Faces of HR

Balancing Employee Resilience with Employee Needs

Karen was an HR Works Podcast 5-Minute Friday guest, listen to that here.

One thing the pandemic has taught us is how resilient employees are across nearly all industries. Organizations and employees alike needed to trade on that resiliency to make it to today. But such resiliency is not without costs. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest spends a lot of time thinking about that balance.

Meet Karen Crone, CHRO at Paycor.

I have to ask everybody, basically, you know, how did you find yourself in HR?

I was a little bit of an accidental tourist in that I was in an engineering project management role for a Human Resources information system (HRIS) at the time, the economy was poor, and I was really thinking about where I can take my career. I was looking for some certainty in a function that’s in every industry and in every business regardless of how big or small it is and is one that sticks around over the long term. I ended up being exposed to an HRIS that made me think, “Oh gosh, HR!” Right? It’s kind of right in the middle of the business and is tied into the strategy and has a lot of breadth and depth to it.

My first real job was the head of recruiting for a contact center organization. It was my first taste of the function. But, I got there through the circumstances of the economy and thinking about what function really had the best longevity for me or the best career opportunities for me at the time.

Well, that’s thinking strategically, which I hear is encouraged in HR.

Yeah. You know, I do think one of the things that’s helped me in my career is being able to look out at the horizon and think about the business and how it might evolve. It’s what put me in the HR arena to begin with.

Let’s talk about how the business has evolved because it sure has over the last year or so. What was your big takeaway from your experience during the pandemic?

I think there are two, Jim. One is that people are extremely resilient, right? They can flex, and they can adapt to situations on the fly if they are tuned in.

The other one is that you cannot over-communicate. I think people really wanted certainty, and they were looking to their organizations for that certainty at a time when maybe they couldn’t trust the media or they couldn’t trust the government or they couldn’t trust any of the things that were happening societally. They were looking to their organization. You need the combination of really being transparent in and having an everyday drum beat of communication. Then you have to tune into people’s resiliency—that they’re going to figure things out and they’re going to want to be participants in the decision-making that you’re taking on as a result of the pandemic. I think that window of time really reinforced those two things for me.

I believe people’s jobs have the most influence on them over other forces in their lives—more than their education, more than sometimes even their family, and certainly more than their government. That may not be apparent to everybody until something like the pandemic happens.

I think we can even take it a step further. The Millennial population and the population that’s entering the workforce today really do look to their employer and their colleagues as family. You know, they’re often involved in life decisions like buying a house or, say, buying a car. I think that’s a little bit different from the Boomer and Gen X generations that may have kept things about their personal lives outside of work. Today, there’s just such a blurring of the two. And, it’s really important to people to feel like they have that safety net and those relationships that lift them up in life and in work.

Yeah. Very much so. And when you’re getting locked down and people are getting sick and when all that crazy stuff was happening, the first thing you had to look to, even from just a scheduling and coordination standpoint, was your company in a very real and practical way. What is it going to do? What’s the next thing? Is the company sending you home? Your employer was the source of the next thing that happened to you.

Yeah. I think I’m so fortunate that the Paycor leadership team decided really quickly that we were going to send people home and that safety was really important to us. It was the number one thing. Taking care of our clients was up there, too. There was a day in March—I think it was the 24—when we had employees come in to pick up their belongings. I walked the floor of our headquarters from the fourth floor down to the first floor. By the time I got to the third and the second floors, I could barely breathe because I wanted to cry so badly about how this really vibrant place turned into a shell overnight and what was going to happen—just the uncertainty.

I just remember the feeling in my chest of the life being out of the building because everybody went home. You know, I’m tremendously grateful that we made that decision. It was the right thing. We elected to be a virtual-first company from that point forward. But that moment was so jarring.

It was a fraught time. I mean, there was a lot going on. I remember the day, too, you know. That day, I got to work feeling fine, but by midday, I was running a light fever. By the time I left, I was sick. It was like, is it the coronavirus? Later, we got antibody tests, which said it wasn’t. But at the time, we all got very sick in my family. But there was no testing, so there was no way to know. It was just another source of stress and uncertainty.

There was just so much uncertainty in that time. And that’s why I think people are resilient. Granted, in today’s environment, we can induce a lot of change in people. Sometimes, it’s a little too much. We don’t always think about it in an integrated way. But that moment in time shows you how much people can take because their home life is in motion, where they’re getting groceries is in motion, and their work is in motion. And yes, I know it’s taken its toll on some people, for sure, but I think people really stepped up when it came to work and tried to live within the new parameters we had. I’m just very grateful for the way our employees responded to the moment.

Do you think you guys will be going back, or is it for most of us a thing forever?

You know, we elected to be completely virtual, which we think is a benefit to our employees. At the same time, we’re creating a space in some of our facilities that’s equivalent to kind of like a WeWork where you could reserve a seat on an app and come in and work if you want a change of pace or perhaps have a need to come into an office space because of the equipment you need or something like that. We’ll have started that process by the time this comes out. We already have a pilot underway right now. What we’re finding is that people come in very intermittently, that they really do prefer work from home, and that it’s always great to be around colleagues periodically and especially if it’s a safe environment to do so.

One of the things that doesn’t get talked about as much involves how compliance and employment laws are based on where your employees are. Employees went home to their various homes, which, in some areas, like a metropolis, meant across two or more states. Employment laws are relevant to workers’ place of work, and if that means from home, the laws of their home state apply. Suddenly, organizations had to make sure they were compliant with laws in states other than their home state. Did you find that happened with you?

