How to navigate the COVID-19 crisis: One path toward change
The COVID-19 crisis continues to have a significant impact on business, communities, families and also, most importantly, people. Sadly, as of September 29th, the world has lost over one million of its citizens to this pandemic.
The 1 million number is hard to imagine; it breaks one’s heart to comprehend.
As the Chief People Officer of Unit4, a global enterprise software company based in Europe, people who have been impacted by this disease touch me, and my entire team. Be it by contracting the virus, losing someone to it, or suffering the repercussions of a protracted lockdown with no end in sight.
As HR leaders go, my story isn’t unique. Like me, you live it every day. Perhaps it’s playing out in different ways based on your location, industry or company size. But no one is immune; this pandemic has touched everyone. You have many of the same conversations I do with company leaders, team managers, new hires and also customers. You most likely talk often about what you’re doing to help the company and our employees navigate this unpredictable situation. In our case, we’re a 40 year old company going through our own “people experience” transformation while the COVID-19 crisis is happening.
Business Must Go On
Yep, it’s a lot. Again, I’m sure those of you reading this piece are facing similar challenges. And yet, business must go on. Change is rampant. And every step of the way, down what seems to be an unknown path, HR is playing a central role.
I’ve taken pen to paper many times over the past 8 month on the topic of finding opportunities through crisis and how organizations, like yours, can plan for “return to work.” One thing has become evident — while transformation was central to our 2020 plan, COVID has served as an accelerant. This virus pressure tested our resolve. It has forced us to rethink how our original plans would come together. All in an environment where “return to work” remains unpredictable, often on a daily basis.
While this byline could easily become a book (and may be one day), here are the five initiatives having the greatest impact in driving our “people experience” transformation while helping us navigate our COVID journey.
1. The Workspace Experience Evolution
As a company with a long history of global expansion, much of it through acquisition, our real estate footprint is vast. It often lacks consistency or purpose. Still, those offices were the place to meet, work and to leave at the end of the day — a very utilitarian approach. Each office served its purpose, but not elegantly.
Realizing “the office concept” would undergo massive transformation, we began having conversations with employees and colleagues at other companies. We started seeing the art of what was possible. In the end, we found our philosophy around the workspace — its’ design, mission and intent — could help to further define and then evolve the Unit4 culture.
People First Culture
Our company embraces a “people first” culture with values strongly tied making an impact, being genuine and open, and choosing curiosity. In the new workspace, we saw an opportunity to bring those values to life through design. Collaboration areas, whiteboard walls on which to ideate, calm spaces to do “deep thinking,” and seating areas that are familiar, warm and inviting. While we’re in the early design phase, our employees are already starting to rethink what a “day in the life at Unit4” might be. They are considering how their work, relationships, and team contributions may change for the better.
2. The Decisive Leader During the COVID-19 Crisis
For any major change management initiative to stay on track and take effect, the need for leaders to act decisively and swiftly is critical. Leaders must commit to the plan. But when it comes to making organization-related decisions, we often see those same leaders hitting the brakes. Equivocation is the enemy of progress. And it can lead to doubt, within the organization, as to the validity of the plan and its intended results. With the pandemic, this has become even more important.
HR Plays a Central Role
As HR leaders, we’re responsible for people’s well-being. As business partners, we help leaders make key decisions that drive action. Those decisions impact how people get their work done, receive timely guidance around expectations, and where they can get assistance on health and safety-related issues. This is a core element in helping steer the organization through our current sea of uncertainty. My team and I have prioritized helping our leaders manage through change, advancing decisions in a timely fashion, and driving to quick resolution through tools like status-based dashboards and leadership updates.
Given our unique role, HR will play a central role in moving the organization forward while navigating the COVID-19 crisis.
3. I’ve Got the Power!
Once a dance club hit by the artist Snap! back in the 1990’s, this phrase is also something we tell our people time and again:
“You’re in control of your work-life balance, career, and wellbeing. Whether you feel safe in returning to the workplace, regardless of local rules, is your decision.”
