Faces of HR

Handling the Pandemic Was Challenging Enough Even with a Crisis Plan

It’s not hard to imagine how challenging things were for those that didn’t have a plan in place. Either way, HR had a lot of evolving and problem-solving to do. I recently spoke to one HR individual whose organization actually had a specific pandemic crisis plan in place.

Meet Becky Garroch, VP of HR at Digital River, a global e-commerce enabler for businesses.

How did you get started in HR?

Originally, when I was at school, I worked in a personnel department, and I always said, “Well, at least I know that’s one thing I don’t want to do.” And then skip forward a few years, and I got to the end of my university degree. I have a geography degree. I really did not know what I wanted to do when I left university.

So, I did lots of these online assessments and things to try to help me, and HR kept coming up. HR is a really broad career that you could specialize in the future, but it would give me an opportunity to try lots of different things. I think that was the thing that attracted me to it because I was still being indecisive at that point in my life; there was so much breadth within the HR spectrum that it would enable me to try lots of different things and be able to, if I found something I was really passionate specifically about within that, specialize later on in my career.

I started working in recruitment while I studied for my degree in HR. Then I got my first HR job just as I finished doing that.

Were all those assessments right?

Yeah. Funny, isn’t it?

I used to think it was just random chance that landed people into HR. That even concerned me a little bit because it’s a very important role, so wouldn’t you want it to be the other way, where it’s people who were dedicated to it from the beginning? But over time, I’m realizing it’s not really random. It’s a role that requires people from different fields and requires a certain kind of person, and people just sort of make their way over there eventually one way or another. You feel like you belong in that role, right?

Oh, yeah. After this many years, yes. Quite often, I would have a stressful day and think, “Why do I do this?” And then I’d think, “Well, what else would I do that would give me the opportunity to positively impact so many different people’s lives on a day-to-day basis?” Then I realized we have such a privilege being in HR because we have the ability to impact our employees’ lives on a daily basis on all sorts of different things. At this particular moment, with everything going on, there are so many different angles we have to think about.

Whether it’s reacting to new laws being put in place; thinking about office situations; asking how we can help parents; asking how we can look at communication differently; employee well-being; different benefits; or asking how we can still work on engagement activities, there are so many different things we can do. Looking back, wanting to have a really broad view has certainly served me. I can see on a daily basis that I do get to be involved in lots of different things.

When the time came for you to start putting this remote work plan in place and handle the disaster we’re in right now, would you say you had the resources available that you needed both intellectually and, I guess, just monetarily?

We were lucky at Digital River. As a technology company, we all already had the right technology in place to work remotely. Everybody had laptops. Everybody had VPN. Being a global company also, we’re used to doing video meetings with our colleagues internationally. That was already a muscle we had. I think from a technical and a practical perspective, that piece was there, and we already had a crisis management team and a pandemic policy in place.

Wow.

We had a starting point. You can never anticipate all the different things that are going to get thrown at you, but could we move to it very quickly? Yes, from a technology perspective. Obviously, on the people side of things, it’s just so much harder to predict how people are going to react.

We started off with a voluntary work-from-home arrangement, and then we actively encouraged people, but we still had people who wanted to come into the office. What you need to always be aware of is dealing with so many different personalities but also so many different home situations. You don’t know what is going on outside of work and what they’re dealing with and what their own personal home situation is, both physically and with their immediate families.

Some people have been struggling more because they’re actually just on their own in an apartment and have nobody with them. Most days, I feel very jealous of that because I’ve got my family and my two teenagers, whom I’m desperately trying to get to do their schoolwork. Then I see members of my team with really little ones, and I feel relieved that I have teenagers and not little ones who are still climbing all over me all the time. There’s the people side of things. It adds that different dimension whereby you have to be completely flexible with how and when people deliver the work and what they can actually deliver.

So many people have been pushing toward the work-from-home movement before this all went down. There are all these digital solutions out there that were supposed to help with this. They’re supposed to help take the work that’s mundane and everyday off of HR’s plate so they can focus on more strategic things. Good thing we had that infrastructure there. Ten years ago, this would have been a completely different disaster. At the same time, digital tools can only go so far when it comes to helping the real people who are in these situations.

We’ve seen reports about increasing drug use, depression, anxiety, and domestic violence. All of the things that were already terrible are just amplified, and no employer is free from that. Every employer has people who are experiencing these challenges already, and now the volume is turned up on them. Would you say you were ready for that element?

