taking that feedback into account. 

Another one - and this was really hard for us, but it was so critical - was that we were not going to use Workday to just re-implement all of our existing processes that we used with our old technology. We were going to change our process to match Workday's capability. That was hard. We get very set in our ways on how we do things. We had had our legacy systems in place for a very long time, so it was important for us to challenge our thinking and make sure we were going with Workday's default approach as much as we could and adjusting our processes to match. 

Tech central 

Home Depot’s multi-year digital transformation push has been well-documented on diginomica and while it hit a bit of a bump in the road in late-2019, prior to the Workday initiative, it has been judged a success in the main. In 2020, technology was central to everything the firm did in response to COVID, says Smith:

All these great programs that we put in place, whether it was the paid time off or the weekly bonuses or things like that, those all require technology support. We can design great programs and come up with great ideas, but if you can't execute them, it really doesn't matter - and we had to execute them for 400,000 associates every week. At our scale we just can't put in manual processes that just handle getting something in quickly. We have to use automation and use technology to drive automated solutions.

And speed was of the essence here. Back in March and April, in the “crazy” times, a new initiative might be decided upon and implemented quickly, with consequent HR and payroll implications. Smith explains: 

We were rolling these programs out fast and furious, often with short lead times and very little infrastructure pre-built. We had to put tools in place quickly. Say we're gonna announce a program on March 23 and the first pay check is going to be on April 6, we just had to figure it out. I don't know that we could have done that without Workday and the flexibility that Workday provides. From a payroll perspective, it just would have been a challenging time.  

Workday is also playing its part in addressing the issue of real-time communication between managers and frontline associates in-store. Home Depot stores are vast and the workforce isn’t sitting at a desk in the main, so contacting them during the working day can be difficult, notes Smith. That’s a problem given the fast-changing requirements the pandemic has brought with it: 

We found throughout 2020 that we've been having to get messages to associates quickly, whether it's a change in protocols, a new program, something they needed to do to take action. Workday Notification Center is just one of the many ways that we've tried to reach associates more directly and more quickly over the course of 2020.

Skilling up the workforce

The firm has also addressed the need for ongoing training of its associates. With the COVID crisis still far from over despite the arrival of vaccines, Home Depot cannot just push this to one side until things are back to ‘normal’. There are 40,000 products across the stores inventory, a lot of which are complex items that require a lot of knowledge to explain to customers. So having associates trained and skilled is critical to bottom-line success, Smith says:

We need to make sure that we're training folks and giving them the knowledge that they need. A cornerstone of our approach has really been to try and pull as much of the learning as we can onto the sales floor and to make it happen in real-time, rather than relying on a training room approach where an associate spends time in front of their computer, takes in a bunch of information and then we have to hope that they retain it for when they need it.

Well before COVID struck, the retailer had rolled out its First Phone initiative. First Phones are proprietary devices from Zebra Technologies that come pre-loaded with a number of applications, including product training information, and which can be used on the shop floor. As the Workday Learning modules are rolled out, the plan is to connect them to the First Phone tools, part of wider intent to get to one integrated set of solutions overall.  

Looking for ways to provide that integrated approach is one of main challenges facing  Smith’s team: 

That's kind of the next step in the evolution for us  - continue to build out that foundation with Workday, and then just figure out ways to connect it into a cohesive associate experience…to look for ways to just provide that integrated solution that connects all those technologies in a way that makes it easy for associates to access. I'm not sending you one place for your payroll slip and another place for training and a third place for your schedule. [We’re] really trying to get to an integrated solution and make it as easy on the associate as we can, because ultimately that's what that technology is there for. We believe that'll just provide a better connection with the associates and drive engagement and also just make them more efficient and better prepared to do their jobs.

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