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HR in the limelight - Chief People Officers share their top priorities during Coronavirus pandemic

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez May 4, 2020
We speak to a number of Chief People Officers and Heads of HR to understand how the Coronavirus pandemic is impacting their people strategies.

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(Image by Tumisu from Pixabay )

Whilst the Coronavirus pandemic has created a number of significant and unique challenges for the enterprise - particularly during the lockdown phase - the HR department in particular has been thrust into the limelight like never before. And whilst there are technical and tooling obstacles to overcome, particularly with rapid changes in legislation (e.g. furloughing staff), Chief People Officers are also having to think about how to continue to invest in their business' biggest asset - its people.

With this in mind, we at diginomica set out to speak to a variety of Heads of HR and Chief People Officers to gain a better understanding of what is front of mind for them during the early months of the pandemic and to gather insight into what they are prioritising for the future.

What was particularly interesting about the conversations we had was that everyone we spoke to is not only focused on the operational challenges of managing a distributed workforce for the foreseeable, but how they can help to look after their employees' wellbeing and continue to invest in their peoples' development.

Below we outline the top priorities for Chief People Officers and those working in the field of people management during this incredibly challenging time.

Engagement and wellbeing

One of the positives to come out of the Coronavirus pandemic is that businesses everywhere are beginning to better understand the benefits of working from home. A culture of ‘presenteeism' persisted for many in a pre-COVID-19 world, with an associated assumption and stigma that being productive at home was impossible. However, organisations are realising that this is a fallacy in many cases and that working from home brings with it a number of benefits.

But that doesn't mean that new challenges don't present themselves. One of which is figuring out ways to keep employees engaged when they're not physically present.

Steve Arnold, CEO of holiday and absence management software company, e-days, highlights the need for companies to fully align their people and technology strategies, in order to tackle engagement. He notes:

You really need to firmly embedded together a people and a technology strategy. So for HR people it's getting the technology to begin with, it's making sure people can actually work from home, and then to focus on people engagement. It's about trying to spot signals within groups of people where there might be struggles going on. I think that's the big challenge in business: how does HR figure out if there are pockets of people struggling with this? Do we know about employees' personal lives? What about the people on furlough, how are we engaging with them? Are they becoming the forgotten people?

Elaine Bremner Chief HR and Talent Officer at MediaCom, a global media agency that employs 1,300 people in the UK is grappling with this exact issue. Bremner states that MediaCom's philosophy has always been ‘people first, better results' because the company's people are essentially its product. Bremner notes that if MediaCom doesn't have really engaged people, it's not going to deliver results for its clients. She explains:

I think it's communicating with people and making sure there are resources there to help people. From our perspective we set up a Coronavirus Hub and a toolkit. Very quickly we put out guidelines on working from home, how to support your clients, how to look after yourself, your team members, your kids - making sure that you're not assuming that people know how to do this.

And then I think from an employee wellbeing perspective we worked out how you can do that virtually. We put a mental health ally in place, where we have got about 65 people that are fully trained and are active mental health allies and can offer support, listen and signpost if needed.

Twice a week MediaCom runs a mental health ally session online, where for just 15 minutes on a Monday and Friday anyone can call in and have a chat if they're feeling a bit lonely. The company is also running online mindfulness classes twice a week, as well as a weekly online yoga course. Bremner says that it's "important for people to take time out but to also feel connected to the business".

Ellen Petry Leanse, Chief People Officer at Lucidworks, a San Francisco based provider of AI powered search technology, has been thinking along the same lines. Leanse's background is in applied neuroscience, and so is particularly mindful of how a time like this - a time of stress, change, confusion - can affect cognition. Some of the things Leanse and her team have been doing include:

We are doing some really fun stuff with Slack channels, sharing information that's supportive and helpful to people while they're at home. We've also created a virtual care package, which shares a lot of things about emotional support, family support, as well as staying physically healthy. My team, the HR team, is also calling everyone they can reach in the company to have a 20 minute conversation with them to make sure they're doing okay, to find out if there's anything they need support with, and to make sure they understand their benefits as the legislation changes.

