Handling the Covid-19 Emergency from an HR Perspective

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Endeavor Webinar Series

HR specialists from Google, NOKIA and Egon Zehnder discuss how they are handling the Covid-19 Emergency from an HR Perspective

Endeavor Greece invited Aline de Lucca, HR Business Partner of Google, Jill Medhaug, HR Business Partner of NOKIA and Alison Lohr, VP Corporate Strategy of Egon Zehnder, to discuss how international organizations can handle the current coronavirus crisis from an HR perspective, in an hour-long webinar that took place yesterday.

The Google Experience

Aline de Lucca explained how Google has managed the situation in Italy so far. At the first stage of the crisis, for about a week, the company instituted an optional work from home policy, giving anyone who preferred to do so the option to work from home. They also made sure to communicate that to managers across the organization. When schools closed, working from home became a recommendation rather than an option and, finally, when the lock-down began for the entire country, they decided to close their office and facilitate everyone working from home.

“That being said, we are Google, so of course everyone has a laptop and an internet connection. As such, it’s easy to stay connected and work from home. But in Italy, lots of businesses are not in the same situation”, Aline pointed out. “This whole crisis has shed light to the fact that many Italian companies are behind in terms of their digital transformation.” This realization could turn out to be an opportunity for businesses going forward.

Google decided to adopt a flexible way of managing employees during the initial days of the crisis, allowing them to work in the way that felt most comfortable. During this second stage, they are focusing on providing employees with the resources that will help them take care of their emotional health. They also encourage people to stay connected in a variety of ways and organize forums where they can ask questions. “This has proven to be good for the general operation of the business, as well as keeping morale high.”

The Nokia Experience

“This crisis is complex and it’s affecting everything”, said Jill Medhaug. “We have a large team in China that I’m in contact with and there have been some truly heart-wrenching stories coming out of there over these past few months. And yet, we never thought it was going to happen here. We knew what was going on, but we never thought it was going to reach Europe.”

Dealing with the situation now, they have put together a crisis committee on the global level, as well as for each country, to provide overall guidelines. Some managers at different countries did seem to think our response was exaggerated, but they were overruled and their teams went home. Every effort is being made to communicate with clarity and to try to take as much of the fear their employees are feeling away. “They are of course worried about getting sick or having their loved ones get sick, but they know they have a paycheck.”

People at Nokia, just like Google, are used to working from home. “We have the necessary capabilities in place and most of the organization is open-minded about this. Yet, I know there are people and organizations where that is not the case. It’s important to have a culture in place whereby you get paid based on your results.” For Jill, at the end of the day, this is a leadership issue. “It’s time for leaders to step up, take control, remain calm and make sure everyone is still onboard. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to voice their anxieties and concerns. How do people get through these rough times? With the help of support systems, maintaining some control and a sense of purpose.”

The Egon Zehnder Experience

From her perspective, Alison Lohr spoke of the impact this crisis is having on Egon Zehnder as a global organization, but also on all of the clients and people they interact with from a variety of industries, who are in different levels of crisis at the moment. “It’s amazing how much the world could change in a week”, she remarked.

As Alison explained, her team in particular had been getting a lot done over video conferencing already. She pointed out that from a tech perspective, the company was very well set-up to switch to a working from home policy, having the necessary capabilities in place.

In terms of providing employees with additional security, they made sure to communicate really clearly and from the get-go that in the long run people needn’t worry about whether they were going to have a job or not – that is a given. “Instead, they were asked to think of how they could help companies that need their support. That is a mission-driven way to release stress and build relationships with our clients on a deeper level.”

The Real Heroes

Asked about what the best way to help employees that still have to spend time outside, at factories, doing deliveries and other similar jobs – the “real heroes” of this crisis – Aline pointed out that these folks need an open channel of communication, so that they can ask their employers and managers questions and know the environment is safe enough for them to express their concerns. “Sometimes, what people need most is a word of reassurance. ‘You will not lose your job, I’m here for you.’ Sometimes that’s all they need to hear.”

