HR Roundtable Part 1: Helping Your HR Team Survive COVID-19

About 10 min

HR Roundtable Part 1: Helping Your HR Team Survive COVID-19

Working through COVID-19 has not been easy on anybody. But it’s probably fair to say HR departments have taken the brunt of it when it comes to additional workload, stress, and worry.

As the pandemic drags on with no real end in sight, the road ahead might seem daunting. How do you help your team keep it together so they can take care of everyone else?

Part one of our four-part series has answers.

sarah-piperWe spoke with HR leaders from four very unique business sectors to see how they have kept their teams on track though the pandemic, and to get advice on how you can help your team make it through the rest of 2020 without burning out.

Today’s advice comes from Sarah Piper, Vice President of Human Relations-Americas for McCormick. Chances are you have more than one of this Fortune 1000 company’s products in your kitchen right now! It takes nearly 12,000 employees to keep Old Bay, Frank’s Red Hot, Lawry’s, and many more delicious offerings available to customers around the world. Sarah is responsible for the strategic oversight of the HR functions in the US, Canada, and Latin America.

EBI: What kinds of challenges has your organization faced during COVID-19?

Sarah: As a global organization, an overarching challenge has been to continually monitor the progression of the pandemic in all our locations around the world to ensure the safety and health of all our employees. In March, we tackled it quickly moving to 100% remote work for most of our office-based roles, including the challenge of ensuring that technology support was in place and that our leaders were as prepared as possible to effectively manage their teams remotely. Another key concern for us has been supporting employees who are balancing dependent care with work, whether they are in roles where they are able to work from home or not. 

We have also experienced changes in product demand, both increases and decreases. In the US, this has led to increased hiring, especially in our plant and distribution facilities. Our priority has been to keep our essential operations running safely, which has looked like heightened sanitization, additional personal protective equipment, physical distancing, and temperature screening. 

A constant challenge has been the pace at which we need to move to effectively respond. We have been able to increase the speed of our decision-making, immediately implementing augmented “Work-From-Home” practices, employee pulse surveys to quickly understand employee concerns and needs, launching an external website for employees to easily receive updates, and establishing priorities to help us quickly prioritize the most critical work. 

EBI: How much additional strain has been put on your HR department?

Sarah: Like many other functions, we have certainly experienced longer hours, including 24/7 support for track and trace and employee relations support in our manufacturing and distribution facilities. Our employees have been very brave in their role as essential employees, and our HR teams are extremely committed to supporting their teams.

With the additional complexity and volume of work that COVID-19 has brought, we continually assess the work at hand to dynamically allocate HR resources to the most vital activities. At the onset of the pandemic, the HR team quickly pivoted and developed risk assessment tools for global use and was also key to the rapid development and deployment of robust protocols for track and trace, which we continue to evolve. 

An additional focus for our HR teams has been on developing new methods of communication and communicating more frequently with employees given the challenges of not holding large in person meetings, especially in plants where email is not an effective communication method. We have also had to find creative ways to drive employee engagement, such as short video messages from our leaders and enhanced total wellbeing resources (mental, emotional, physical, financial). 

As we find our way through the crisis to a “new normal”, we must also adapt processes and leverage technology for core talent management activities, such as performance management and learning & development. 

EBI: When it comes to return-to-work plans – how much of this falls on the HR department and how has that been going?

Sarah: We prefer to call this “return-to-office” planning, since work has never stopped! HR has been central in developing these plans, refining them, and engaging in regular dialog with our employees on this topic. We continue to support remote work; however, many office employees also now have the option to work from the office with many additional safety and health protocols in place. We have also maintained travel restrictions globally. Overall, the response from our employees has been appreciation for the flexibility, support, and detailed execution. 

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EBI: Your organization turned to automation during the pandemic? If so, what did types of products are you using and how are they helping? 

Sarah: McCormick already leverages automation in many functions and continues to assess new opportunities to add value through automation. Given our hiring plans and continued growth as an organization globally, a critical area within the HR function is the continual streamlining of the application and onboarding processes for candidates and new hires. 

EBI: What has it been like for you personally to deal with all of this? How do you care for the people whose job it is to care for everyone else?

Sarah: As the leader of Human Relations for our Americas Region, one of the biggest challenges has been to try and alleviate the additional strain on both the HR team and the broader organization. The pandemic is both unpredictable and unrelenting. The safety and wellbeing of our employees is at the center of what we do. We must always try to be ahead of what may happen, which involves continual research and monitoring across many geographic areas. Concurrently, we must react immediately to any potential or materialized impacts in our workforce while also adapting and delivering our core work so that we emerge stronger as an organization.

As this becomes a longer-term reality, caring for my team has taken the shape of jumping in to help with any work that needs to be done, advocating for additional resources from across the organization, and asking team members to intentionally think about their own wellbeing and schedule time off to recharge.

Our HR teams are the stewards of our company culture, and the pandemic has resulted in a heightened need to provide care and support for all employees, who are each dealing with individual circumstances. At times, this can feel like an overwhelming responsibility, so we have modified our ways of working as a team to support one another. This has looked like more frequent informal touchpoints across the team to be able to share questions, best practices, or challenges. It has looked like saying “no” to some work to prioritize more critical activities and not try to take on everything.

As an eternal optimist, I can also see that we have grown tremendously as a team. Pivoting to research a novel threat, developing protocols and programs rapidly, and problem-solving new issues daily is extremely stimulating intellectually. I have seen individuals rise to the challenge and display leadership qualities that weren’t as apparent in their “normal” role. We have empowered our teams differently and sped up decision making. We are collaborating more regularly and effectively and have pulled together to support one another regardless of our official role in the organization.

EBI: What advice can you offer to other HR managers, or even HR teams of one?

Fake it ‘til you make it. It is critical as an HR professional to remain calm, at least outwardly! Your organization will likely be looking to you as they assess how to feel and what to do. Even when you have no idea what to do, maintaining composure and encouraging a planful approach is key. Seek out trusted sources of information and peers inside and outside of your organization to consult with. Everyone is learning as we go.

Find a North Star. You will have to make decisions in a rapidly evolving situation and to do that, you should have a firm grasp of the pandemic itself, your business reality, and the pulse of the workforce. Seek to understand the emotions and perceptions of the workforce, while also grounding yourself with the best data and information that you can get at the time. Having clear priorities is essential, so that you can anchor back to them and prioritize accordingly. At McCormick, we were fortunate to align to three clear priorities early on to ensure the health and safety of our employees, the continuity of our business, and that we emerge stronger from this event.

Don’t try to do it all. Prioritizing may seem impossible but recognize that the pandemic has added an entirely different body of work for our function and to be effective in this new area of expertise, some other work likely must slow down or stop. Look for “hidden” resources! You may find someone on your team with talents and skills you had no knowledge of that you can apply. There may be people in other functions with skills or simply the desire to help that can be loaned to you. Most importantly, develop routines and boundaries to make sure you can also care for yourself.

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