That’s been a difficult concept for many to take to heart. And in some cases, what we’ve said hasn’t translated into action. Especially when local managers have said, “No, you don’t have the power.” This became a real challenge. After all, we must first ensure employees understand and are able to leverage the programs and policies put in place. Most importantly, we must ensure support of compassionate policy when no one is coming to a central office and oversight is virtual.
Training is Key
Training was key, of course. So was creating an environment with open lines of communication. A high priority: We had to help to reestablish trust where it was weak. Today, it’s something we continue to work on. For example: For people confined to a home office, programs like Fit4U, mental health workshops, and meditation sessions have become much-appreciated, and much-needed, outlets.
We also offered ways for our employees to escalate issues when they came up. Given the nature of the pandemic, people felt personally and professionally vulnerable. So our role in creating lifelines and wellness outlets helped our people find pockets of normalcy in a world that was anything but normal.
4. Employee Experience and Customer Experience: The Ties that Bind
In Blake Morgan’s Forbes article, “The Un-Ignorable Link Between Employee Experience and Customer Experience,” she emphasizes those companies with 60% more engaged employees lead in customer service. And as J.W. Marriott rightly states, “Take care of the associates and they’ll take care of your customers.”
At Unit4, my team and I have focused on creating a commercial mindset within our own organization. That way, we can be better partners — especially to the go-to-market teams we support. As stewards of Unit4’s employee engagement program, we’ve worked closely with our Customer Experience teams to help them navigate the challenges our customers are facing during the COVID-19 crisis.
Managers Must Be Trained
Implementing training programs focused on soft skills have already had an impact. To identify issues that could have downstream impact with customers, we must ensure managers are also trained. Finally, leveraging our own in-house platform to conduct weekly pulse surveys has provided us valuable insight. We know how employees are feeling and understand their frustrations. This helps us identify ‘hot spots’ that require immediate action by the teams and their leadership.
Most importantly, these frequent touchpoints help us maintain a good experience for our employees, which benefits customer engagement and satisfaction.
5. Swatting Away the “It’s Always Been Done this Way” Gnat
You’ve seen it play out in your organizations. You onboard a group of new hires. They’re eager to make a big impact. They are ready to innovative new ways of solving problems and supporting new initiatives. A few months later, you run into one of them at a Town Hall. She looks tired and beaten down. You take her aside to ask how it’s going. Sadly, you hear a similar refrain: “Well, the project is going okay, but I’m told by many people across the company that it can’t be done because we tried it two years ago. It requires so much change to what we do today that it’s simply not worth it. And, well, from their perspective of too many, the current approach works well enough.”
You comfort her. You tell her to keep pushing. But you know this is a problem across the organization.
Old Way Not Always the Best Way
The “it’s always been done this way” attitude causes stagnation and also disengagement. Ultimately, your top players leave. They take their energy and passion elsewhere. To keep your transformation initiatives going and ensure key projects don’t run out of gas during the COVID-19 crisis, that gnat needs to be swatted down for good. HR can play a key role in coaching managers and checking in with individual contributors. We can sit in on project team meetings to understand the mood. In real-time, we can flag old habits. And we can help where remediation is required. Projects are successful because of the team. But when the team is thrown into the “old ways” vortex, there is little chance of success.
There Was No Playbook
Of course, no one had the COVID-19 Crisis Playbook to quickly flip open to help solve many of the challenges faced. We’re all writing that book, in real-time, one word and one challenge at a time. So, there’s so much more I could share.
For now, let me say: We have an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again. Reshape how workspace experience can help build and nurture your culture. Drive change by helping leaders make those important decisions and drive them to conclusion. Give people the power to decide and the opportunity to thrive. And to coach managers while supporting them through this process.
Ultimately, the people own a company’s customer experience. And valued customers are on the receiving end of disengaged employees. So, once and for all, let’s swat away the “it’s always been done this way” gnat. After all, our customers, investors, and our people deserve it. And they want to see our businesses evolve, grow and flourish.
As HR leaders, we are in a unique position to help see our organizations through the COVID-19 crisis. My team and I are ready. Are you?