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Tips on HR in a pandemic - more to do than just 'keep calm and carry on'

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett April 15, 2020
Keeping employees calm, engaged and productive isn't going to be easy in the middle of a lockdown due to a global pandemic. Here's some frontline advice from two tech companies based on what they are doing to help their workforces cope with the ‘new normal’.

Human resources
(via Pixabay )

While many people over the years may have dreamt about working from home now and then, most expected to have at least some flexibility in how they went about it rather than being forced overnight into doing nothing else for the foreseeable future.

But since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold, this situation has become the new reality for lots of professional workers, including those in the tech sector, following the introduction of lockdowns in nations around the world  in order to protect citizens and prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed. 

How to deal with the uncertainty and support employees through this difficult time has - as it rightly should - become a major preoccupation for many employers. 

Hagit Jekobson, Vice-President of HR at Cloudinary, which provides cloud-based image and video management services, finds that staff have inevitably been very stressed and anxious about the situation, not least because employers, even in the relatively-cushioned tech sector, have been laying people off. This means in some instances, they have become the sole provider for their family, she says: 

People are facing the unknown, but we’ve been honest from the start and said that we’re not going to have all the answers. What we will do, however, is create mechanisms and different routines to help you stay informed and connected. So on a daily or weekly basis, we’ll clarify decisions and expectations and we’ll also provide the necessary tools to support you, with the understanding that things could change.

The first step in doing so for Cloudinary, Jekobson explains, was to build on top of existing communications channels and routines in order to share information as effectively as possible. For example, the company is now hosting a weekly, one-hour, company-wide virtual meeting to update everyone about the company’s position, answer employee questions and enable them to connect with each other. But such get-togethers do need to be organised carefully, Jekobson cautions: 

You can’t have a Zoom meeting with 250 people around the world without a strict agenda in place. So while everyone can suggest questions or issues to raise, we’ve set up a committee, which collects them the day before and puts together an agenda with slides so that people have some context. It just makes it more efficient.

Building internal resilience

Another important consideration, meanwhile, was how to make it easier for struggling employees to “integrate work and home life together” in a lockdown situation, particularly if they have children to care for. As a result, the company has introduced various flexible working options to help ease the burden.

The first choice was for staff to continue working full-time. The second was for to take time off out of their holiday entitlement, which no one chose to take up. The third, which was embraced by between 20%-25%, was to work a certain percentage of their regular day and be paid pro rata as well as 10% extra. 

A further vital, but often overlooked, thing to think about in this scenario though is the wellbeing of line managers. This is because they play a key role in supporting the mental and physical health of their teams as well as helping to ensure productivity levels do not fall by keeping individuals motivated and engaged. As Jekobson says:

Mid-level managers hold the most stressful positions as they have people relying on them but they also have families too. 

As a result, the decision was taken to divide the organization’s 40 managers into three groups and for HR to hold an online meeting with each one every week. The first part is dedicated to providing them with guidance in areas ranging from how to manage video meetings effectively to how to support staff wellbeing. Online tools, tips and information are also provided to back this development activity up.

The second part of the meeting takes the form of a peer-based support group and discussion about the challenges managers are facing and how such issues can best be handled. Ultimately, Jekobson says, the aim is to build resilience at the individual, team and organizational level:

Having a flexible organization with a high level of resilience is the secret to being effective and efficient, both in ordinary and extraordinary times. Company culture and flexibility are the major ingredients here. It’s important that the management team understands what a high level of cultural resilience looks like and how to create it, and that the culture is open, honest and authentic as it enables you to talk about the challenges and things that aren’t so good. It means the organisation will be unified, even during stressful times, which is crucial because if people aren’t engaged and don’t understand what they’re facing, the game will be lost.

Keeping things as normal as possible

Michelle Davies, Vice-President of People at Phrasee, which optimizes marketing material using natural language processing software, likewise believes that keeping staff engaged and informed is a key priority. As a result, on top of activities, such as weekly, company-wide, virtual Town Hall meetings, weekly one-to-ones between HR and line managers to ensure they are receiving the support and resources needed and daily calls by line managers with their team, the organization has also moved all of its informal events online.

These events range from pub quizzes and after-work drinks to the company choir, which is now hosted weekly on Zoom. To replace use of the firm’s onsite gym, a trainer has also been hired to provide a virtual fitness class too. Davies explains the rationale:

Everyone’s been in panic mode, whether it’s fears over losing their job or that they weren’t able to buy toilet paper. But it’s not just about communicating with people formally about business matters. In the office, people have lots of informal connection points, so we’ve tried to recreate that virtually as you have to try and keep things as normal as you can.

Doing so is important, she believes, because ensuring the wellness of the workforce at all levels is “top of mind”. As she points out:

Many people are not aware of the emotional impact of the situation because, as expressed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they’re currently focused on their physiological and safety requirements, so they can’t think about the bigger picture. This means it’s necessary to motivate people differently in a crisis like this – it’s no longer about the long-term vision but about the personal touch and checking to see if they’re OK. 

Put another way, Davies believes the companies that will make it through the current crisis successfully will be those that “take care of the individual”, not least because “people will remember the mass layoffs that they saw on the news”. She concludes:

It’s about being human and treating people not just as employees, but first and foremost as people.

My take

In these turbulent times, finding ways to help individuals, teams and the wider organisation become more resilient - or able to bounce back despite tricky challenges - is vital. But the key to getting it right, it seems, lies in clear communication, flexibility and ensuring people feel valued, respected, supported and connected with one another. In other words, as Davies says, it is all about “being human” and treating others with compassion and understanding at this time when they need it most.

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