Laura Butler, SVP of People and Culture at Workfront, a cloud-based project management vendor, agrees that her number one concern during the COVID-19 crisis has been peoples' mental health and wellbeing. Butler says that many employees likely went through a ‘honeymoon phase' as working from home fully took hold - enjoying not being in the office and doing things like setting up ‘happy hours' on Zoom with colleagues - but that this will subside, reality will set in and people will begin to feel isolated, stressed and uncertain about the future. She explains:

That reality component is where people are starting to shift and managing that emotional tenor is a huge opportunity for us in HR. Ensuring that we provide mental health resources, as well as connection points. One of the things we have done is ensuring people are taking their spring breaks in the US, instead of working through. In some other cases where we've got two working parents at home, we've made recommendations that one working parent should take a day off and be with their kids and then alternate with their spouse. Rather than feel like they're spending half the time with their kids and half the time working and not succeeding at anything. It's important to give people a sense of control and flexibility.

A new approach to management

Another key focus area for HR chiefs is assessing what a distributed workforce means for managers. Throughout the conversations with the leaders we spoke to, almost all of them recognise that managing people that are not physically in front of you during working hours may require a different approach. This isn't about making sure that people are online 24/7 or clocking hours, but more about supporting leaders in ensuring they understand what's needed from their teams.

Elisa Gilmartin, Chief People Officer at Fuze, a global cloud communications provider for the enterprise, says that this has been a top priority for her company. She explains:

We have a leadership network where we're reinforcing good management. It really takes a lot more touching base and management is different during this time. Managing a distributed workforce is very different and it takes consistency.

[You have to] focus on helping leaders manage remote work and teams - which includes them embracing and deploying new tactics. Helping them help their teams prioritize their work- - determine importance, organize a plan, and set realistic goals and measurable results.

Workfront's Laura Butler agrees and states that managing teams online with a distributed workforce is a "2.0 skill". She says:

It definitely requires a different skill set. You have to be able to set direction, understand the goals your people are working on, and what you want to measure for outcomes. At work we often take for granted that you saw John, it seemed like he was working all day, he looked really busy. Now you have to say, is it clear what they're supposed to do? Is that the right thing to do? And how am I measuring and managing success?

Lucidworks is also thinking this through, with a focus on ensuring people feel like they're contributing in the right way. Leanse explains:

How do we make sure they are contributing to what matters? Goal management becomes more important, clarity around goals becomes more important. Also really up-levelling our game as managers to make sure people understand: how are they tracking to what was expected?

Coaching and development

Interestingly, some of the companies that we spoke to highlighted that they don't want persistent lockdowns and distributed workforces to mean that they put a pause on investing in the skills and development of their people. Again, recognising that people and teams are the greatest asset to your business and knowing that they will be key to seeing your company through this crisis is key.

Talent Development Lead, Anastasia Brouwer, at payments fin tech company SumUp, said exactly this. SumUp has recently decided to make use of CoachHub, a digital talent and development platform, which pairs people with certified coaches around the world online. Brouwer explains:

We are looking at our people development and our focus is to make sure that we do not stop growing. We are using this situation as an opportunity for ourselves and our teams to develop new products. To develop ourselves through this challenge and become even closer as teams.

SumUp is using CoachHub for its leadership development and is working with 20 leaders in the organisation to discover, develop and deepen their leadership capabilities. The leaders set the goals they wish to develop and meet with a coach twice a month to discuss progress and plans. Brouwer says that HR leaders should be thinking about how to prioritise employee development within the context of a digital work environment and to get creative, so that a lack of physical interaction doesn't equal stale. She says:

We already know and believe that digital coaching is something that is helpful for us. And something that makes coaching more accessible. Personal development is something you sometimes deprioritise very, very quickly. The convenience of being able to talk to your coach by opening an app on your phone or laptop is something that makes it easier to convert into a good habit.

