While many jobs can be done remotely, there is a certain je ne sais quoi missing. I compare it to the difference between a digital book and a paper book. They both can be read and comprehended, but something is missing when you read a book without being able to turn the pages. Not being able to talk to people in person is something a lot of HR people, whose role is to connect with people, are feeling, as well.
Meet Amy Allen, HR Advisory Partner at blumshapiro.
So, why don’t we just start with, what’s your current role?
Partner. I head up the blum HR advisory practice.
And have you done HR in your past or currently?
30 years of HR. Actually, I’m very new to the consulting space. I was 26 years as an in-house HR professional and executive and just went out on my own in 2016 and joined the firm in 2018.
What led you to a career in HR?
Like most HR professionals, I fell into it. I graduated in 1991, and while it wasn’t as bad as 2008, it was still pretty bad in terms of the job market. I had worked retail all through college and got a great job offer with The GAP to go out to San Francisco and go in its buying track, and I wanted to be in Boston. The company offered to have me open its flagship store in Wellesley, Massachusetts, which I did. Of course, working in retail, it’s sort of running your own business. You have to have everything, from inventory to counting the cash drawer to having the visual marketing skills and understanding the product and customer service. I mean, it’s all parts of the business, and I just naturally gravitated to the people side of the business and ended up doing all the hiring and all the employee relations. Over time, I became a district training manager in the Northeast region.
And when the retail schedule got tiresome for me, I just fell into HR and started off recruiting and then was a benefits specialist and eventually got into a generalist role, so I fell into it through retail.
So, you didn’t like working whatever hours whenever that changed every week?
No I didn’t, and that they didn’t tell you until Thursday what your schedule was that Saturday.
Always on call, right?
Retail. What an interesting trade. And the demands it puts on its employees …
I say all the time when I’m having a bad day that when I put in another 15 years, I’m going to retire and just fold the jean wall at The GAP for the rest of my life because it was so zen for me, with my OCD, to have all the seams lined up. There are days that I dream of just spending hours folding the jean wall.
Do you feel like any of your retail experiences carried through as you started doing more HR roles?
Not more than I’ve already said. I mean, just when you’re running a big store, you’re really, as a manager, running your own little individual business. So, I think it was just a great education period to be right out of school and figuring out how to run the store.
Is there an aspect of HR you prefer over other aspects? I think it’s easier to say what my least favorite is.
Yes. That’s good.
I am not a numbers person, so compensation/executive comp plan design is not my favorite thing to do. I’m happy to do comp analysis, and we do a lot of it at the firm for our clients, and I love HR metrics and strategically using metrics to help build strategies, but I’m not a numbers cruncher, if you know what I mean. I also don’t like layoffs, obviously, or furloughs. Whether it’s training or employee relations or benefit plan design or administration or HR admin or recruiting, I’ve either done it, run it, or had my hand in it at some point in my career. I’ve been happy in all of the roles.
Compensation structures are very complicated to me, as well. It seems like a puzzle with too many moving pieces.
There’s a lot of labor law around that now, too. In Massachusetts, there’s pay equity law, so you can’t have people in the same jobs with very disparate pay. We do deep analysis for our clients on that to make sure that not only are they competitive to market but they’re also compliant with the pay equity law. It continued to be a challenge, and now we’ve got paid family leave upon us in a month or so, which is going to complicate payroll and leaves of absence. And short-term disability is going to throw a wrench into how we handle all of that—all for the right reasons. It’s a well-intended new statute that’s coming out, but there’s always something; every year, there’s a new something.
Obviously, this last year has been very challenging, so is there anything you’re looking forward to next year?
Getting off Zoom.
You guys haven’t adjusted to the Zoom fatigue issues?
It’s not fatigue. I think Zoom works great; I think Teams has been great, and I’m thankful for it every day. I just miss being with my clients, and I miss being on the jobsite. I don’t feel as connected to the business or to the products our clients are putting out. I just don’t feel as integrated into their worlds from this far away, so I want to get back on-site with my clients. That’s what I’m looking forward to most.
I am looking forward to, however, some of the things staying the same. I think we will now have a new perspective on work from home; for the past three decades, it’s been seen as a perk, and a lot of executives were totally dead-set against it. But going forward, I think it’s going to be a requirement. If companies want to hire top talent, there’s going to be an expectation that 1 or 2 days a week from home is going to be something the top talent just demands in the labor market. And I think that’s a great thing. I really do. I think we’ve all learned that this works.
It doesn’t work if you’re manufacturing a product and you need employees on the floor, but for a lot of us, working from home works, and I think attitudes have changed. So, I’m looking forward to it being a good balance. I’ll tell you another thing: I’m looking forward to seeing my team. There are a couple members of my own team who report to me whom I haven’t seen in a year, and that just breaks my heart.
I just can’t wait until the day we don’t have to worry about interacting with other human beings.
I hope we get there. I think we will.
All of this indirect communication must have made your job a lot more difficult—the fact that there’s such a disconnect and you’re not seeing people in person and that all of your clients and employees are not being seen in person. Employee engagement’s a completely different field now; the benefit side of that is completely different, and there are so many benefits that don’t really matter anymore in a remote workforce. How has that been for you?
We’ve got lots of clients that haven’t been able to go fully remote because they’re in manufacturing or retail or foodservices. I facilitated trainings in person, 6 feet apart with our masks on, in the summer months, when we could be outside and do the training. I haven’t been completely excluded.
Some members of my team have been on-site with their clients, so we’ve had little tricklings back into our clients’ sites, but it’s not the same. I mean, pre-COVID, I was at a client site almost every day, and now it’s sprinklings. I have to say, it hasn’t been as challenging as I would have anticipated because we have great relationships with our clients; they trust us. For the new clients we engaged with this year the remote relationship has become how we do business.
I can say that I’ve seen a new appreciation for HR through COVID that’s bigger than I’ve ever seen before. Executives are actually saying, “Gosh, do I have the right HR resources to support my business? Or do I have the right number of HR people? The right people? Or how functional is my HR? Whether it’s one person or no people, how am I handling the HR side of my business?” They’re thinking in a way they never have before.
So, our lives haven’t been too dramatically different because A, Zoom works; B, we have great relationships with our clients who trust us; and C, there’s been a new awareness about the importance of HR since the pandemic.
Most people I talk to don’t deal with organizations that have essential employees or in-person employees. It’s a perspective I’ve been interested in for a while. What does it look like from your perspective? What does an employee engagement or a corporate culture-building effort look like for your clients that are in person that have to be 6 feet apart and wear masks that are risking their lives?
There’s a whole protocol. It has everything from communication touch points, so it’s really about the facilities. A lot of our clients had to put some investment into construction and put plexiglass up and buy all kinds of PPE so people could be at work. And thankfully, our clients have had a lot of success with keeping people healthy. Employers have taken the right precautions and made sure there’s hand sanitizers and masks and plexiglass and that people are self-certifying whether they have symptoms before they come in. There’s been a lot of effort made to keep people safe.
What’s something you’re particularly proud of having accomplished as an HR professional?
I can say right now that what I’m most proud of is that I just have an amazing team. I’ve surrounded myself with not only excellent HR professionals from just the talent they have in their tool belt but also great-minded individuals from a core value perspective. We are all about being there to help clients and be a resource for them to get stuff done and to think through the people side of their business, and we do that well. So, I’m really most proud of my team. I gush about them a lot, and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. We just finished our second full year in practice and have continued to grow! We grew this year, even despite COVID!