We were fortunate in that we already had a number of employees who worked in field offices or out of their homes. We already were in that situation to begin with. There were, of course, some new locales and municipalities that we had to tune into. But for the most part, because we have a field sales organization, we were already living in that environment.

Well that’s good. I think that early on anyway, that was one of the things that made a lot of organizations lament the move to remote, especially for midsize organizations, where formerly, you really could have everybody in one spot.

It’s a complex environment because today, you know, you do have to think about municipality, state, and federal. There are things in motion all the time. I think we’ll actually see quite a bit of change happen once the Executive Orders roll back around taxing jurisdictions and work. All of that stuff is going to reconcile over the next 12 months. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens to municipalities and how they make up for that tax revenue and how employers think about the payroll tax itself.

One of the things that I think about a lot is if this had only been a 4-month thing, would we have really learned the lessons we needed to learn about the new world? If it had only been a little while, we likely would have just snapped back to the way things were. But after over a year, I just don’t see that being a possibility.

It’s funny you say that because I think for the work-from-home thing, you cannot put that genie back in the bottle. You can’t really say, “Oh, it doesn’t work. You know, it doesn’t work here.” Because we’ve had to make it work for many organizations for a long period of time. It’s going to be very difficult for some employers to roll that back, especially if they want to be competitive for talent.

I always look for the silver linings. Some of my friends may be surprised to hear that because I can be a pretty cynical person. But yes, it’s terrible that this thing went on for a year, but I really feel like in some ways, it did us a service because that’s a solid year of data saying what people had been saying, which is that remote work is, in all likelihood, better. I mean, there are downsides to it, of course, just like with anything. It’s probably not as healthy for employees, and work/life balance has become more like work + life. But there are so many upsides. It’s been a sacrifice but one that may have resulted in at least some positive outcomes.

I think about all of the changes, and it’s almost like we fast-forwarded 10 years. We were forced to make decisions that would have taken us a long time to make. I think we’ve seen real improvements in things like sick pay policies; how to think about families and care for families; how to think about remote work; and, of course, the technology. All of the things that went into that the last 12-plus months have really rewritten the rules of work in a way that would have taken us a decade.

Absolutely, and in a way that people had been talking about for decades.

Right.

The big one I’m ready for is the 4-day workweek. What do you think about that?

I was thinking today, and just in the context of our conversation, about knowledge workers. And I realize not every business is like this, like a restaurant or a hospital, where you have to be present and you have to work a specific schedule. But I think the more we rely on knowledge workers and the more we want innovation and to tune into people when they’re at their best, having flexibility about when people work, how people work, and what time they work, and the more you can give, I think probably the more productive your organization will be, to the extent that you can still create opportunities for collaboration.

Because, you know, if you have a bunch of night owls on a single team and you have an early morning person, what’s their in-between place where they meet and talk sometimes? I think the 4-day workweek is a possibility. I still think it will be a 40-hour workweek, but I do think that as we get more comfortable with virtual environments, we’ll start seeing even more flexibility in hours worked.

One of the things we have to be careful about when it comes to providing employees flexibility is the drive that comes from themselves. People are very driven, often beyond what is expected of them, because they can hold themselves to a higher standard than is needed or expected. For example, many employees are working more hours than ever, despite the fact that they have less time in many cases, especially among caretakers. That’s not sustainable, and it cannot be addressed without employer intervention. For all the move toward flexibility, it just has to be with the understanding that if you do not guide your employees, they will run themselves ragged and still feel like their rubber isn’t meeting the road.

I think as a manager for employees in exempt positions, it’s really your job to tune into people. Right? In my perspective, there are seasons in people’s lives. Sometimes, the season is where work is most important and they’re going to be working 80 hours a week because their project or assignment gives them that much passion or it demands it. On the flip side, you know, you might find that someone’s going through a rough period. Maybe somebody in the person’s family is ill. Maybe he or she has a death in the family. I think you just have to have a real read for people and to understand, you know, what the natural rhythm is for the people who are working for you. When you see anomalies in that natural rhythm, whether they’re less productive or they like burning the midnight oil, I think you just have to be flexible and tune in.

I think that’s where one-on-ones are so important with your direct reports and staff meetings with your colleagues because they give you insight into what that flow is. It’s certainly OK to allow someone who’s a performer and being productive to just take a day for himself or herself because of everything the person has offered or given or worked on in the evening or whatever it might’ve been. But you have to be tuned in to see those moments, you know? And it’s more for your exempt salaried people.

What are you excited about over the next year? What are you looking forward to?

Well, I think there’s a handful of things. I am personally really working hard with our new manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion to make sure that we have diversity on the map at Paycor and that we’re really tuning in to the health of our talent pipeline. That means making sure that we’re providing as many opportunities as we can for women, the BiPOC, and other populations so they have opportunities to develop and get in the queue for leadership. That’s where we’re really clear about the diversity of our leadership pipeline and making significant advancements on it. That’s super exciting to me.

On a personal level, I’m enjoying working with some of the people on my team and really seeing them ready themselves for their next roles and making sure that I’m doing all I can to, what I call, you know, divide the desk and give them opportunities that help them advance. I think it’s about seeing how the changes in the work environment persist. What do 24 months look like? Are we still sitting in a virtual-first environment? Are we seeing people crave more in-office time? What are we doing in terms of supporting people with technology? I think technology continues to leapfrog, and work becomes even more portable. What do the next 24 months bring us in technologies that support really virtual environments?