Responding To COVID-19. Ten Lessons From The World’s HR Leaders.

This week we had a webcast with more than 2,000 participants and spent 90 minutes listening to seven of the world’s leading HR executives.  The executives were:

The overall theme was clear: there is no going back. The COVID-19 crisis is not only disruptive to every company, but it has created a “Big Reset” as I describe it. Every company agreed that the rapid changes taking place will be long-lasting for years to come.

(I want to thank our co-sponsor HR Executive and you can read their recap here.)

1/ Remote Work is Real and It’s Big.

Diane Gherson from IBM told us that today 95% of IBM’s workers are remote, and every other company essentially said the same.

Eric shared that the NBA’s “remote work” situation is creating a new normal. While this crisis resulted in postponing the season, it also provided a platform for players to engage fans, consider the future of the NBA telecast for fans around the world and in the meantime whether the NBA could be offering the virtual game, while we wait for the live game to return.

Rich from UHG and Tripti from Novartis noted that many of their physicians and nurse employees want to volunteer. They had to develop policies for employees to work in affected locations and still come back to work safe. (Rich calls home “The Real Workplace.”)

Simon noted that courses on “How to use Microsoft Teams” quickly became the #1 most used materials in Novartis, then quickly followed by “Time Management: Working From Home.” Every CHRO mentioned that the problem of making time at home (with children, family members, and pets competing for attention) was a huge issue.

Bryan from Nextdoor noted that people have learned to adjust their work-hours based on home conditions. Many people now take meetings in the evenings, for example, because they’re tutoring or caring for kids during the day. And everyone is fine with this.

By the way, we are launching a whole initiative in the Josh Bersin Academy to help you with this (soon).

2/ Personal Safety and Health Is Paramount

There is overwhelming agreement that the human, health, and safety issues are #1. 

Not only do these HR leaders understand this priority, but it manifests itself in subtle ways. Do people shake hands any more? What are the new policies for vacation? When people come to the office for work where do they sit or stand? Should some employees receive hazard pay? (IBM is considering this, as is UHG) 

Eric reinforced that the NBA sees the players as role models for fans and society. So the NBA put together a major program to teach players how to be good role models, practice various health practices, and how to serve as advocates for the solution.

3/ Going Digital Is Imperative

There was a funny exchange. Tripti from Novartis noted that “we had a two year roll out for Microsoft Teams that was accelerated to two weeks.” Several of the companies mentioned that “doing a digital transformation” is now urgent, and that means tools, norms, culture, and behaviors.

For example, do people know how to appear on video without looking like you need a shave? (lighting) Do you know how to onboard people virtually? What tools should you buy? (We will publish a list.) 

Everyone agreed that the multi-year digital transformation their company was doing was suddenly accelerated to a few weeks. Every system, tool, and enablement platform has to work now.

Diane, Tripti, Bryan, and Rich all talked about their infrastructure (Teams or Slack) and that the ability to quickly “mobilize” for this crisis was an imperative.

In fact one of the concepts I picked up was that “digital job disruption” (ie. automation) is not a job-killer, it’s mandatory to deal with a crisis. So get going on your digital transformation and don’t wait any more. The tools all work well and you just have to pick the ones you want.

(We are publishing a report on best-practices in remote work tools in the next week or so.)

4/ Caring, Listening, and Empathy Are Priority

Each of the executives expressed their own stories about caring, empathy, and listening. I was quite moved by the stories.

Bryan Power from Nextdoor shared the story of the “Neighborhood Howl” which takes place all over the country. People go outside their house and ring a bell or play a musical instrument at 7PM to recognize and thank our healthcare workers.

He also explained that their neighborhood platform has turned into a place people go for help. Neighbors who have extra food, or are going to the store, are now regularly asking neighbors if they want help. For all the problems we’ve had with social networks in the last decade, their system is making life better.

Everyone agreed that we are far more “connected” now than we were before the crisis. Analia, Rich, Tripti, and Simon all told stories of people coming together to share, meet, and discuss issues all over the company.

5/ Distributed Authority Is Key

If you’ve read anything about military strategy, there is a big topic of “distributed authority with central coordination” taught during battle. We need the same here.

Diane, Analia, and many of the others told us how local country managers, business partners, and HR administrators had to deal with local country issues, store issues, or city issues that could never be coordinated in a central way. Diane and others told us of daily standup meetings where people from all over the world talk about their problems and local decisions.

