Coronavirus (COVID-19), Faces of HR

How One HR Professional Approaches Coronavirus Worries and Challenges

Employers, employees, and HR face so many different challenges when it comes to the coronavirus that many are feeling overwhelmed. As the stewards of organizational culture, HR professionals need to meet the challenges with grace and positivity.

We recently spoke with one professional who has deployed her usual positivity to meet the rising challenge. Meet Sarah Hamilton, the Senior Director of Human Resources at Workhuman, a social recognition and continuous performance management platform.

First of all, just to learn a little bit more about you, how did you get into HR?

I’ve been in HR for probably 15 years now. I just happened to land in HR. There was a point in my career when I was in inside sales. I was the office manager for a company, and that was just a natural progression, which led into HR. I think, like I said, more people are choosing the field now, but I think most of us who have been around a while happened to land in the world of HR.

There’s a certain magnet in HR that draws in the right people.

I think when you’re thrown into it, so to speak, it’s because you’re already taking things on that are like it, so it naturally progresses to that. I think to your point, those types of people who end up there end up there because there is something within them that leans more toward the people side of things.

Since joining this company and being a part of what we are doing, the value and the importance of gratitude and recognition change the way I think about my work, so to be able to be a part of an organization that is living it and breathing it every day certainly goes hand in hand with what my job is, which is to take care of our culture and grow our culture and people.

Would you say that throughout your career, you’ve had a lot of training or preparation for crises?

When it comes to things that come up in HR, you can train all you want, you can read all the books, and you can take all the courses, but there is nothing like truly living them and going through them. That is the best way to learn. I think the more opportunities you have to face these situations, the stronger you become in dealing with them.

There are a lot of people who probably have never been through anything quite like this. I don’t think any of us have because we haven’t ever faced this pandemic that’s going on right now, so I think we’re all learning together. We’re all trying to do the best we can to continue to create that experience and balance the business side of it, which obviously is also important, but first and foremost are our people and their families.

It’s definitely a scary time for people, but I also think it’s a wonderful opportunity to still recognize the good that’s happening out there. So, yes, it is trying times. Yes, we are all in a situation that maybe we haven’t quite been in before, and we’re trying to do the best we can with working from home and all of those things, but the opportunity to recognize the good is there, and I think it is more important than ever—so much so, that we’ve even started a campaign around recognizing the good.

There are still good, wonderful things happening, like babies being born. Someone on my team just had a baby yesterday, so there are still wonderful things that are happening, and I think those things need to be front and center so it’s not just all of the hard times we’re faced with.

Absolutely. It’s funny, we share articles on work/life balance, and people have been saying that for a long time and how important it is, and they have all these different theories about how to accomplish it, but wow, we got it now whether we want it or not, right?

Absolutely. I will say that for me—and keep in mind it’s only been a week, so we’ll see—it’s actually been extremely refreshing and really helpful. Again, given what I’m doing, I’m on calls constantly about the situation and what we are doing, and I have to pivot every time there’s a new news conference.

We have to regroup and figure out what this means for us and our people. I will tell you we’ve had a lot of fun with the Zoom backgrounds and the face-to-face collaboration and the video conferencing we’ve been doing.

Earlier this week, I was on a beach all day in all my calls. While it’s new for all of us, we’ve all met each other’s partners and spouses, and my kids and our dogs have been in and out of the frame for different reasons. I think it’s actually brought us together.

Companies can recognize that and realize that we are all in this together and we’re all trying to figure this out; if we use that as an opportunity to connect, there’s no better example of work/life balance than literally what we are going through right now. It can be an extremely rewarding and positive experience, even though it may be different, but I think it’s still bringing us together more so.

I was in a conference call earlier today, and one of our colleagues just got back from maternity leave, and she signed on. I could hear her baby cooing in the background, and instead of it being what it normally would be, which is “unprofessional and unacceptable,” it was quite nice to hear the baby. It reminded me of my kid when she was that age, and I’m so happy my colleague had the opportunity to experience that. We all got to share it for a few seconds, and it was nice instead of it being this weird space we occupy before.

For the longest time, the rule has always been that you can’t have your kid in the background when you are on a call or in a conference. This unwritten rule has basically been banished. You’re working from home with your kids, right?

For my kids, I’m also trying to balance the school work that’s coming through. The kids are out of school for 3 weeks, and teachers are constantly sending lessons and plans and things for them to do and things to keep them busy.

For me, I don’t have the luxury, necessarily, of spending my day home-schooling them, so I’m also trying to balance working full time. Particularly in my job, I’m on calls all day, especially because of what’s going on. Sometimes, you just got to throw your hands up and say, “You know what? If you’re on your Nintendo Switch for 4 hours, it is what it is.” We’re all doing the best we can, and I can’t give in to that added pressure on myself—you can’t do all things.

I think everyone just needs to have a level of understanding and patience. Whether it’s kids on your conference calls or whether it’s trying to be the best parent you can be or trying to be the best teacher you can be, because now we’re doing both things, and trying to be the best head of HR I can be, there’s got to be a balance of all those things, and I think there’s time for patience and understanding in all of this, and I think we’re certainly all in it together.

What a crazy time for HR. The ground changes underneath you every day, sometimes multiple times a day. You have leaders trying to protect their businesses. You have employees scared for their lives. What a crazy time to be in HR.

