In the business world, we often hear the word “pivot” being used to describe a significant change in strategy or direction. It would be an understatement to say this word was used over and over again to describe what every business went through following COVID-19. But as a Human Resources executive at a tech company, pivoting for me was less about business strategy and more about helping employees keep up their morale in a new world where face-to-face meetings and watercooler conversations no longer exist.
When our headquarters closed on March 13, I had to figure out how to maintain these small but important personal connections—the everyday small talk in the elevator or snack room—while our employees were all sequestered at home. How do you connect meaningfully on Zoom? How do you build morale when everyone is isolated? How do you help employees cope with layoffs of friends, family members, and colleagues? How do you manage an international workforce that has different lockdown regulations depending on where they live? The lines were blurred, and there was no instruction manual.
These questions weren’t the only hurdles. We had to prepare for workers eventually returning to the office, which meant figuring out building logistics, precautionary measures, and safety procedures and staying on top of ever-changing federal, state, and local guidelines. It meant trying to secure hand sanitizer, wipes, and toilet paper and figuring out what kinds of new air filters we could install to have better ventilation. We had to recreate policies, desks, and meeting rooms, which were reconfigured to be open air so we could have safe in-person meetings when virtual meetings were not practical. Safety measures also included buying Keurig coffee machines that were for individual use to minimize exposure. All of these operational factors and decisions were not typical for the HR department, but this was not a typical situation, and every department had to pivot to address these sudden new challenges.
Making sure our employees and their families were safe kept me awake at night, and I was always left wondering if there was something else I could or should have done. But I also learned to keep smiling on the days I didn’t have the answers.
Having a network of other Human Resources peers, friends, and colleagues has been incredibly beneficial during this time to brainstorm, share, and strategize new ideas. Thanks to input from my peers, my company instituted online town hall meetings, frequent company check-ins to accommodate different time zones, virtual game nights, trivia, happy hours, birthday celebrations, exercise breaks, and more. I encouraged our executive team to personally reach out to each employee to occasionally touch base.
Much of what we did in HR came down to trial and error. We sent out employee surveys and asked for feedback. I noticed over time that fewer people were putting themselves on video and possibly experiencing meeting overload. Conversations were sometimes lackluster. Seizing on another idea from my network, we are now experimenting with leaving one afternoon each week free of internal meetings so people can have more time to get their work done. We are also trying to have meetings that are not work-related to check on those with kids at home or ask about weekend plans to spark conversations. Additionally, we gave employees an extra day off to show our appreciation, turning Memorial Day weekend into a 4-day holiday.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been seeing how so many employees not only adapted but also stepped up, worked harder, and came up with creative solutions as new challenges arose. The entire team has become more flexible and looks at problem-solving in a new light. Many of our employees stepped out of their traditional roles to learn something new. As someone whose job revolves around keeping employees happy, it’s been incredibly gratifying to witness.
Over the past 6 months, I’ve seen my company launch a new website, new products, a new developer community, new partnerships, and new training programs. Internally, we’ve created an intranet to help onboard new virtual employees. Some employees are working closely with vendors and customers to support them during tough financial times. To offset IT requests and accommodate working from home, we implemented a monthly IT and supplies stipend for all employees. As a team, I couldn’t be more proud of how we’ve come together. We’ve proven—over and over again—that we can adapt to difficult and unprecedented circumstances.
Without a doubt, there will be many new, untested challenges we’ll need to overcome in the future. We’re nearing the end of the year, a time of charitable giving, volunteering, and holiday parties, so my next goal is determining how to continue to give to those in need this year but in a safe way for employees. Traditional holiday celebrations will have to change, too.
As a technology company, we’ve been lucky to recover and keep growing despite all of the chaos and tragedy around the world. We now understand we’re not going back to work the same way, and even the way we work will change. But COVID-19 has shown that we have the ability to adapt quickly and modify how we work together. Each and every one of us has learned to pivot.
Heather Dilley is VP of Culture and People at Ephesoft.