Faces of HR

Companies Went Remote—Can They Go Back?

Almost everyone went home when the coronavirus swept the nation. Now that organizations are starting to re-open their doors, they want their employees back on site. The problem is, very few people feel comfortable doing so. I recently discussed this and related situations with an HR expert.

Meet Sam Friedman, SVP of People Strategy at Vettery, an online hiring marketplace that connects jobseekers with top companies across the United States and beyond.

How did you get into HR?

I was coming out of college in 2008 thinking about the economy and what I was going to do. I had studied literature at Michigan State and knew I really liked working with people and building relationships, so I think I was far more interested in what city/company I was going to work for at the time. I had been retargeting bigger cities and bigger companies to move from Michigan. I knew I had always had a passion for reading and books, and a position was open within Random House’s HR team that seemed to be just the perfect fit for me both on the company culture side and personalitywise because it was an assistant in employee services, so doing things like corporate responsibility, employee programs, and helping people with their benefits. That was a really great opportunity for me to learn.

Funny thing about that was when I was interviewing for the job, I think I had always applied as an editor, right? So I was applying in editorial, and I was applying for publicity assistant. I just knew that I wanted to work in books, so the recruiter at the time said, “Well, what do you really want to do?” And after thinking about it, I knew that I always had really wanted to work on the people side of things, and that opportunity was the right one at that point.

I stayed at Random House for 10 years. Within that 10 years, I have to say it really was like working for a couple of different companies because we went through the merger with Penguin during my time there. So there was Random House before Penguin and then Penguin Random House for about the last 5 years I was with the company. But I think going through the 2008 financial crisis and now helping lead a company through what we’re going through right now, there are a lot of parallels that we’re able to draw upon in a different way.

Because the workforce at Vettery is much younger, this is really the first time they’re going through something like this, and I know even with just my team, being the older gives them the comfort of, “Hey, all recessions come to an end. All things turn around eventually. It’s scary and uncertain right now, but keep doing what you’re doing; do it well; and hopefully, good things will continue to happen.”

So are you seeing there are still jobs available?

Yeah, I think what’s really interesting right now is that there is hiring happening. I think hiring is happening in industries like services or more fulfillment sectors. We’ve definitely seen technology hiring, so anything to do with engineering and developing. I think what a lot of companies, as they’re looking at their plans for Q3, Q4, and beyond as they’re readjusting revenue expectations, are leaning into right now is working on their infrastructure, so that’s why we see engineering hiring and developers. It’s very, very strong.

Also, we’re based in New York City. It’s the epicenter of the United States. We’re affected in a much different way. One of the things I think has been really interesting from just an HR perspective but also our sales team perspective is all these states are getting ready to go back to work and trying to transition into some kind of normal work life. They put a pause on hiring or said they were thinking about a hiring freeze, and we’re starting to see that get lifted, as well. It’s a really interesting time to be on the hiring side. I know we have unprecedented unemployment levels right now, but I think the hope is that as businesses reopen and as economies reopen across the United States, there are really good opportunities for people to just start hiring.

What’s something that is a buzzword or some big concept in HR that everybody was talking about that you found to be either useless or pointless or that it was all hype?

Interesting. Around COVID specifically?

Well, it can be because I’ve definitely witnessed lots of things not mattering anymore in the face of this whole thing, so I mean either in or outside of that context; either answer would be of interest to me.

I think one thing—and it’s very specific to our company—that’s been really interesting to me is that when I joined the business, the cofounders at the time were very against remote work in general. They felt there was an inherent and strategic advantage to having people come together every single day on the floor and to be collaborating, whiteboarding, and having these energetic dialogues, and because of that tone from the top and that apprehension of remote work, there was really no formal process that was ever implemented at Vettery. I think it’s been in direct conflict with our employee base, so as I mentioned, we do have a very young workforce in general—a lot of Millennials and a lot of Gen Zs, for whom, obviously, autonomy is top of mind when thinking about where they’re going to work and why, alongside mission and core values and those things.

