Remember the human connection! - reviewing the HR response to COVID-19 with Tripadvisor's Chief People Officer Beth Grous

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan May 28, 2020
Summary:
From never having had an office shutdown day to pivoting to remote working around the globe, Tripadvisor's response to COVID-19 is reframing the way that it thinks about the future of work.

Tripadvisor
(via Tripadvisor )

Review and recommendations platform provider Tripadvisor had an interesting boast it could make until recently - despite being headquartered in Boston, the company had never closed its head office, even for a bad snow day. According to Chief People Officer Beth Grous:

Our offices have always remained open. That was very, very much part of the culture…We’ve just never had a culture of fully shutting down, even though we've had a lot of snow in some very recent years. We are just not a fully remote culture.  We literally went fully remote around the world within about 36 hours.

The trigger for that radical pivot was, of course, COVID-19. Grous says: 

For us, it goes without saying that as a travel website, the impact of the virus on our business was profound and immediate. Unlike some other industries, the travel, restaurant and hospitality industry  sort of came to a screeching halt almost overnight around the globe. It was quite clear to us that this was on a humanitarian level, on a public health level, on an employee level, on a business level, just going to be totally uncharted waters that we we were in and we were going to be in for some time.

The firm has had to make some tough calls in recent months  - pay cuts for staff, laying off around a quarter of its headcount and furloughing a further 23%.  With 52 offices in more than 20 countries around the globe, the firm has had to adapt to the evolving crisis, not least in terms of how it has managed its workforce and planned for a new way of working post-pandemic. 

Tripadvisor had seen early signs of what was to come from observing its operations in Asia, but the it was the sudden closure of borders to Italy that seems to have been the trigger for action. As Grous tells it: 

One of the things that was very clear to us is that we needed to know not just where [our employees] were, but where they had been. We weren't doing a lot of business travel at that point because of the pandemic, but we knew employees had been doing a fair amount of personal travel. So we launched a form to track, so we would know who to task to self quarantine, etc. Within 12 hours of launching that form, we had 450 responses from employees. That was the moment where we looked at ourselves collectively and said, 'We just have to close all of our offices because we're eating the elephant at the wrong end'. That was the conversation in that moment, [when] we just realised that this was quite unlike anything we'd seen.

The near-overnight shift to remote working went smoothly thanks to prior investment and planning: 

What enabled that was we had the technology to do it. We had the right tools and the right systems and the right infrastructure in place that when we loaded it with hundred percent of our workforce, it held up and it was robust.

That's not to say that there weren't questions thrown up that needed to be tackled: 

[It] is a real paradigm shift for us around remote work and some of the complexities that, outside of a crisis, you might have thought were insurmountable. How do customer support agents who are dealing with PII [Personally Identifiable Information] and credit cards do that at home? How do we move sales?  Where there's an infrastructure around people, how do we move it at home?

When you have a crisis, you just kind of do it and you figure it out. We've jokingly said to each other, 'Don't let a good crisis go to waste'. Use it as an opportunity to think about total re-invention and swinging for the fences and making calls that you in a different, more stable world would never have even thought of, but now's the time to be bold.

Good to talk 

The distributed nature of Tripadvisor’s officer around the world means that the firm’s operating hours span up to 20 hours of the Earth’s timezones. Notification tech from companies, including the likes of Everbridge, were used to alert staff via their mobile phones of developments. This was particularly important in some parts of the world, recalls Grous: 

Particularly in those countries where there's not always an email culture, to push notifications out to say, 'Check your email, we have emerging news, real time news about whether your office is going to be open or closed'. We launched a number of electronic tools to be in two-way communication with our employees.

Communication, both internally and externally, is key to managing this sort of situation, she argues, highlighting: 

The importance for us of real time transparent communication with the global workforce, with customers, but particularly for our employees to say, 'Here's what we know, here's what we don't. We're going to keep communicating. Here are our guiding principles. We're going to keep you safe. We are going to make thoughtful decisions. We may move more slowly than you might be used to, to make sure that we we get it right, and if we don't think we've got it, right, we're going to undo that'. 

We still to this day [are] probably communicating with our workforce in the form of town halls and other communications at a multiple of how we have ever communicated with them. It's really been the cornerstone of what has not only gotten us through, but has enabled us to stay productive, which has been really remarkable. 

And it’s a two way communication, she adds, with management putting in place as many feedback options for employees as possible: 

We have spent a lot of time in listening mode with our people, asking them,'How's it going? How's your productivity? What do you need? Is this working? What do we need to know to make this more effective?'.

