COVID-19 Roundtable Recap: Back to Better with Dr. John Boudreau

April 20, 2020

COVID-19 Roundtable Discussion

On April 15, members from Australia, India, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia convened for an open dialogue on how their companies are navigating the pandemic, followed by an April 16th virtual roundtable for their peers in North America and Europe. The latter conversation delved into the long-term macro impacts of the crisis, with some thoughts from Dr. John Boudreau from the Center for Effective Organizations (pg. 3).

This recap is from conversations on April 15 & April 16, 2020. Approaches discussed may have already changed in this fluid environment. Because of the sensitive nature of parts of the conversation, member and company names have been omitted.

Planning for the Return to Work

  • Scenario planning: Two members shared some details of their internal scenario planning efforts, with both citing a 24-month recovery as the “worst case.” One of the two has a “best case” plan that includes a full recovery within three months, but both companies envision a 12 to 18-month recovery as the most realistic, given their industries. Leaders in both organizations are setting expectations that their companies will look “very different” in the post-COVID world, with one explicitly discussing the scenarios in virtual town hall-style meetings with leadership.
  • Downshifting to prepare to return: The same member companies that acted quickly to shutter facilities, establish remote-working procedures and roll out new wellbeing programs are now moving slower to bring people back to worksites—even in markets like Hong Kong and China where many are returning to work. Few see value in pushing an aggressive return, with several members expressing a benefit to being “behind the curve” in order to better mitigate safety risks and learn from others. Those on the calls that have begun to return employees uniformly describe a cautious, phased approach—with an abundance of social distancing, contact-reducing and safety measures built in.
  • Universal temperature checks and masks: One member shared that her company has instituted company-wide daily temperature checks and reporting—even for remote employees. The policy began for workers in essential production facilities that have remained open throughout the crisis. At the facilities, the company checks temperatures of all employees three times daily: upon arrival, midshift and before leaving. Remote workers self-report temperatures daily, though a tool quickly developed by the company’s IT department. Adoption has been swift, with video calls often starting with “Everyone take a minute now to do their temp checks for the day.” Masks are required and available for all employees.

Holding onto the Good

  • Better ways to communicate: The crisis has radically changed how CEOs and senior leaders communicate with their organizations. Frequency and candor have increased, and one member said the change in her company has been so dramatically well-received that it’s difficult to imagine a return to the “old way.” Another member said the crisis has highlighted the power of storytelling within her organization, with examples of employees going “above and beyond” for customers now reaching wider internal audiences with amplified impact. This too will continue in the “new normal”.
  • New working arrangements: Many member companies are rethinking who actually needs to be working on-site and who can be just as effective—or even more effective—as remote workers. One member shared that their call centers have gone 100% remote “almost overnight”—a radical shift that would not have been seriously considered just months prior. The move has been so successful that it is now unlikely the call centers will ever return to the pre-pandemic “normal.”
  • Maintaining a sense of unity and commitment to each other: Members continue to share how the crisis has paradoxically brought colleagues closer to one another, through everything from child and pet cameos on video calls, to people directly helping co-workers personally impacted by the disease. There is a fear that this positive impact could dissipate once the virus is under control—and no one has a firm answer yet on how to maintain this sense of connection in a post-COVID world.

Combating Crisis Fatigue

  • Easing back on virtual calls: As the lockdown drags into weeks and months in some locales, several members reported signs of “Zoom fatigue.” One member shared that they have recently deliberately dialed back the number group Zoom calls. Another shared that her organization is encouraging “walking meetings,” wherein those on the call are asked to be away from their computers—talking while roaming the garden or the living room.
  • Encouraging volunteerism: One member shared that her company is launching a new volunteering site through Workday, with flexible scheduling options to give people the opportunity to positively impact their community amid the crisis—be it helping a local foodbank or shopping for elders and others who are at heightened risk of Coronavirus complications.
  • Defining time off: With so many workers “plugged in” remotely across international organizations, even something as basic as defining working hours is becoming a major challenge—especially for so-called knowledge workers. As one member put it, “What is a workday? What is a weekend? A public holiday in France is not the same as a public holiday in the U.S.” She believes that defining time off must be tackled by organizations, with HR taking the lead. Governments will not be able to keep up. And as some workers’ remote- working routines turn permanent, this challenge will become amplified.

Looking Beyond the Crisis

During the April 16th call, Executive Networks CEO Mike Dulworth discussed an upcoming EN research project on the post-COVID future of HR with Thinkers 50 and Dr. John Boudreau, Senior Research Scientist with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

On the call, we shared Boudreau’s four key thoughts about the post-COVID world:

  • Workers will learn to have more of a collective “voice,” that does not require the traditional institutions such as works councils and unions and engagement surveys, as social media becomes a gathering place and amplifier for their issues and considerations, that are both supportive and agreeable to their organization, but also that challenge their organization, revealing formerly “hidden stories and perspectives” and multiple “cultures.
  • Alternative work arrangements, well beyond the simple ideas of “employment” versus the “gig economy” will advance far more rapidly, as more workers gain access and capability to use cloud-based and social technology, and as workers realize the precariousness of assuming that being an employee carries long-term security.
  • Previously-accepted practices such as executive compensation, stock buybacks, etc. are now explicitly linked to the treatment of non-executive workers (such as the U.S. legislated relief package that prohibits layoffs, pay cuts, and stock buybacks by organizations who receive Government assistance), and will be under far greater scrutiny.
  • Companies will be held more accountable for their environmental impact. The experience of negative environmental impacts being significantly reduced even in the relatively short period of this crisis will create a vivid benchmark to hold organizations and society more responsible, with the metaphor of “flatten the curve through decisive and early action” translated to flattening the curve of global warming, plastic and other pollution, etc.

Members built upon Boudreau’s thoughts and added some of their own predictions. Echoing Boudreau’s second bullet, two members shared their belief that compensation will fundamentally change. As one put it, “This has exposed the major disparity between the people who are sitting behind home-office desks and those who are out doing the real work. Should it really be that way? I think a reckoning is coming.” Another member shared that the crisis has “drastically accelerated board-level conversations on how to protect and provide for our lower compensated employees.”

Unlike the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust HR leaders into critical highly- visible roles. Employee safety, new working arrangements, benefits, workforce continuity, rapid- cycle learning, wellbeing—all of these crisis responses and others have crystalized the value of having HR leaders at the strategic decision-making table. HR leaders are proving their worth in extraordinary ways. As one member succinctly put it, “The door is open for us.”

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COVID-19 Roundtable Recap: Back to Better with Dr. John Boudreau

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