We actually transitioned to remote work pretty early in New York City. I think we started as of March 10, and I think we were on a bit of the earlier curve to say, “You know what? Let’s just put everyone’s safety at the forefront here and go ahead and transition to remote work.” And it has been such a seamless transition for our company that we’ve really been put in a place as an HR leader and as an executive leadership team across the company to challenge the notion of, “Hey, there is inherent and strategic value of people coming in every single day.”

I think more than anything, we have seen an uptick in engagement. We have seen an uptick in actual collaboration. I’m not saying that it’s easier by any means because I think there are great things about being able to be in the same room and live off each other and not interrupt one another on calls and being able to draw things out for people to see. But I do think this idea that remote work just doesn’t work for certain companies or certain positions just is not true. I think it’s not a Vettery thing. I think it’s going to be a U.S. and world thing where we do see a transition and a standard of having remote policies and remote hiring involved moving forward for these companies. I think that’s something that’s definitely going to change because of all of this.

I was reading an interesting article the other day about how talent pools will change moving forward because of this situation, and I thought that was incredibly interesting. Companies will become more familiar with remote onboarding and remote off-boarding and collaboration and just the questions of “Are people able to set their schedules and priorities? Does remote work?” I think we’re just thinking, “Hey, editorial talent in Nebraska is very different from editorial talent in New York City.” If you are able to start thinking, “OK, remote work works for us, and we could potentially have employees across the country where we did not think that was feasible before,” the talent pool companies are going to be able to access at this point is so much bigger, which is a very exciting thing, as well, both on the hiring side and as the candidate. Your opportunities just become, hopefully, much bigger in this environment.

Absolutely. On that front, Sam, we’ve been talking about talent pools forever and trying to tell people, “If you go for remote, you can get people from anywhere.” Whole companies do these big calculations on where they’re going to locate their office and where they’re going to build their infrastructure, all around the available talent pools, and other than your talent, your location might be one of your top costs, especially if all the talent’s somewhere where it’s very expensive to rent or build. So why? Why bother? Why not just find that guy or girl out in Wisconsin who’s got all that talent, all the skills you need, and let him or her work from home?

There are those ideas out there that just because something works for a very long time or has been the status quo that this is the disruptor and this is the thing that will cause changes. I just don’t think the workforce is going to tolerate going back to what it was after there’s been such a sustained period of time when employees have proven this can work. It might not be ideal on a daily basis.

I don’t know if I would ever champion a fully remote company personally. I don’t know if that’s the thing that would make me very happy. I do love that interaction. I’m in the people realm for a reason. I love relationship building. I like being available, specifically available to our employees when needed. But I think ultimately, there are a lot of places out there that will need to consider this as a real option moving forward, or else they’re going to risk losing top talent or people who know they can get it elsewhere.

The hope is that as people go back to work and as the economy picks up again that the majority of those lost jobs will come back. We probably won’t get back to the same level of unemployment that we were at just before this all went down because, of course, some companies will have had to shutter forever. But when that happens, when everybody goes back, we’re going to have to be really careful about how we treat them.

Before, it was employees who had the power because there was so much good hiring going on. That’s temporarily switched back to the employer because of the low unemployment rates, but we also have protections put in place for the employees who have lost their jobs. $600 extra a week on top of your unemployment benefits is not chump change, you know?

Correct.

I have plenty of friends who lost their jobs who are making more money now and qualify for state benefits, so they have better benefits packages. Not that they want to be unemployed forever, but it’s like it used to be if you quit your job, you’re kind of out. You didn’t have the power. We’re going to be in this really interesting power structure in which companies are going to want to try and pull the reins in on all their employees who had this freedom, and employees are going to have a unique position to control what that looks like. What do you think about that?

Yeah, I mean, I agree with you. I think it is interesting right now, just when you think about what the government has done in terms of unemployment protection and benefits and trying to extend them. I think, as I was saying earlier with certain things, management’s ability or executives’ ability to be able to say that things just won’t work for our business because of status quo or what they’ve done before just isn’t going to work anymore, right? Everything behind the curtain is no longer behind the curtain. People have seen that they don’t need to be there on a day-to-day basis, but it’s a weird dichotomy of thinking about where unemployment numbers are.

