Coronavirus (COVID-19), Faces of HR

What HR Looks Like on the Other Side of the COVID-19 Crisis

It seems it will be months here in the United States before things “go back to normal.” Of course, we all know that the new normal will be as unfamiliar as it is challenging. The transformation of the way we work and live has already been severe. What new challenges has that brought to employers and HR specifically? Today’s “Faces of HR” guest shares her thoughts on what those challenges are and what the future might look like.HR

Meet Jacky Cohen, VP of People and Culture at Topia.

How did you get into HR?

I probably have the same answer as most people: I landed in it. Growing up, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I always was one of those very social people constantly looking to be around others. My mom actually nudged me and guided me into the direction of HR. I did an internship while I was in college and never looked back. This has been my only career line, and I love it. I think I’m very lucky that I just landed in the right spot with that first decision.

Do you mind if I ask how long you’ve been in HR?

Sure. I’ve been in HR over 12 years.

And that first role—what kind of window into what your future was going to be like was that for you?

My first role was at a civil and structural engineering firm. As I look back on it, it was really great because it was very structured. I got the foundation of HR, all of the operational pieces, and the laws. It really gave me a lot of that structure to springboard into the tech scene. It was very different from the world I live in now. Everything I learned there really helped me throughout my career to know all the different things going on. I was able to apply those to more of a business lens and relate to a lot of the different people I work with, whether in HR or out. It was a very broad role, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gotten that experience.

Other than the coronavirus, which we will talk about in a second, what do you think the biggest challenge you’ve had, as an HR professional, has been?

I think it’s never-ending. It’s the war for talent. I don’t actually like to use that term, because I don’t actually think it’s about getting people in the doors. I think it’s figuring out the level of support to keep and retain people, especially in the San Francisco Bay area. When you hire smart, great people, it’s making sure they stay engaged and you retain them. I think that’s the most challenging thing. And what they are looking for is constantly changing. It’s often so out of HR’s control, but ultimately, we feel responsible for anyone willing to join our organization.

What do you think doesn’t matter anymore in the face of the coronavirus? A lot of things that seemed very important before have gotten muted.

I think everything was muted except for the safety of people and doing the best we can. In my opinion, right now, it’s all about doing what we can to make sure our employees are in a space where they can work, and if they can’t, we support them through that. We’re trying to keep the business running but empathetically. We know every person is going to go through his or her own journey here. In my mind, everything else has been muted for the last few weeks, other than keeping the business running and doing it from a place where our employees are enabled to work. This journey is going to be different for every single person.

What do you think isn’t going to survive when we come out on the other side of this?

That’s so hard to predict.

Well, we’re definitely coming out on the other side of this differently. There are going to be practices—like, for example, it would have been considered wildly unprofessional to have your kid in your conference call just a month ago.

We’ve actually gone on conference calls before this and had that exact thing happen and I don’t consider it unprofessional – we embrace it – so these practices vary by company and by culture. One of our exec members had his kid crawl on his lap during our conference calls, and we all smile. He sits there, and he can’t hear anything we’re saying. I think that may be new to other company cultures, but that’s already part of us. We’re a globally dispersed team, and he’s working nights. He’s 10 hours ahead of us already by the time we have our exec meeting.

I don’t think I have anything in my mind that’s clearly not going to matter. I think it’s how quickly things bounce back. Things that are very simple and seem really obvious, like office perks or lunches, I think will take much longer because we’re physically not there. I actually think the flip side of that is that ways to engage, to be around your peers. This has all shed a new light on actually spending time face-to-face with other people. I think a lot of things will bounce back. We will get lost in the new normal. It’s a question of how that’s phased back in and how quickly some things come back versus others.

Absolutely. There’s a certain feature we all share, which is, when faced with a new or an adverse situation, we get a lot of energy. That may be anxious energy, it may be useful energy, but it’s easy, for a while, to sustain new practices, to put in the extra effort, but it is not sustainable, and after some number of weeks, people can’t do it anymore. I imagine you would see high engagement among those who kept their jobs, followed by some changes down the road. Do you have any idea how this thing is impacting employee engagement?

I would say I don’t know yet. Our team is pretty engaged right now, from what I’m seeing. We have weekly calls, at least, already. We had everyone on video last week; people were goofing off and wearing fun hats.  It’s almost like people are craving the interaction more, so they’re engaging.

I do think there is going to be fatigue. What we’ve really been trying to do is push out best practices around working from home, and really pushing people to create the boundaries for themselves because the biggest thing that causes this is no longer having the space between home and work. It’s all fluid, and so you find yourself just not stopping. It feels like you can be wildly productive initially, but that is going to fade really fast.

Couple that with the fact that people don’t have a chance to go on a vacation or a holiday. They have their kids around, and there’s no break from anything right now; it’s all around all the time. I do think we’re on the cusp of it. We haven’t seen it yet. Again, we have the benefit of having a globally dispersed team already. For us, it was quite simple, compared with a lot of other businesses, to make this move. I gave the example of our exec team meeting, which we already have adapted to this current situation.

