Sometimes it takes a crisis to focus on what’s really important. During the pandemic, organizations began to focus on employees like never before. As a result, HR professionals became the front-line workers of the corporation.
A recent Oracle report sums it up like this, “Virtually overnight, HR moved from a focus on recruiting and retaining scarce talent in a tight labor market to coping with massive layoffs, furloughs, budget constraints, remote work, and historic levels of employee anxiety. Seldom has HR’s job been more challenging or more critical.”
Like when Y2K brought tech teams to prominence and the 2008 financial crisis focused attention on strategic finance; COVID-19 is ushering in an era where it’s HR’s time to shine.
We interviewed two successful CHROs (and Salo clients)—Christine Moore from Allina Health and Sarah Strehl from ECMC Group—to learn more about how the HR function is leading the way for organizations.
How has 2020 changed how HR is perceived?
Christine: The pandemic highlighted the range of work the HR function navigates—accentuating how HR contributes to the sustainability of an organization. In addition to the “standard” focus on talent, culture, and leadership; this year we’ve navigated furloughs, increased stress in the workplace, and a very poignant (and needed) look at diversity at work.
If a CEO didn’t already see the HR leader as a strategic partner, they do now.
Sarah: If a CEO didn’t already see the HR leader as a strategic partner, they do now. Companies now recognize that HR is more than a transactional role and plays a much bigger role in broader initiatives.
Now it’s clear that HR needs to be involved in the day-to-day business decisions of the organization—even if it doesn’t seem like an HR matter. Most business decisions impact employees downstream. When HR is at the table, we can raise any potential employee implications [of business decisions] and get ahead of them. For example, if leaders suggest a return to the office—but don’t think about the employees who can’t or who aren’t comfortable returning—that’s an issue. If we don’t change the policy, we’ll lose some of our very best employees and incur costs of recruiters, training new employees, and more.
Did this year change how your CEO and other business leaders worked with HR?
Sarah: This year has reinforced a very strong connection between HR, our CEO, and business leaders. Initially, like everyone else, we were reacting to what was in front of us—in fire-fighting mode—and business leaders looked to HR for direction. However, since that time, leaders are looking to HR as partners in problem solving, as a sounding board, and for counsel and advice. We’re now able to slow down a little to think ahead, plan and discuss the future.
Additionally, the pandemic has brought our business leaders and employees closer together than ever.
Experiencing the pandemic as a team has led to more two-way communication and understanding throughout the organization. Based on that open dialogue, leaders sometimes understand or value HR initiatives in a new way.
Christine: Although we’ve always had good relationships across our leadership team, the consistency and frequency of communication between me and my colleagues certainly increased. That communication and connection has been foundational to our ability to effectively navigate the impact of the pandemic and the ongoing civil unrest.
When the pandemic hit, our CEO and I were talking several times a day, then it was once a day, and now it’s twice a week with lots of texts in between. The way we made decisions also changed over time as our understanding of the pandemic and its impact on our operations was better understood. At first, we were issuing new guidance for employees every 14 days. Then, as things stabilized it was on a monthly basis. Now, it’s probably every six weeks. Narrowing the timeframe during that time of immense uncertainty was critical to our ability to adapt and respond.
The pandemic and racial tensions led to changes in most organizations. Can you provide some examples of what changed in your companies?
Sarah: The shift to work-from-home due to the governor’s Stay at Home ordinance caused a complete change in our workplace. In just a few days, we transitioned most of our workforce from a traditional office environment, with standard business hours, to an almost fully remote workforce with flexible work hours/schedules. Leaders also realized that employees who were balancing a new set of roles and responsibilities needed flexibility—for both their work and their home life. First, it was: How we get people set up working at home? What are the existing policies and procedures for remote working and how do they have to change? Then we moved on to: How do we go forward with the future of work now that we have all this new information?
Christine: For us, the boundaries between the workforce/organization and community have blurred significantly. As healthcare providers, many of our employees have no choice but to come in. The community is counting on them. So, we needed to balance tough decisions with supporting our employees and their families.
Our work-at-home policy used to say you couldn’t care for kids while working. That’s not reasonable anymore. We are also realizing we need to support our employees differently. We’ve increased options for childcare, financial counseling, and access to nutritious food to eat. After George Floyd’s death and protests broke out around our facilities, we had to find ways to continue to serve the community while ensuring our workforce and patients still felt safe.
The death of George Floyd provided an opportunity us to engage in meaningful discussions at all levels about race and inequality—issues that haven’t historically been addressed in the workplace.
Sarah: The racial unrest that occurred after the death of George Floyd provided an opportunity us to engage in meaningful discussions at all levels about race and inequality—issues that haven’t historically been addressed in the workplace. It’s a refreshing change that requires those in leadership roles to listen first; then, recognize their responsibility to further understand the racial landscape and the implications on their individual team members.
How do you help employees handle crises like we faced this year?
Sarah: Where emotional and mental health were just one factor of HR’s job before, they make up a much larger part of the conversation today. We proactively address the anxiety and stress brought on by current events. First, we’re talking about it—acknowledging that stress and anxiety are real and impacting many of us. Then, we are providing resources to support their total wellbeing, such as access to fitness and meditation classes, sharing articles with strategies for building resilience and coping mechanisms, and reinforcing the professional resources available through EAP and our medical providers.
In addition, we’re helping managers build the skillset to have conversations with employees about wellbeing—helping them connect with each employee as a human being, going beyond enforcing policies, and being flexible to accommodate the needs of employees when necessary.
Christine: To deal with change, we work on building resiliency skills across the organization. We’re dedicated to helping our team manage their mental health by recognizing the strength they already have, learning how to adapt to new circumstances, and solve new problems. When there’s a deep, permeating culture of resilience in the organization it leads to innovation, increased capacity, and expansiveness.
What advice do you have for other HR leaders?
Christine: HR needs to stay connected to the organization’s mission and overall strategy. We play a unique role in connecting the passions of our employees to the mission of the organization. We need to solve and serve.
It’s easy to get pulled into focusing only on right now—especially during a crisis. But we always need to keep our eyes on the horizon—balancing the gravity of now with the needs of the future.
We need to set the expectation that “business as usual” is to always consider the now (today), the near (three years), and the far (five plus years).
Sarah: Two things:
- The rate of change didn’t slow down during the pandemic. As the workforce becomes more automated, we need to focus on how that impacts the employees across the organization. In HR, we need to invest in the right systems and hire people that know how to use them. Those people often propose solutions the rest of us would never think of because they know what the technology is capable of.
- HR needs the ability to empathize with employees and, simultaneously, meet the needs of the business. We need to create solutions that accommodate both sides. You need to have deep experience in the field of HR as well as the functional business experience to engage with other business leaders.
CEOs take note: HR is your ace in the hole
For years, CEOs have been saying talent is a top priority without prioritizing HR. Well, CEOs, it’s time to wake up and smell the future. Even after the hardships of COVID have passed, you’re going to need HR experts if you want your organization to thrive. Prioritizing HR is no longer an option—it’s a necessity. When CEOs and other business leaders start seeing the HR function as a critical strategic business partner, all areas of the business