Building HR Adaptability and Resiliency in a Time of Crisis

The human resources function has never been more important for ensuring business continuity than under the suddenly changed reality of the coronavirus crisis. Whole companies and industries are being upended by new rules to work from home, collaborate remotely, avoid air travel, and rethink business gatherings as virtual events.

This is not the time for HR professionals to be timid or uncertain. It’s time to reinforce your company’s underlying culture, with HR taking on an enlarged role to facilitate workforce resiliency amid the uncertainty. HR can serve as a unifying force that galvanizes workers across disparate geographies, business units and job roles.

We can build resiliency by creating stronger bonds for employees, reinforcing that we are all learning together and celebrating our mutual accomplishments, even the little things. At the same time, resiliency means being transparent about bad things that may come up, and what is being done to address them. It is not enough to say we will be OK sometime in the future – we need to communicate what we are seeing and doing right now.

In terms of engaging a newly remote workforce, the first thing to do is to take an inventory of what leaders think people need, and then create a touch point so people can see if their needs are being met. Not just having a laptop and a Zoom connection, but also how they should connect with people who they regularly talked with before in the hallways at the office. What are the new rules of engagement?

When we checked in with people, they felt different about working at home after one week versus three weeks. In the first week, it was so new that everyone was just asking, what are we doing? By the second week, the reality crept in about how to deal with the situation.

First, we sent out a best practices document, but then leaders started asking unexpected questions such as what are the rules about co-parenting? People were not sure how to navigate that issue, trying to be an at-home schoolteacher as well as doing their regular job as a product director.

We explained to leaders that they need to make new agreements and suggest different working plans. For instance, some team members agreed to two-hours on for working, and then two hours off to accomplish other projects, such as home schooling.

For this reason, we have some agreements that look a lot different now than just meeting people in the office at 8 AM and saying goodbye at 5 PM. By the second week, our monitoring and communications became very important. We instituted morning check-ins and afternoon closeouts to go over what we had accomplished each day. That regular routine has helped many remote workers to feel less distant or isolated.

Our leaders also added some fun things for their afternoon closeout sessions. One person used a website that served up randomly generated questions for their team members to answer. Another used a “Would You Rather” challenge, such as asking would you rather lick a frozen piece of steel or eat a bug? Fun stuff like that just takes a few minutes to provide some mental relief.

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Further out, we are now seeing that people need some connectedness to our larger mission and how we are doing as a company. To address that, we changed from monthly all-staff meetings to every other week. Also, instead of sending out the standard email, our CEO started sending out video updates with a State of the Union about our company – including topics such as are people still buying our stuff, or are they paying their bills?

There are many different ways to work, so it’s important to show people the right way and remind them about what is not acceptable. Collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Slack can keep people together by identifying each person’s status throughout the workday. Someone can easily update the team: I’m going to lunch, or I’m done working for the day. In this way, we can respect what people are doing at any given time for their jobs as well as their families. We don’t want to bother workers who are busy teaching their children, for instance.

An essential point about working from home is that people really need a trusted cadence of steady communications. For this reason, we have implemented a daily standup meeting, a weekly team meeting, a biweekly executive committee meeting, and a bi-weekly all-staff meeting. These communications are 100% consistent – we never miss them, so we are always on cadence. We are also 100% video to improve our connections and understanding of what people are saying with words and body language.

It’s also important to bolster staff morale. Don’t lose sight of what keeps your staff engaged—their coworkers. Virtual watercooler talk can be a healthy way for employees to blow off steam. Already we’ve had people eat their lunches together over video chat, introduce their pets to coworkers and set up virtual trivia games. Some of our teams are enjoying virtual happy hours together based on themes such as Women’s History Month. We also recently hosted a happy hour for the whole staff and their families, featuring a free virtual concert by recording artist Angie Maserati.

Finally, realize that people are personally impacted as this situation unfolds and be more tolerant. Relying on communication will be key, but rigid micro-managing of daily activities hinders productivity and can create distrust. Keep close to their work but utilize this time to build trust. Not to be forgotten—take care of yourself.

Suzanne Rudnitzki is the Chief People Officer of Smarsh, the market leader in digital archiving solutions. Suzanne was formerly the Chief Human Resources Officer with Telecare Corporation. Before Telecare, Suzanne previously served as a consultant for Xerox Corporation, facilitated the international entrepreneurial leadership training for Procter & Gamble, developed training curriculum and provided consulting for Nissan and General Motors.

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