For example, several of the companies mentioned that their Italian businesses were shut down entirely by the government. One of the executives noted that the Chinese team went back to work and then found out that the virus had re-emerged, and had to re-impose restrictions. At UHG there were regional service centers that sent people home and the company needed special accommodations for internet access. 

These important “resilience” measures have to be addressed quickly and locally, so this requires a “distributed but coordinated” operating model.

So the message is simple: every HR function must have a strategy for central coordination with local control, based on shared platforms, strategies, and values. We have been helping quite a few companies think this through and it goes back to my early research on “Federated HR” and “Federated L&D” operating models. I”m happy to share more on this with anyone who is interested.

6/ Do Less With Less

As I’ve described in The Big Reset, all these companies are budget-constrained to a varying degree. Bryan told a wonderful story of how they “reused” their onboarding platform (a system with education and online resources) to turn it into a “work at home resource center.”

Simon described how Novartis now offers free Coursera programs (for families and children) and free access to Khan Academy for all children at home. These kinds of tools let people improve the lives of their families at little to no cost.

Most of the executives told us that the “big projects” are not shelved, they’re just pushed aside a bit. I know that Novartis continued with their long term strategy planning process, but we did it remotely through a series of video-based breakout rooms. Bryan and Rich described the same situation in their companies.

7/ Move Fast And Come Together

Every single story was a story of courage, collaboration, and action. Every HR executive described how they built “priority teams” that meet every day, global councils that meet constantly, and that many of the HR professionals shifted from “project work” to “crisis work.”

I do want to point out that several of the execs told us that “not everyone is dealing with the crisis.” Many of the HR professionals are continuing to “keep the business operating.” Novartis, for example, is now running at top speed and Tripti and Simon reinforced that the crisis does not mean we don’t have to keep the company running. The message is “assign a team to work on the crisis” but “don’t have everyone working on the crisis.”

8/ Real-Time Data Really Matters

Rich mentioned (and I know there is more under the covers) that UHG, with more than 300,000 employees, did a massive redeployment of resources to make sure all the call centers, nurses, operations people, and other professionals could work from home. I know that this is possible because UHG has an amazing data infrastructure.

Diane at IBM often tells me that she knows when there is a problem anywhere in the world in minutes. I know getting your data house in order feels boring and somewhat like back office work, but in times like this it’s more important than ever.

9/ Continuity Planning Is Vital: Black Swan Events Happen All The Time

One of the thoughts that occurred to me today was that “crisis response” is not something you do once every few decades. Every company will have a “Black Swan” event on a periodic basis.

For example, the Boeing 737 crisis was their black swan. The Wells Fargo sales commission problem was a black swan. The PG&E fires in California were a black swan. In my company we had a fairly significant embezzlement, and that was my own “black swan.” 

You have to plan for “things going wrong” as part of your everyday life. The companies that did this (and most of these companies did) were ready to respond. Going forward, make sure all your programs, designs, and people are “designed for resiliency.”

I would add that almost everything we’ve done over the last ten years (cloud platforms, focus on employee experience, understanding employee journeys, implementing people analytics) is all coming together with this new focus on crisis response and resilience. You need all these programs to respond in a vigorous and local way to this crisis.

I do believe, by the way, that “Black Swan” events are here to stay. As terrible as this one is, we have to recognize that this may be the new normal. Imagine the impact of global warming and sea water rise, for example.

10/ Leadership Matters. More Than Ever

The final message is one you already know. These executives really earn their pay in times like this. Not only are each one of us worried about our health and personal safety, these leaders are worried about revenue, executive and workplace safety, continuity, and offering sound and ethical policies to employees.

Most of them are working many long hours, but as HR leaders I sense they are inspired by the challenge. As the Economist article recently pointed out, in this particular global crisis, HR are the heroes of most companies. 

You all have many difficult decisions to make. There will be layoffs, restructuring, and many difficult financial and human decisions ahead. But if you think about these ten things, I think you’ll feel a little better off.

Stay tuned for more: our COVID-19 “Pulse of HR” will be coming out early next week, and watch for our Remote Work Bootcamp for Josh Bersin Academy members.

Finally, let’s just accept that most of the changes in The Big Reset are here to stay.

PS:  I will be publishing a transcript of the Q&A and many detailed answers to the 350+ questions we received in the next few days, stay tuned.