Like you said, I think, unfortunately, there is that hope of V-recovery or maybe a U-recovery in the market where it’s going to take some time, but businesses ultimately recover, and they’re hiring again, and they’re backfilling positions that they either furloughed or laid off. But I do think a lot of companies, just as they did in 2008, are going to be looking at how to do more with less overhead, including people.

So I do think that employees are going to have an advantage in terms of, “Hey, we know that this stuff works, and you can’t just say, ‘This isn’t what works for our company, or we need it for strategic reasons, or we need it for the revenue dollar reasons,’ because we’ve proven that we’re able to actually execute on those things.” I do think a tighter labor market will play to certain employers’ advantage and that they’ll dominate.

People are going to want to get back to work, but I think it is the responsibility of the employers now to make sure their cultures, their infrastructure, their systems, their policies, and their programs are supportive of this new world. That is something HR teams should be focusing on right now. Yes, there’s a lot to focus on how your no-work works. How does the return to work happen? What’s that planning? Can we take temperature checks? What’s the maximum capacity of our office? Obviously, that’s taking up a lot of our day to day, but I would be really encouraging those teams to think even further, considering, “OK, once your return to work is set, how do you make sure your culture has adapted permanently to keep top talent?” Because top talent is always in control of the job search, right? They’re always in control of where they’re going to go, and it is an employer’s responsibility to make sure it’s adapting and evolving to a new world.

I know that’s not a super clear answer in terms of, like, “Hey, who has the upper hand here? Or how does this change? Or what are your thoughts?” I think, again, it really depends on the position of what the economic recovery looks like and how much jobseekers’ expectations moving forward change and drive their job search versus, “Hey, I just want to get back to work and have a steady income and put food on the table.”

Did you guys have a crisis plan? How did that go? And how did it influence your crisis planning going forward?

Really good question. I think, as I said, I was brought in at Vettery about a year and a half ago to really build out an HR function, and one of the things we definitely did not have was a detailed crisis plan. We had certain procedures in place. We’re in New York City. There was the reality of being prepared for something like a terrorist attack or something along those lines. We had very loose plans together. “OK, here’s what a communication looks like. Here’s how the office will close.” They had a very, very basic, standard structure.

The coronavirus was actually on my radar starting in January, and we began communicating with employees quite early about really basic things around washing their hands, not coming to work when they’re sick, and really putting some initial communications out there. I would say we did a communication at the end of January and maybe one in the middle of February and then from the first of March until when we decided to close the office on March 10; it was every single day, nonstop. That was our HR team’s priority as to how will this work—how are we going to communicate it, and how do we make sure employees have the resources and tools they need? Very transparently, I don’t think we ever thought we would be in this situation for this long. We’re at the 8-week mark now. I think realistically, we’ll be here for at least all of Q2.

I think that’s realistic at this point. I don’t think we expected it to extend this long. So I think it was great we had a structure in place that we were able to build on and able to extrapolate at a much larger level. I have a very amazing team, as well as an excellent executive leadership team, and we were able to come together and collaborate and make decisions quickly that were in the best interest of our employees, really making sure we prioritized their safety and well-being during the time. I think it changes the way we look at things moving forward. Let’s put it this way: We have a much better playbook in our possession now.

But like I said, I’m incredibly proud of our employees and our leadership team. They really transitioned seamlessly, and I think part of that is that we’ve been incredibly open and transparent and overly communicative during this time to make sure everyone is on the same page.

My wife is from Queens, and I used to have a remote job. So I used to go out there and work from her apartment while she went into Bryant Park. I just remember a couple of days going in with her at rush hour, so I’d take the 7 train. You wait. Three trains go by. There’s literally not 1 cubic foot of space, you know?

