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When a novel coronavirus began spreading around the world last year, few people knew how long everyone would have to stay in lockdown and even fewer knew how it would fundamentally transform work around the world.

“It’ll only be for a few weeks,” most of us thought.

Right …

Now, with 20/20 hindsight, HR leaders are reflecting on the challenges during a year of working differently, what surprised them the most and what advice they would have given, if they could have, to their former, pre-pandemic selves.

Lessons learned

At Ferring Pharmaceuticals U.S in Parsippany, N.J., Ayana Champagne, chief human resources officer, says leaders and managers who thrived in an in-person environment adjusted their approaches to manage remote workers and found new ways to build trust.

“People who come early and leave late are seen as hard workers,” she explained. “Now, leaders need to develop a tolerance for not being able to manage by walking around. Instead, leaders have shifted to focus on results, responsiveness and [the] ability to have a sense of urgency to value performance.”

Kristy Friedrichs, chief people officer of software firm New Relic in San Francisco, says more experienced supervisors intuitively shifted to managing shared outcomes, objectives and strategies, which is “much easier to do without your eyes on people.”

Still, junior managers without a lot of experience were more used to on-site teams and observing employees in person. So the software company’s long-time managers shared their approaches at the regular company-wide meetings for all 300 managers. HR also shared one-page, bulleted guides about remote management approaches.

Another challenge, Friedrichs says, emerged following the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent racial-justice protests that spread across the nation. On top of the health crisis, these incidents brought more anxiety, especially since employees couldn’t gather in person to work through it.

The software company’s weekly 30-minute meeting for all employees became an online outlet for the executive team and employees to discuss issues. Employee-resource groups allowed workers of similar backgrounds, such as people of color, to have a safe and supportive outlet for processing their emotions.

At Consumer Reports in New York, Rafael Perez, chief human resources and diversity officer, says the company’s HR playbook was completely disrupted. The strategic priorities became focusing on strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) commitments; sustaining and building a sense of community in a virtual work ecosystem; and helping employees maintain physical and mental health.

To inform decision-making, the organization did shorter surveys four times a year to gauge employees’ concerns, instead of doing one longer annual survey. This also sped up the response time to surveys, he adds.

“Strong collaboration across all groups throughout the organization has been critical to tackling these challenges,” said Perez, who joined Consumer Reports in November 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit. “Despite this, it has been incredibly difficult to provide people with the clarity and certainty they desire, when there is limited information or ability to do so.”

He says the most important initiative was working with the CEO and leadership team to review how people adapted to working remotely, what work practices are most helpful in a virtual culture and which processes were most affected, such as relationship-building and creativity.

“To do this well, we have to start by making explicit how our culture will reinforce our values and behaviors in the new normal,” he said. Topics they reviewed included effective collaboration in a hybrid workplace, how to reinforce agility in the future and how DEI efforts could be improved.

Ferring’s Champagne notes that mental health has always been a priority at her company, “but the burden of a global pandemic, childcare stressors, social unrest and more contributed significantly to mental-health topics finding their way into mainstream conversations — including in the workplace.”

To provide support, the company made “a concerted effort to create opportunities for connection and conversation, creating safe places for employees to share and show up for one another,” she said. “And of course, we doubled down on employee benefits that provide resources and assistance to support emotional well-being.”

“As an organization, we need to actively encourage employees to speak up about their needs, but also illustrate healthy behaviors like setting boundaries and creating new habits and routines,” she added.

For employees, recharging is a work in progress

Friedrichs said that remote work productivity was far higher than expected. Still, that raised certain questions.

“On the one hand you worry if … everyone’s at home and productivity skyrockets, [does it mean] we were being wildly inefficient before? Or were people now just burning the midnight oil because they feel like they need to show results because management doesn’t see them working?” she said. “I think the reality is that it was a lot easier than I expected it to be to get our work done remotely.”

Carrying those efficiencies into the future when the company returns to 30 percent capacity in the office will be the next challenge.

“We really want to learn from our experiment over this past year,” she added. “What do we really need to be in person for and what can we be more flexible on? I think that a lot of work … can actually be done over Zoom.”

Perez says that because Consumer Reports’ mission means that people will “work tirelessly for others,” it can be “especially difficult to get colleagues to prioritize their own need to disconnect.”

The work of encouraging employees to recharge continues to be a work in progress, he says.

“One lesson that I have re-learned is just how important it is to ensure good leader role-modeling and individual encouragement to help people take care of themselves,” Perez said.

Ferring’s Champagne adds that “soft skills like resiliency, adaptability and the ability to clearly communicate values and inspiration to a team” are critical for the success of an increasingly digital, flexible workforce.

Hindsight advice

Looking back, what would the three HR leaders have told their pre-pandemic selves?

Friedrichs of New Relic says she learned that overcommunicating is never too much.

“I felt a bit like I was spamming people, sending all these emails. Then I started to hear back from folks how much they appreciated it, and how much it was giving them clarity,” she said.

She and the New Relic leadership team focused on sharing the same information in multiple ways, such as by email, Slack, the company’s intranet pages and in virtual meetings, to help “break through the buzz” of anxiety that many people felt.

Perez of Consumer Reports says that in times of uncertainty, it’s helpful to keep different decision-making strategies in mind. These include tackling the biggest problems first, solving problems through a pilot or experiment that can be tweaked as it goes along and putting off decisions until more information can be gathered and assessed to “get it right.”

He also would have told himself to “keep things simple, so that you can face new and unexpected challenges and opportunities that will come at you fast. It is also important to maintain your sense of humor, perspective and authenticity. These are critical leadership qualities that will make a difference for others, and for the organization.”

Ferring’s Champagne says that she started and ended her days with a five-minute meditation to ground herself during the pandemic. But she would have encouraged her former self to do even more to relax.

“Relax into whatever it is you’re feeling — from discomfort to contentment and everything in between,” she said. “Over the last year, I’ve come to understand that most often I can’t go any faster than what I am doing right now, and that is OK. Accept your situation, breathe and then get to work.”

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