Yeah, I think it’s difficult to be 100% ready for those things. We have employee systems programs in place, and we’ve been making sure our employees are aware of how they can get to and use that information, even for things like financial advice. Maybe their spouse/partner role has been impacted, so they now have to think about living off of one salary rather than two. We’re making some tools available through partnership with our healthcare providers on mental well-being and exercises people can do.

We also had a global wellness day. We shut down the whole company globally so people could have a day to do whatever they need to do. We’re trying to encourage people to still take time off from work. I think people have canceled spring break vacations. They can’t travel, and they think, “Why should I take time off?” But we’re trying to educate people on the importance of that.

One of the things we talked about with the exec team was that people aren’t taking their PTO because they can’t go anywhere, so they feel like they might as well work. If we all stopped, there would be no e-mails and no meetings. Even when they are taking time off, quite a few people would still be dialing in to the meetings or looking at their e-mails. Having one day when we globally are switching off gives us time to really reflect on what we need to do for ourselves and our family.

We’re trying, and obviously, you have people who have loved ones who are sick. We have people whose loved ones have sadly passed away. We need to be able to be human in those situations, and everybody needs a different level of support and understanding in those situations, even normally, let alone at these kinds of times, when they can’t necessarily attend a funeral.

It’s really challenging. Something I regularly think about is the identity connected with work and the potential for an existential crisis for someone who either hasn’t done remote work or just did it a little bit. Those people are now disconnected from that which gave them their identity: being at work. Over the course of a few weeks or a few months, I would say there’s a real potential for the importance of your workplace and the work you do to fade in the face of just that it’s not part of your real routine.

And that kind of existential crisis is something you’re not going to learn about in a webinar. You might be made aware of it, but it’s really hard to dig into because no one’s going to talk about it. I’ve felt that way plenty of times. What do you think about all that?

It’s interesting. We started a mini-pulse well-being survey, and one of the questions we included in that was “Do people feel that they understand what they are supposed to be doing at the moment?” People are saying “yes,” so they still have a connection to the root of what they’re supposed to be delivering. I think that’s credit to our managers in continuing to work closely and do check-in calls, but the broader piece around whether the pride in my work makes a difference is something we ask in our more general engagement survey.

I think what’s important is having a collective feeling of being able to give back to the community, as well. One of the other elements we’ve looked at is if our employees don’t feel that our brand necessarily does that, then we as an organization can do that. I think one interesting thing for Digital River that has come out from this is that everybody’s reliance upon buying things online has really switched. In some ways, our employees can better see the importance of online ordering because people are ordering online more and more. For a lot of people, that’s a lifeline into getting important supplies, even their daily supplies, for their lives. In some ways, this has made what we do more real for our employees and more beneficial seeing that benefit to society.

I think at the same time, it is important we did something that was beyond financial, and we did as an organization look to giving back and giving back financially where we can and where our employees know they have jobs and are earning. So thinking about those people, I think that was one of the key things. Now within the first few weeks, what was coming out for our employees is we want to be able to give back as an organization. So that’s what we did with matching from the company, as well, to feel that collectively as a group of employees, even though we are all remote; things like giving charitably as an organization and collectively make you feel together and give you that existential sense of belonging, even if you can’t come into the office and see the people you enjoy spending time with.

When you started rolling out your work-from-home stuff, even though you had policies in place, did you find yourself looking for guidance elsewhere, or did you feel like there’s so much stuff out there to do that that you had to find more organic methods for improving your work-from-home policies and practices?

I rely heavily on personal networks with other HR leaders. Also, as a global organization, we were somewhat better prepared because we’ve had to deal with the situation since January, when it started in Asia, with our Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese colleagues. So we’ve been able to learn from some of the things that have been going on in Taiwan and how they’ve dealt with it and what things have worked well and what hasn’t worked so well as we’ve worked that across. We look to them for our return-to-the-office situation in the states. Our German office and our Taiwanese office are already back in partial form at the office. We were able to trial and get better at it as we rolled out into other offices.

I think it’s partially learn-as-you-go. There’s also learning from other networks. Joining a lot of networking groups and listening to what other organizations are doing, what else are they thinking about? What have I not thought about in the situation? Because there were so many different angles to think about, but certainly, you get bombarded with information, that’s for sure. Our benefit broker Mercer has been a really good source of information for us. The private equity firm, which owns us, has all of the HR leaders meeting on a weekly basis and sharing information and approaches. I think learning from each other is a really great thing, and having those networks already in place or trying to jump into those networks heavily now is really beneficial.