The Challenges and Priorities That Face HR During a Pandemic: Q+A with Adele Rom

<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >The Challenges and Priorities That Face HR During a Pandemic: Q+A with Adele Rom</span>

Welcome to AllVoices Advisors, a series introducing our amazing advisors here at AllVoices. We’re on mission to create safe, happy, and healthy workplaces for all and we’re lucky to have a team of experts dedicated to helping us along the way.

Today, we’re sitting down with Adele Rom, Adele is the Founder and Principal Consultant of ARC – a boutique firm helping companies create effective organizations, positive cultures, and high performing teams. Check out our Q&A below in which Adele speaks to some of the unique challenges HR teams are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As offices look to reopen (or not), what are some of the top priorities that HR / People teams will face?

I think there are a number of known and predictable priorities, as well as many unknown ones yet to be identified. What we know is that these are some of the key areas that People leaders will be facing: 

Culture

Culture, culture, culture! It’s what anchors people, keeps them connected, creates a sense of community, fosters inclusion and is often the glue that keeps companies healthy when times get tough. It’s critical that HR leaders remain focused on culture during this time and that is going to be challenging as many HR leaders are also the ones that are accountable for a high volume of COVID-19 related operational needs. 

If a company’s culture is strong, HR leaders should look at what they are going to do to maintain it and keep it alive. Strong cultures don’t get created overnight and you don't want to go backwards during this pandemic. In organizations where there isn’t a healthy culture, it’s an opportunity to change that. The pandemic can be a  silver lining, giving HR leaders an opportunity to reset with the C-suite. To ask, “what hasn’t been working and what do we want to do as an executive team to change that?” 

Bottom line is that whether a company is maintaining or building a healthy culture, HR leaders will need to get creative. Bringing creativity into the way they do things that impact culture. From fostering inclusion, maintaining transparency, creating empowerment, ensuring well-being programs are in place and everything in between, there are a ton of ways to get creative. If the company already had great values, behaviors and in-house programs that were a big part of company culture, i.e., fitness trainers, a gym on site, lunch-and-learns, leaders will need to figure out how to do them in a more creative way.

Talent 

Talent strategy will need to be reimagined and redesigned for many companies, especially those that are moving to a more distributed global model.  What I love about this is how it is going to positively play out for diversity and inclusion, and how it really opens up the workforce and candidate pools. With companies broadening their geographic footprint, it opens up doors for candidates that have been traditionally filtered out based on location. In many situations, those candidates also represent a broad range of under-represented minority groups and have a myriad of amazing backgrounds. When companies’ offices are located in high cost urban cities, there is built-in exclusion to truly diversifying your talent pool. But COVID-19 has changed the geographic landscape of talent for an increasing number of companies, especially ones based in high cost cities like SF, LA and NYC, cities whose economic reality has prevented talented individuals from applying for and landing jobs. With the shift towards remote work, the marketing candidate in Omaha, NE and the college grad in Fargo, ND now have the same opportunity as the candidate that is already located in one of the large metro areas like SF or NYC. 

I absolutely love to see this! Finding the right talent and truly providing equal opportunities has everything to do with identifying candidates that can turn their potential into a performance reality no matter where they are located. The pandemic has opened up the possibilities for talented people around the world to pursue their dream jobs without having to relocate.  I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out for underrepresented groups in particular.

Families and Caregiver Support 

The pandemic has shined an even greater spotlight on the complexities of family care. Many people are trying to juggle parenting children and/or caring for their own parents and other dependents while also juggling demanding jobs  and working from home. 

In the past few decades, employers have evolved the way they support working parents as well as the way they support caring for extended family and other dependents. When you look at healthy companies or partake in progressive discussions about the future of work, supporting families continues to be on the forefront. The challenge for HR leaders is that a majority of perks and programs have been designed with a shared office space in mind or are incredibly expensive to maintain. Examples include on-site or subsidized child care, onsite well-being activities, gym memberships, and subsidized care programs for elderly parents. But with COVID-19, many employees are now facing new challenges related to caregiving. These challenges are adding to increased emotional, mental, and financial stress that directly impact well-being and in turn productivity and performance. In many cases raising anxiety and depression, which can often be invisible to employers. The well-being of loved ones puts people into a Maslow state of mind. For many employees, they wake up and start their day trying to strategize how they are going to feed their family, help school their children from home, attend work meetings, complete projects and make sure that elderly parents are safe and protected from COVID-19. Literally, just trying to get through the day hour by hour.

One of the biggest risks related to this current scenario is the potential for a large number of women to exit their professional jobs and put their careers on “pause” in order to be primary caregivers. Essentially, taking steps backwards economically and professionally. This is a critical issue that HR leaders have a responsibility to ensure is being proactively addressed in their organizations. 

The support needed in this specific area is one where I see AllVoices being a very valuable tool. AllVoices gives a voice for this population to voice concerns and/or their situations and well-being in a way that is private and safe. 

Supporting Managers

It is important to make sure that managers are equipped to do their jobs. Managers are connectors in many ways. Companies should make sure that they have sufficiently invested in the tools and resources managers need to be most effective. This includes ensuring they are receiving information, have access to systems, tools, and training and are empowered to make decisions for their functional areas. Many of the PeopleTech Partners portfolio companies help provide products and services that help tackle this issue.

Companies should also ensure that managers are in a good, healthy space, both mentally and physically so that they have the ability to be at their best. Their teams rely on them. It’s the whole ‘put your oxygen mask on first’ rule. Managing employees remotely is very different than in person. Managers can't pull their teams together at lunch time for a “ramen run” and build camaraderie so they will need to find other ways to connect and create psychological safety and build team culture. 

