COVID-19 sent huge shockwaves across the world; but one of its biggest disruptions was the world of work.
The world switched from just 5% of employees working from home to around 60% suddenly having to switch from in-person to remote work, according to Mark Blyth, Brown University professor and UNLEASH America 2022 keynote speaker.
The figure is now stabilizing at around 40%. But what about those frontline employees who were unable to work from home during COVID-19? How did the pandemic impact their working practices, and what support did they get from their employer?
At UNLEASH America 2022, three heads of HR with huge hourly worker populations – Rhonda Spencer, chief people officer (CPO) at Barry-Wehmiller, Johanna Söderström, CPO at Tyson Foods, and Rachel McCoy, chief HR officer (CHRO) at Zappos – sat down to discuss how their learnings and challenges during COVID-19.
Spencer, Söderström and McCoy also shared some predictions for the role of HR in the future of work. Will HR have a bigger or a larger role in the future of businesses than it had pre-COVID-19?
Learnings from COVID-19
Barry-Wehmiller’s Spencer shared that a big ‘aha’ moment for her and the rest of the business during the early stages of the pandemic were employees’ “problem-solving skills”.
Spencer shares that she was so impressed that workers just said “we know what to do” – they needed to look after themselves, each other and Barry-Wehmiller’s customers and clients.
She shares that it was the HR team’s job and responsibility to continue to build those problem-solving skills – these will be essential for employees and the business to respond to future challenges.
Söderström added that Tyson faced some supply chain challenges, but HR’s priority was “ensuring that we keep our people” and that involved some rethought of processes.
“In the beginning, we all had to recognized that we did not know what…to do. There’s no HR playbook for this”, agreed Zappos’ Rachel McCoy.
So what Zappos did was ask their people what support they needed. “We really just had to listen to our workforce and allow them to help us keep them safe”.
The importance of in-person connection
A major challenge many businesses faced (and continue to face) is creating a uniform employee experience between those who can work from home, and those frontline employees who have to work on-site in factories or manufacturing plants (for example).
Avoiding an “us versus them mentality” is a priority for Barry-Wehmiller. Spencer shared that the company has a “real sensitivity” to understanding the needs of all different types of workers – the idea is to not further “the distance that we have between team members in the plant and team members in the office”.
To help here, Barry-Wehmiller is prioritizing finding “those opportunities for human connection” – while Spencer admitted that “we got really good at doing that…over virtual meetings”, the first day employees returned to the office brought a new energy – “the energy of solving problems together”.
Spencer is very clear that businesses must not “underestimate the value of that human connection” that comes from employees being together.
Tyson opened its offices earlier than most businesses in response to employee feedback – and Söderström shared that she saw a real “longing for belonging” from employees. But this is only successful, in Söderström’s view, if you “create a place where people want to be”.
Zappos’ McCoy continued on a similar vein. “The golden thread at Zappos…is one concept: personal, emotional [and] connection”. The company was challenged to keep that alive during COVID-19, so the business got creative and started to think outside the box to solve for that “personal, emotional connection”.
— UNLEASH (@UNLEASHgroup) May 25, 2022
Examples include a petting zoo in the office, campus tours, PCR COVID-19 testing for employees and the local community and family brunches on Sundays.
The future for HR
The pandemic has completely transformed the role that HR plays in organizations, but is HR’s status set to continue to rise?
Both Spencer and Söderström were very clear that HR will be more even more important in the future. For Söderström this is only if businesses invest in the right technology that enables companies to become an employer of choice for employees everywhere.
McCoy agreed and noted that she didn’t want her role to return to how it was pre-pandemic. In the pandemic “people have realized that life is short, they have re-evaluated their priorities” – this has triggered the ‘Great Resignation’ – and now businesses are starting to “truly take an employee-centered approach to running” a company.
She added that it is time to “throw what we’ve done in the past out of the window” if companies want to thrive in the currently highly competitive war for talent.
Spencer noted that there has been a shift of power towards the people – and that needs to be HR’s focus in the future.
But the question is, now that HR has a seat at table, “what are we going to do with it?”
If you want more from UNLEASH America but can’t make it to Las Vegas, check out our website and our social media channels
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