What advice do you have for your colleagues out there who are still feeling overwhelmed?

Two things. I think companies, managers, and teammates need to embrace the notion that we’re all human. We’re all going through different things with all of this. We all have different situations at home, different situations personally, that everyone may not necessarily be aware of. Employers need to allow us to bring in our life’s work in whatever way that looks like and just be patient.

I ask employees to be patient with their employers at this time because we’re trying to figure this out as best we can, and HR teams may not get it right perfectly 100% of the time because again, we’re trying so hard to just keep on top of everything as it unfolds.

Likewise, I think there also needs to be that level of understanding of what employees are going through, as well, and it becomes so much more important now that everyone is working remotely. It’s making sure we are continuously trying to increase those moments of connectivity and humanity. We should be expressing gratitude to one another and acknowledging each other.

There are lots of upsides to gratitude, and it has profound implications for creating those harmonious, human experiences. It can increase emotional well-being and helps people get along better with others. Grateful people can be more resilient to trauma. It’s all connected, and I think we need to just be mindful of that and be mindful of the whole human aspect, regardless of what position they might be in or what they’re facing. I think it’s important now more than ever to have that sense of compassion.

We’re looking at worldwide, monolithic change with the way people do work. What are some things you’re seeing or some sort of changes you think are going to happen?

I think you’re absolutely right. The coronavirus has already started triggering the normalization of working from home. It’s funny because we had already been looking at this as it relates to our program and our product, so we actually published something called “The State of Humanity at Work.” It was a report we did.

We found that before this pandemic, only one in three people worked remotely. To your point, that’s a big difference. One in three people worked remotely, and this is likely to change that in the future, as more companies are altering their remote work policies around this because they’re realizing that maybe they have more of an ability to do that; allowing employees to work when and where they choose is one way to achieve better work/life harmony. I think that is definitely something we’re going to see unfold.

We actually have some data on this, too. We found that those who work from home are more likely to report being highly engaged than those who don’t. It’s 55% vs. 44%, if you want the actual numbers. And those happy at work were 86% vs. 78%.

There’s some reality to all of this, and I think if companies start to embrace this and bring life into work, everyone will flourish. More than half of coworkers say they’ve experienced burnout in their career, and I think it’s because no one has that balance. That comes with a whole host of other issues. They’re disengaged or have poor health and so on.

During this time, it’s so important for companies to accommodate their employees as they’re dealing with added layers of stress and uncertainty in all of this. I think you’re right—I think a lot more will start to normalize working from home after this.

Then there’s this other fear because the last time our economy fell so hard so quickly, a bunch of companies rolled up their sleeves and cut the slack, and a ton of us lost our jobs, myself included. People have already lost their jobs—a lot of people—or have been furloughed, or they’ve been laid off temporarily, and that’s not even for the financial reasons. That’s just because that’s the reality of our new situation, and I think a lot of people are waiting for that other shoe to drop—now companies are going to start firing people because of the finances and how much money they’ve lost.

What are your approaches to helping your employees, and what advice would you have for other HR departments for helping their employees mitigate and handle that fear?

To my point about that connectivity and understanding where people are and understanding what is happening in their lives, if you’re not talking to your people, if you’re not asking them the questions, and if you’re not connecting with them, then chances are, you’re not going to know what’s actually happening and what their fears are and what’s keeping them up. That’s what we’ve been doing.

We just had a company meeting earlier this week with all of our people managers, and that was the exact question we asked them: What is keeping you up at night in all of this? It’s trying times. It’s hard. There’s all that, but what is really keeping you up?

Asking those questions and really tapping in and being available are the most important things because you don’t know, and sometimes, people aren’t forthcoming. You can’t assume you know everything that’s going on, so you need to ask those questions, and then you take it situation by situation, depending on what’s going on.

We’re even trying to look at how we are supporting our employees who have family members who are first responders right now. We have an employee who has a doctor at Mass General. We have nurses. How are we supporting them? How do they need to be asking the question? How do you need us to support you better in this time? All you can do is ask the questions and try to come up with ways to help put them at ease.

Really, on a lot of issues I cover in the HR Works Podcast and in articles, it’s someone else’s problem, but this time, it’s all of ours.

That’s the thing, going back to the very first point I made, with this whole recognizing the good in what is happening because it is so easy to get into the negativity of everything and the fear. It is so easy to get into that, which is why I think finding those bright sides, those moments, and finding that good and recognizing the good become so important because there are a lot of good things happening.

One of my friends just posted on Facebook yesterday that it was someone’s birthday on her street—one of her neighbors. She said, “All of a sudden, I looked out the window, and I just saw all these cars beeping,” and it was one of the children’s birthdays. Family members drove in their cars, beeping their horns. They had signs, and they were leaving gifts on the front steps. That is a moment that matters, for sure. It’s just trying to find those opportunities to be part of some of the positives because it’s very easy to get sucked into the negative.

Thank you for your positivity.

It’s absolutely important, and we need to be talking because we’re all trying to figure this out together, so the more opportunity we have to share perspectives, the more helpful it is for all of us. I am more than happy to have spent this time with you. I think the 40 minutes I just spent with you was probably one of the more important meetings I’ve had all day.