Prior to COVID-19, roughly 90% of all our programmes were run in the classroom. So going very quickly to web-based deployments requires a different set of skills and creativity. When we talk about e-learnings people typically imagine these dull presentations that you click through. But it doesn't have to be. You can be very creative - looking at available resources on the internet, TED Talks, articles - and connecting those with additional opportunities for people to get together and discuss the main goals they took from the content. Getting together with your colleagues to talk about topics that are interesting and inspiring, creates this togetherness and belonging.

The future of work

We at diginomica have been outlining our thoughts on what the impact of COVID-19 may have on the future of work - you can check out our COVID-19 resource hub here for all the content we have put together thus far. Unsurprisingly, this is a topic that is also front of mind for HR leaders. If the premise that running organisations may never return to ‘normal' is accepted, HR chiefs will play a key role in leading the charge in a companies' route to success.

For some, this also means thinking about what a future physical environment may look like. Fuze's Gilmartin, for example, says:

One of my biggest concerns is, when we go back to work, what is that going to look like? How do we start thinking about this, where we can still keep people safe and comfortable? The six feet parameters, the office flow, how people walk through the office. Our workspace is going to look different and it's affecting how we redesign the office space.

Workfront's Laura Butler definitely buys into the idea that organisations will no longer be ‘returning to normal' and that there's a responsibility on HR to make the most of this, to think about what it means for people in the enterprise. Understanding your organisation's vulnerabilities is key. She explains:

I don't know about going back to normal, I'm just calling it the contained pandemic environment. I think this is a wake-up call to our vulnerability that will likely continue. I think in a contained pandemic a few things are here to stay. I think the remote workforce is here to stay. The longer this goes on, people develop the skills. We've got new access to talent. This myth that people that work from home are not productive is being busted. We are certainly seeing that in the volume of our software usage - people are working.

I also think business travel will look different - I think people will question if they need to travel in a way that they haven't before. I also think hiring and exiting will be different, we will question whether we have to do that face to face. What I hope that stays is this sense of collaboration and really optimising the promise of so much of the tools and solutions we've been investing in.

Lucidworks' Leanse approaches this from the viewpoint that the Coronavirus pandemic has presented the enterprise with a unique opportunity to rethink how it wants to operate, rather than operating within the context of the rules that no longer exist. She says:

There's no ‘normal'. We have to reimagine. It might be years before we are back to ‘normal' and by the time we have gone through that process we are recreating what normal is. I don't think we have any idea what that means. Normal is going to become a very fluid state. And by the way, yes there could be a vaccine, but there could also be something that comes next.

The traits that will favour success are adaptiveness, agility, creativity, resilience. How will this change HR? We are going to have to hire people that are comfortable with change, who have a growth mindset, people who are going to be good at human connection. Maybe a few years ago we could have gotten away with that person that has that one linear skill, but not anymore. Companies are also going to have to get really aware about an environment, especially where there are health concerns, how we think about benefits, how we think about leave policies.

The normal that we're used to was not designed. It happened. Little decision by little decision, it happened. It created a story of what work was that was just a story. We've got to write a new story and we get to design it. What do we want right now?

My take

Whilst this time presents unprecedented challenges for those heading up HR functions in the enterprise, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity. The realisation that people are central to the success of an organisation has never been more profound. And to speak to the Lucidworks quote above, HR people will play a central role in designing our new reality. To finish up, I'll finish with a quote from Steve Arnold at e-days, who says:

HR has always struggled to get a seat on the board table and to be seen as important enough, generally. But even in our business, and we are only 50 people, we have a head of people and culture. I think businesses now are going to need to have people who are absolutely focused on people and culture and wellbeing and keep their finger very close to the pulse on that.

Healthy, happy employees, who are well looked after and have career plans, are going to be much more useful than people who are disengaged and struggling with health and wellbeing. Your business won't succeed as much. HR will benefit from this. It won't be seen as a cost-cutting exercise. There will be so many people related challenges, HR will be really needed.

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