We’ve already taken a massive financial hit to our economy, with the loss of, recently reported, over 3 million jobs in a month. If you’re talking about the kind of potential economic collapse like this, we’re easily on the scale of 2008, but it’s so different because the first impact was simply by the fact that people had to go home and stop doing business. Now, we have the other half of it, which is going to be companies trying to survive. Do you have any sense, and not necessarily within your company but generally, what the concerns are that employers are going to have going forward? And employees, too?

I think employees naturally will have concerns around the sustainability of the business at the company they’re working for and seeing people around them get laid off. A lot of companies have moved very quickly and made very drastic decisions over the past few weeks. In my opinion, there is a fine balance between overreacting and preparing. I think we need to prepare, but also, remember that this is a really fluid experience we’re in right now. It feels like things are changing daily, if not more frequently than that. It’s a balance of being smart financially but making sure your business can sustain through this. If you’re too severe, you won’t come out of it either.

It’s being really smart about how quickly you move, but also, how strategically you’re thinking about the changes you’re making. It shouldn’t always be people; I hope it’s not always people. There are plenty of other things, new levers you can pull. It’s about really looking at the business as a whole and not just following suit of others and laying off people. It’s just thinking about the larger picture and staying really informed to make smart decisions.

Well, one of the things I’m noticing is an increase in collective action among those organizations that are seeing extreme use right now. So DoorDash, Grubhub, supermarkets, Amazon—all these guys have realized that very special and temporary power of collective action. How have you been witnessing the collective action issue in the context of the coronavirus?

I think these businesses are taking advantage of an opportunity, and I don’t fault businesses for doing that as long as they are doing good. Again, I’m in the career I’m in because I care about the people behind it. I think those businesses do a lot of good, and they are really beneficial right now. You’re seeing all the press the last few days around Amazon and Instacart making sure their employees are safe. If they’re going to take advantage of the opportunity, they also have the obligation to make sure they’re doing what they can for the folks who are giving them that chance to take the opportunity. I have this big part of me that is very, very business-focused, but you can’t lose sight of the people that enable your business.

People are probably the most expensive or the highest expense for a lot of big companies, but they’re also the most valuable assets. It all comes down to balance. There’s no magic wand here. I think those companies are providing a needed service. I have neighbors, and I see people who shouldn’t be going to the store, and to have those services available is good. There’s a lot of good there, but you just have to make sure that it’s good through and through. That it’s not just a financial opportunity that businesses are taking advantage of. Business is business, but the people behind it are what’s making the business work.

Good answer. If you’re comfortable sharing, how are you handling the increase in stress?

Actually, I thrive in stressful situations. Personally, I welcome very high stress and a very high pace, so I love it. Now, this is a different kind of stress than I’ve ever experienced. There’s an anxiety of not knowing when it’s going to end. Personally, I live alone right now, so I feel it’s very lonely. It’s a different kind of stress than other people may feel. I have a lot of calls with our employees and my family and friends, and whether someone has kids running around or is home alone with no one to talk to on a regular basis, it’s different.

Yeah, it is.

For me, it’s a very, very lonely experience that’s also good for me, right? You figure out how to work through it. I’m just trying to remain really engaged and remember the things that keep me happy. I still need to go on a walk in the mornings; obviously, I’m social distancing, but I have to get outside. If I don’t, it will drive me crazy. I have to cook meals and have good food. It’s the little things that sound so simple.

I’m just trying to keep those things in mind and really take it day by day. If you look at the fact that we potentially are in this position for months, it just becomes overwhelming. It’s also remembering that everyone is stressed and going through this in his or her way, and we need to just be kind.  Some people will manage that stress and be not so nice, and that’s how they get it out.  Remembering to be kind to each other is so simple, but it’s really important in times like this when you don’t know what other people are going through.

We all like to think that all of our employees are in healthy situations, but the truth is that some of them are not. Maybe they are stuck inside with an abusive partner or struggling with depression or substance abuse. I can’t even begin to imagine the breadth and depth of novel challenges that are facing HR people right now.

Yeah. I think it’s interesting. I always follow the law and you have to be cautious about how much you know about people’s personal lives but, in these times, I’m finding that knowing more about people’s personal situations has proven really helpful. This is a time that really demonstrates how important it is to have relationships and trust. Now, more than ever, I’ve realized how critical that is, and that’s a huge learning experience because I’m not going to have that relationship with everyone in our company.

On my team, if I look at the foundation we had built going into the situation we’re in now, I’m so happy with where we’re at. We’re talking throughout the day, not because we have to—sometimes because we have to—but because we want to. We’re checking in on each other as people, and we’re having conversations that are not just about work.  We’re checking in on our whole selves and making sure everything is OK. We’re truly caring about each other and trusting each other to have these conversations about what we’re struggling with.

I’ve always said I think really solid relationships between managers and teams and peers are critical, but this has just highlighted that it’s even more important.  You can’t really build that as easily in the climate we’re in right now. But if you had that going into this situation, you really have a leg up, because you can lean on each other. And I think we all need to be leaning on each other right now.