Internal Communications 

When it comes to internal communications, it’s time to double down. Internal communications is an area that many companies aren’t consistent or good at prioritizing. It’s often an afterthought where messaging is rushed out and functional ownership is ambiguous. I have found this to be especially true in start-up and early stage companies where cash flow is tight, and investment dollars are limited. In many cases, these are the same companies being hit the hardest by COVID-19,  yet these are also the same companies where stronger communications are greatly needed. 

Communication connects employees and keeps them engaged, culturally and strategically, so when there is an absence of communication, both will suffer. Strong cultures risk losing their DNA and company strategy can lose clarity. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the complexities of internal communications and its impact on organizational health.  

In many organizations, HR leaders are accountable for central internal communications and it is their responsibility to ensure that employees are getting the information they need. If the new way of working is more virtual and more geographically distributed, how does communication need to look different than it has in the past? Companies that have been historically office-oriented have had the luxury of information being shared at the water-cooler and at meal time, often taking these organic information channels for granted. Remote work changes that. Companies need to be deliberate in putting together their communication strategies. That means building it into tangible goal systems i.e. OKRs, and getting commitment to financially invest in the infrastructure needed. 

Safety

And lastly, the obvious one, keeping people safe. Safety is something that HR leaders are already on the forefront of. Ensuring workplace violence prevention, health standards and natural disaster protocols are in place are some examples. COVID-19 increases the scope of Safety responsibilities that HR leaders share.  I would add that accountability for this is cross-functional and includes Facilities, Operations and Legal and the Executive team. It’s a shared responsibility.

What do you see as some of the variables that HR leaders will face in solving for areas you’ve just highlighted?

Investment and funding

Companies will need to invest in the tools, systems, and infrastructure to be able to address the areas mentioned. In the example of communications, they will have to make investments in the vehicles for delivery, be it systems and/or people. If it's around empowering managers in a newly remote environment, companies may need to invest in Learning and Development. In regards to talent, companies may need to invest in new recruiting tools and practices. What's hard about that is that HR budgets are often the first to get cut, and are regularly stretched. In order for HR leaders to manage the above identified complexities, there must be funding.

There is no playbook!

Another challenge is that there is no playbook. In many situations your Chief People Officer can model best practices that are in place in other companies. They can look outside the company, and say, “What are other companies doing? What is tried and true? What do we know works, and what do we know doesn't work?” But that isn’t the case now.

With COVID-19 there is no playbook, so there are going to be mistakes made, there are going to be things that are put into place that don't work, there will be things that are put into place that do work, and some of it will be trial and error. There needs to be patience and empathy from everyone as we are truly all in this together. 

Employees are re-evaluating how they want to work and live

Another variable is that employees are re-evaluating the way they want to work, and are re-evaluating their lives in general.  For many, there is an awakening happening with this pandemic. Employees are stepping back and looking at their priorities, their health, their relationships, and assessing what their optimal way to live and work is. Trying to rethink how to engage, motivate, and retain people when they are also in the middle of re-evaluating how they want to live and work will take adjustment.

Employees are looking to leadership during these uncertain times, for answers on what the future holds for the business, job security, and more -- what are some ways that HR and leadership can be a pillar of security even in these uncertain times?

This is where bringing humanity and compassion to work is really important -- being authentic, sincere, honest, and transparent. People's psychological safety is tied to trust, and making sure that they can trust the information they are getting is as honest and as forthright as possible, is one of the best ways to ensure safety and security. Even if answers are tough to hear, people would rather know the truth and have an honest understanding of the situation and facts versus having to fill in the blanks and make assumptions. This is why being human and operating with both integrity and EQ is important. It’s about compassion and respect. Now is not the time for leaders to hide in their virtual office. Now is when leaders need to come out and be present and be human.

How can employees who don’t feel safe with new policies or office structure speak up without risking their job?

Build multiple communication channels

Ideally, people should feel comfortable going to their manager with feedback, concerns, and complaints. Having an environment where it is safe for anyone to talk to any manager and the result of that is going to be a positive experience is the ideal. In order to have this, managers need to receive appropriate training and tools so they know how. In many cases challenging conversations can be uncomfortable because people aren't properly equipped to know how to raise their concerns, feedback and complaints. This is where management training comes into play. Companies also need to ensure that alternate channels, i.e., the legal team and employee relations team are an approachable option.

This is another place where AllVoices can really add value! AllVoices provides another channel that is completely safe. Because concerns can be anonymous, AllVoices gives a chance for people to say, ‘I’m not comfortable with something and want to raise my concern and ensure it gets heard in an unbiased and safe manner.”

How can companies help neutralize the potential polarization of those who may not believe COVID is a real risk or are politicising the pandemic? 

It’s about respect and responsibility 

Shift the conversation from a fear-based or political conversation to one around responsibility and respect for your coworkers. Whether or not you think COVID-19 is a significant health risk or a mild risk is not up to an individual to determine when it comes to workplace environment safety. The bottom line is that there is a collective responsibility to maintain an environment that is safe for our colleagues. For comparison, if someone has the flu, the general expectation is that they shouldn't come to work until they are no longer contagious so as not to expose their colleagues. This is the same scenario but with a greater level of health risk. We know that COVID-19 is a contagious virus that is transferred with close proximity. Those are facts. And whether or not you think you can or will survive the virus is not the point. The point is we need to have enough respect for our colleagues to not expose one another. It is about both respect and responsibility.

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