She also stressed the importance of helping people understand what comes next. “It is the uncertainty that causes most of the agitation and anxiety. Some folks are outside on the streets, with more exposure to fear. They need to know what the vision behind your business is, and they need to be able to see the importance of their personal contribution to society. Businesses are saving the day by doing something as simple as giving people the option of still eating something they like in these stressful times.”

“You have an opportunity to elevate the discussion”, Alison underlined. “We have a mission. We have the ability to help people who are vulnerable. Taking it up a level can help a lot.” She also spoke of the importance of offering choices, like giving employees a variety of options, to the extent that a company is in a position to do so.

“Taking the fear away and making it safe again is key”, according to Jill. Educating employees on how to keep themselves safe is important, as is communicating with their families, to make sure everyone in their environment feels comfortable with the work they are being asked to do. “After all, a lot of employees are getting pressure from family members ‘to not bring the virus home’.I would also continue to call these people ‘heroes’ and bring that visibility regarding the important work they’re doing to the rest of the company. You could even get some media involved. Recognize their contribution loudly.”

Dealing with Uncertainty

What should you do if you cannot, in good conscience, guarantee that your employees will have their jobs throughout this crisis? “I think that in situations like these, when we have a scenario that is constantly changing, the best answer is to say that you are checking on this every day, that you are doing everything you can to make sure they can keep their jobs, but that at the moment you are not sure yet. People prefer transparency. If they know that you are being as transparent as possible, they know they will be informed as soon as information becomes available.

Alison mentioned Delta CEO Ed Bastian as a good person to reference in terms of the best way to communicate right now.”No one has been hit worse than the airlines. And yet the first thing he announced was that he would not be taking any salary for at least 6 months. He also offered furlough to anyone able to take time off with a guaranteed job to get back to. He has been communicating regularly and sometimes multiple times a day, answering questions etc. People feel they have someone giving them the straight story.”

How Long Will This Last?

Asked about the scenarios they are operating under, in terms of how long this crisis will last, Aline said they are making preparations to continue in this way until fall. “That being said, waiting for this situation to pass is not going to be the most challenging part of the crisis.” The big challenge for Italy is likely to come after, especially for an economy made up in large part by SMEs, which also heavily relies on tourism. “What comes after is something we’re preparing our people for, so that they know what to expect when they ‘get out of their cage’. What will the situation be then?”

On Nokia’s side, Jill said they are bracing themselves for a rough Q2. “We’ll get used to this new situation and we’ll get good at it. But what comes after is what we’re concerned about. Isolation is one thing. The economic effect of all this on the world is another. In the summer, the US should be over the peak of the pandemic. What will that mean for the company? What will that mean for the world? Things will change. The way people do things will change.” “We may be closer to a debt crisis that we realize”, warned Alison. “Depending on seasonality, we might have to go through this again and again. If so, it’s likely to have a prolonged impact. A lot of companies, even healthy companies, have high levels of debt. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that seasonality lowers the spread of the virus and that we can prevent some of its severe impact on these companies.”

Teamwork, Communication and Productivity

Asked about any advice they would like to share regarding teamwork and productivity, given that working from home has come as a shock to a number of companies that had not been used to it, Aline said that it’s important to keep channels of communication open, being as flexible as possible and mindful of the actual lives of people, especially in the beginning. “It will take time for them to rebuild the routines they had in place before, in this new space.” “I find that having a one-hour workshop and allowing each of the team-members to speak is a very effective practice. Insist on hearing their thoughts, ask them to talk about their fears, about what is happening at home and what is preventing them from doing their job. Ask them: ‘what would make today a good day at work?’. Respect their limitations and encourage them by saying ‘you know what, it’s okay, we’ll get through this’.”

Alison also stressed that we need to be mindful that messaging comes from a variety of places in an organization, including the managers. “They are also scared. Talk them through it. Prepare them to have these one-on-one conversations with employees.” Finally, Aline expressed the importance of self-care in these difficult times. “Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of everyone else.”

You can listen to the recording of the webinar here

Meet The Speakers

Aline de Lucca

HR Business Partner at Google

Jill Medhaug

HR Business Partner of NOKIA

Alison Lohr

VP Corporate Strategy of Egon Zehnder