HR Leaders Respond to the COVID-19 Crisis: Navigating a New Reality

May 28, 2020

Chasm Partners recently convened a Roundtable discussion with leading Human Resources and Talent executives addressing some of the challenges and opportunities companies are facing as we begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic (see our participants below). We are pleased to share key themes that emerged in this thought-provoking and interactive discussion.

Return to the Office or Not?
HR executives, in conjunction with their respective leadership teams, are rewriting the proverbial playbook. There is much to be considered about returning to an office environment, or in some cases, even returning at all.

One participant explained, “Truthfully we are putting off returning to the office as long as we can. We are fully capable of operating in a remote environment despite our initial fears with logistics and potential distractions.” Most agreed that until we know more, it seems premature to bring people back into the office. Conversations have begun about reconfiguring offices to create distance between people, alternating work schedules, and bio-thermometers tied to employee badges.

How companies in New York City or other “hot spots” for COVID-19 are responding is highly variable from how our participants with locations in Iowa or Texas are responding. One HR executive in locations where restrictions have been eased contributed to the conversation by acknowledging that, “We are going back to the office as our employees are looking for normalcy. We are carefully rolling out a multi-phase approach. We are considering opening up offices in States where shelter-in-place has been lifted and there have been 14 days of declining cases.”

Change to the Office Footprint: Micro-Offices are Being Considered
Working from home has led many employers to consider a change to, or even reduction of, their physical office space. An HR executive in New York City offered, “We are considering small micro-offices grouped around where employees live. We are considering the fact that people who live in the city might not renew their leases; also, many employees are hesitant to use public transportation right now. With that in mind, we have told our broker to release our current office space; we don’t need the large square footage, and the money we save in rent will benefit our existing employees.”

Realizing That Employees Are Making the Decisions Now
Notably, all participants agreed that returning to the office will be presented as a choice to employees. With the reality of schools not in session and limited resources for childcare, most HR leaders do not want their employees to feel pressure to return to the office. “It’s not an option for a CHRO to say, ‘come into the office,’ when there is no school or childcare available,” said one participant. In addition, remote and flexible arrangements need to be granted to those employees dealing with health conditions that prevent them from returning to the office. One HR executive in an area of the country where restrictions were being lifted surveyed their team and found that only 13% of their employees stated that they would be ready and feel comfortable returning to the office. This shift in control from employer to employee is indeed an interesting outcome of the pandemic.

A critical takeaway reflected unanimously across the group is that it is important for HR to work in lockstep with legal counsel as we enter the post COVID-19 era. There are large concerns over the legal ramifications of requiring employees to return to an in-office setting. Companies will need to create clear policies regarding safety protocols, travel, office visitors, and more. As one participant summarized, “As HR leaders we are being challenged to find solutions around safe working environments, benefits (mental health and wellness), and liability issues that our employment lawyers have never seen before. It’s definitely not business as usual, but it’s a lesson in resiliency that’s stretching us in new and different ways – and there’s good news there.”

WFH Considerations Beyond Increased Employee Productivity
Leadership teams were initially leery about the impact working remotely would have on productivity and collectively shared the hypothesis holding teams accountable and driving results would prove more difficult. Somewhat unexpectedly, productivity has actually increased in many companies, encouraged by setting clear expectations, changing communication patterns, and offering support and coaching when appropriate. One leader shared, “Initially we were worried about productivity and not having the ability to keep a close eye on our people. Then we remembered that we’ve hired really great people.”

However, as we approach the recovery phase of COVID-19, there is a concern that the productivity benefit won’t continue. The “novelty” reduction, depression for the loss of previous norms, and combined with the “always-on” stress are foreseen as likely eroding productivity.

Healthcare Companies Continue To Hire: Seizing the Day with a Deeper Talent Pool
The initial reaction to COVID-19 led to many companies slowing down or delaying new hires. However, we found several companies represented in our panel were accelerating their hiring plans. “Recruiting is still a major priority, perhaps more than ever, and there is a good deal of creativity in making new hires.” One participant who has a bird’s-eye view of more than fifty venture capital-backed portfolio companies shared, “Many of our companies paused hiring in March to assess what was happening in the market, but have now picked right back up where they left off and are driving existing searches through. They are also kicking off new searches.” Another shared, “For the moment it feels like new searches have slowed down at the mid-level, but we are still seeing a strong demand for executive level talent. We hired a Chief Financial Officer sight unseen. While this is not the norm of what you may be hearing about in the market, it is happening.” Most have an optimistic view of the future and are making opportunistic hires now.

Further debunking the norm, traditional methods of hiring have been thrown out the window and employers are becoming more creative with the hiring process. CEOs and other key leaders are getting more involved – a positive side-effect that has occurred during this time. Our panel participants shared stories about social distancing meetings on park benches, walks, and parking lot coffee meetings in separate cars with windows rolled down. In other instances where in-person meetings were not an option due to the inability to travel, extensive time was spent on video calls getting to know each other socially and “fireside chats” are being utilized to ease fears about making decisions. Chasm Partners recently published an article, “Getting to Yes - Hiring During COVID-19,” which details creative ways for both candidates and employers to navigate the hiring process during this crisis.

Recognizing and Managing Employee Stress During COVID-19
The health and well-being of employees has surfaced as one of the most critical topics of conversation for leadership teams. One participant commented, “People are working extended hours and constantly feel the need to be accessible. With so much work to be done, and every success or failure potentially impacting the business, people are feeling increased pressure, starting work earlier and ending work later. We’ve had to coach our team that responding to everything at all hours is not necessary.” A common theme that emerged in the conversation was reminding employees to unplug and take time away from work and that the idea of setting boundaries is not only necessary but encouraged.

In addition to providing access to mental health care providers through EAP’s, the use of technology has also emerged as a solution. Mental health apps have proven to be very impactful in assisting the needs of employees, serving as an outlet and an additional resource for those working to cope with the new normal. An HR leader commented, “Our company is giving access to Calm for example, and other subscriptions to mental, fitness, or wellness platforms that can contribute to people focusing more on self care."

For any follow up questions, comments or reactions please feel free to reach us at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and wish you well in the coming weeks and months.

Elizabeth Crane, Chief People Officer, One Digital
Caryn Ciaio, SVP Human Resources, CareCentrix
Michele Joyce, SVP, Human Resources, Iodine Software
Beth Newman, Partner, Executive Talent, Andreessen Horowitz
Gavin Pommernelle, Director, Chasm Partners
Ellenmarie Rhone, SVP, People & Culture, Verana Health
Leah Scanlan, Partner, Talent, Oak HC/FT
Debra Somers, Director, Portfolio Recruitment, Warburg Pincus
Karsten Vagner, VP, People, Maven

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