I could absolutely see certain people in certain places really struggling with going back to work should their businesses open up. Things were chaotic before, and they’re downright dangerous now, even with best practices like masks.

No, I think it’s really interesting right now. In fact, after this meeting, I have a meeting with my team, and one of the things we’re talking about is, “OK, how do we survey our employee population to understand sentiment?” You just read about the subways right now, and who wants to get on the subway? Who wants to commute? I don’t think anyone, at this point, wants to do that, so again, when it goes back to that, “Hey, it’s the employer’s responsibility to also understand what you are trying to cultivate. How are you trying to create an environment that people want to work in and for? You have to take their opinions into consideration.”

At the same time, surveying someone on May 6 is probably going to look a lot different from surveying someone on July 6. At least the hope is that things change, and that sentiment over time is what hopefully drives some of our company’s decisions to make sure employees feel as though they have an active voice.

But, yeah, I totally don’t blame you. I think all the conversations I’ve been on this week have been, “I’m in no rush to get back to the office. We’re able to execute what we need to. Let’s make sure, again, we’re prioritizing our own safety and well-being,” and some of that well-being is definitely on the mental side of, “Hey, maybe I don’t want to be in this close, physical proximity on the subway.” But at the same time, there’s that mental hurdle of getting over wondering, “Am I safe? Am I next to these people?” There’s a consideration that has to be made there, as well.

I think there’s going to be an interim period in which there are going to still be available attractive unemployment benefits, and there’s another feature there, which is that typically, unemployment is something you don’t want on your résumé, but anyone unemployed during this time period—I mean, you’d have to be some kind of psychopath not to understand and hold that against somebody. Right?

I totally agree.

So you have guilt-free unemployment, which is really a unique thing, and then you’re going to have this interim period when people are still going to have those benefits available while people are getting hired back. So companies that want to return to normal—to their old practices—are going to have to wait for those unemployment benefits to drop off if they want to wrest some of that decision-making power to.

I agree.

And that’s a long time to wait.

Absolutely it’s a long time to wait, and at what risks to your company? I think there are opportunities perchance to go out and get talent right now and top talent, right?

Because at no fault of these people’s own are some companies just saying, “We need to lower our overall cost. Therefore, potentially, we are letting go of top performers, or we are letting go of people who we saw as future leaders in our company.” They are missing that opportunity because there’s inflexibility on these storied or historic parameters or policies or guidelines that have been put in place. It seems as though that’s such a disadvantaged/antiquated way of thinking about business that leaders should really be pushing both their executive teams and their HR teams to be doing more during this time where possible.

Part of good communication is knowing that you can talk about dark things and people will accept them. Look at how Cuomo has handled New York.

I do love all of the press around Cuomo, speaking of someone who’s done a good job of being over-communicative and really just laying things out very transparently. He does have a good team behind him doing that for sure. I do love, just on a personal level, the amount of Slack chatter about Cuomosexuals that has come out just over the last month or so. It’s been amazing to watch it unfold. So many people are Team Cuomo, and I think he’s actually done an amazing job in terms of protecting New York and putting them in a position where we are incredibly hard hit and it sucks. This is not our normal way of life, and yet he’s been empathetic and direct and has also just been like, “Hey, here’s the path forward. Here’s what we need,” and I think we need a lot of that stuff.

Exactly. A lot of people could learn important lessons from him on just transparent communication. It doesn’t have to be positive stuff.

Yes, exactly.

He started talking about people dying every day, and no one’s running away, you know? Because that’s what we need to know.

Exactly. No, actually, that’s a great point. I do. It’s just funny because I’m having that conversation later today about trickle-down communication and how important it is and making sure you’re not the leader who holds onto “information is power” because that’s a way of thinking about this idea of old power, new power.

New power is this idea of being able to share and collaborate and make sure people are as enlightened as you so they can make better decisions. I think he does such a great job of sharing everything, or the majority of everything, but doing it in a way in which people aren’t scared. Like you said, they’re not running away from it. In fact, they’re taking it in and working from there.