Increased open communication between organizations has also been one of the more pleasant side effects of the current situation, observes Grous:

For me, one of the really wonderful things of this crisis is seeing how many leaders and executives - whether they're HR leaders or other leaders - are coming together as a community and sharing information in a way that I couldn't have imagined prior to this crisis. What are you doing for severance? How are you thinking about re-opening? Are you asking employees to wear masks in the office? How are you thinking about your workforce that needs to take public transportation? When are you re-opening? There is this sort of wonderful collaboration that I see happening. 

Re-opening recommendations

On the question of re-opening, Tripadvisor, in common with other companies, is starting to look to what the world beyond lockdown will look like. The answer is, of course, not the same as it was before - and that has organizational and HR implications that need to be addressed. Grous opines: 

I do think that remote work is here to stay. We've had a very strong culture around our physical space, around our physical offices. They've been very much a purposeful manifestation of our culture, and they historically have been built in ways like in our headquarters, with a world cuisine free cafeteria that not only reflects the kind of world travel business that we're in, but also reflects the fact that we want people to be in a community, sitting together, breaking bread, socialising, being with one another. All of that is turned entirely on its head with this pandemic and we've had to completely re-imagine how we think about physical space. How much physical space should we have around the world? What's the purpose of an office, at least in the sort of mid-to-near term? And is that the same purpose as it is in the long term?

All of that feeds to the culture question and to be quite candid, we're not there yet. We haven't figured out exactly how to do this right. We're sort of feeling our way. Our headlights are a few feet ahead of us and we're driving slowly across the country with that much light. But what we do know is that this creates a real opportunity for us to really re-think how do we use our physical space? How much money do we spend on our physical space?

That said, Grous believes that there will remain a purpose for physical office space, but that organizations will need to adjust their expectations of staff. For example, don’t assume that people will transport themselves to the office Monday through Friday as they've always done:

I think that many employees around the globe have very much enjoyed, relished, the opportunity to work remotely; some have not. There are people at home saying, 'Get me back to the office. I'm in a cramped city apartment with three roommates and this is not working for me'. So there will always be that balance. For us, it is really about thinking about this purposefully, bringing people together as we're slowly able to come back, to bring our employees together and talk about how do we collectively re-invent this together.

A good starting point is framing the current debate is framing it with the correct language, she advises - this is about a return to the office, not a return to work, given that people are still working, just remotely. But there will be common challenges: 

For most employers, you're going to be dealing with a couple of things. You're going to be dealing with the needs of your workforce, the fears of your workforce, circumstances outside of their control, and government regulations. So you may [desire to get] people back into a workplace, but you may be limited by your state, federal country, city government, to only be able to occupy 10% of your building, 20% of your building, 30% of your building…Even if I was to go back to my [office] desk  tomorrow...only a fraction of the workforce would be there. Then I'd have to wear mask most of the time if I was moving outside of my office. I think we really have to ask ourselves like, how worthwhile is that right now as we return? 

And if it is worthwhile, and there are many places where it is worthwhile, how do you still offer that 'remote first' culture and make sure that your people who can't get there, who are afraid to get there or have physical medical reasons why they shouldn't be there or people in their family have those concerns, that they don't then feel like second class citizens? That it is not the sort of badge of honor, that you've come back to the office and you've braved this. There are some real considerations, like employees saying, 'Oh, I'm perfectly fine being in the office, but I'm not getting on the subway’.

People-first

As a self-confessed ‘glass half full’ person, Grous is trying to see upsides that can emerge from the current crisis. The growing organizational acceptance of flexible working is clearly one of them, enabling businesses potentially to tap into a wider talent management pool than previous practice allowed. Companies need to recognize a new obligation here, she suggests: 

How do you meet your talent rather than saying, 'Here's our framework, and either you fit into it or you don’t'. Many people, particularly if they're facing care issues, elder care issues, child care issues, the uncertainty of schools and other care options for some number of many months, will want to know that a company understands and supports the need for flexible work - and at every level. Certainly in our organization, we've seen a light speed rapid evolution of leaders embracing that as a key both attraction and retention lever for all of our talent.

Appropriately enough for a Chief People Officer, Grous has one caution to leave behind - don’t forget the people in all this: 

One of the things we miss right now, being out of the office, is the opportunity to bump into someone at the salad bar in the cafeteria and say, 'Hey, how was your weekend?’ or, you know, pass them in the hall and say, 'Oh, I'm so glad I just ran into you, let's have this quick conversation' or even, 'I like your shoes’, which sometimes sparks a dialogue. We will have to be very deliberate about creating those moments for connection, where there's not a business agenda, where it's just around the human connection.