Much has been written about supporting remote employees during the pandemic, but we mustn’t forget those who don’t have the option of remote work. How are they supported? Five HR professionals share their approaches.
Early last year, as concern about the unfolding COVID-19 situation began to ripple through Australian HR networks, Waheeda Bhayani went searching for literature on how to support blue-collar workers during times of crisis.
Bhayani, who had recently been appointed Head of People and culture for the NSW and Queensland bus and light rail division of Transdev, knew that thousands of the employees she oversaw would be required to keep working, no matter how prevalent the virus became.
At the time, about 80 per cent of Transdev’s staff were working on the front line, driving buses, operating trams, performing maintenance and providing customer service. Bhayani knew these employees would be the ones under the greatest pressure.
However, her efforts to find guidance about supporting them were largely fruitless. While general literature about how to support the wellbeing of white-collar staff has proliferated in recent years, the advice is not always applicable to those on the front line. This is surprising when you consider that around 65 per cent of the Australian workforce can’t work from home.
Even more scarce was advice about how best to communicate with a ‘split workforce’ – one that contains both front-line and office-based workers – when that workforce faces a major challenge or disruption.
Bus drivers can’t read mindfulness memos in real time or join online yoga sessions during lunch with their peers at HQ. And communicating effectively with a split workforce in the age of social distancing and remote working is an entirely new challenge.
“I realised that we would need to figure this out for ourselves,” says Bhayani. “It required us to be very proactive from day one.”
As the virus evolved into a pandemic, split workforces across the country began grappling with similar issues. Bhayani and the other HR leaders in this story all say the past 18 months has been a challenging time. But each has emerged with actionable advice that they believe can help their peers better support frontline workers in the future – crisis or no crisis.
“The PPE [personal protective equipment] and other safety measures may be temporary. But we’ve learned a lot that will remain very relevant,” she says.
Adequate support for the blue-collar workforce
After ensuring workers had adequate safety protection equipment, Bhayani turned her mind to what else they might need in the coming months in order to weather the storm. After consulting with managers, she concluded that providing front-line employees with the same flexibility afforded to Transdev’s white-collar workers would be key.
Doing so might create short-term staffing headaches, but she hoped it would help Transdev retain experienced frontline staff over the long term.
“We had people in the field with pre-existing medical conditions, or people whose family members had pre-existing medical conditions, and for them – even people in hands-on roles – we were able to arrange alternative duties that they could perform from home,” she says.
Transdev consulted frontline staff individually to find out if they needed additional support or assistance.
Some were moved into office-based roles while others were allowed to work remotely, assisting with general administration, courier duties or specific tasks related to their usual roles, such as process reviews.
“We also had a small number of frontline employees who said to us, ‘Can you let us take a leave of absence? We just need to get ourselves sure before we come back into the workplace.’ So we allowed them to do that and kept their employment open.”
As life has returned to normal, most staff have moved back to their usual roles or working arrangements, says Bhayani.
“Though, in some instances, particularly in our Queensland bus business, frontline employees have made a permanent transition to office-based work.”
The Salvation Army Australia (Salvos) also decided to offer increased flexibility to its frontline workers. The organisation, which employs several thousand staff in field-based roles, saw a spike in demand for its services as the economic consequences of the pandemic began to bite.
“Our team members working on the front line have to go out there every single day and support very, very vulnerable members of the community,” says Penny Lovett, chief Human Resources Officer at Salvos.
“These are people who are experiencing homelessness or domestic violence, or a whole range of really challenging situations.
“It’s intense work. For many of them there is a real fear they might contract the virus in the course of their work day and then bring it home to vulnerable members of their family.”
Lovett says giving those people who are working on the front line some slack helped Salvos avoid widespread staff burnout during the darkest days of 2020.
“Allowing frontline staff to start later or finish earlier, so they can manage themselves and their lives as they need to, has made a huge difference,” she says.
“We’ve also allowed them to take extra time off during this period. And we gifted an extra day off to our team members who worked from home during the extended lockdown in Victoria.”
For Lendlease Australia, whose Australian workforce of 7000 is divided almost evenly between the front line and the office, keeping business going during the pandemic has meant radically reconfiguring the way some of its construction sites operate.
“This included splitting teams into working shifts – for example, A and B teams – and then splitting those teams further on site to avoid co-mingling,” says Meaghan Davis CPHR, its head of people and culture.
“Sites have been open for longer hours to manage the transition of tradespeople. Some of the ways we undertake work have also needed to change, such as limiting employee numbers in vehicles or in cherry pickers.”
These adjustments have made many site workers’ jobs more challenging and impacted their ability to meet certain performance targets that were set pre-pandemic.
To acknowledge the team’s efforts through this time, Lendlease recently paid grants of $1000 on top of normal pay to all Australian frontline workers who have not been able to perform their roles remotely.
Even so, some field workers expressed concern about how they would fare during the organisation’s biannual performance reviews last year.
“The normal process was one of quite a bit of detail. Employees needed to provide written responses to how they had performed on each goal or KPI, and other questions around values, behaviours and career development,” says Jane Hansen, group head of talent and diversity at Lendlease Australia.
“[Frontline] staff understand that everyone else wasn’t just sitting at home while they were out driving buses and trams. It wasn’t like that. We were there with them.” – Waheeda Bhayani, Head of People and culture, NSW and Queensland bus and light rail division, Transdev
“The sentiment was that in the context of the year we were operating in, those previous goals were no longer as relevant, and the time taken to write up responses to each question could be better served.”
HR responded by adjusting the 2020 reviews to reflect a ‘year of two halves’, focusing on goal achievement in the first half and adaptation to the pandemic in the second half.
The HR team also reduced the number of questions and steps for managers and employees to work through during both reviews. “This allowed them to focus on a more meaningful conversation,” says Hansen.
“The new approach has been extremely well received by employees and people leaders.”
Helping front-line workers stay connected
Organisations of all shapes and sizes have struggled to keep pace with the announcements that state and federal governments have issued in recent months. For many HR professionals, the crisis has exposed limitations in how they communicate with frontline employees.
“It’s clear now that relying on email and intranet as your key communication channels is ineffective when you have time-sensitive information and a really large frontline workforce,” says Lovett.
“All of our frontline workers have an email account, but they’re not sitting in front of computers all day monitoring their emails.
So for really important communications, we have switched to using SMS while providing additional information via email.”
Other organisations have been using smartphone apps to communicate with their people more effectively.
Victoria Police, with a workforce of around 22,000, rolled out an app called Yammer this year in direct response to the challenges the pandemic posed.
“COVID-19 showed us how much we needed to build connection into our workplace,” says Belinda McPherson CPHR, director of Victoria Police’s recruitment, deployment and workplace relations division.
Yammer not only provided Victoria Police’s executives with an effective means of distributing important information, but it also allowed isolated frontline staff to connect and socialise with their colleagues.
“We’ve got staff sitting alone in police stations in the middle of the state, and for them this is hugely valuable,” she says.
Via Yammer, Victoria Police staff can stay abreast of important news and policy updates by accessing chat rooms where they can discuss all manner of recreational activities, from Pilates to which TV shows to binge watch.
“It’s far more engaging and interactive than email. And everyone is encouraged to participate,” says McPherson.
Meanwhile, Transdev is encouraging its frontline workers to start using a white label app it has customised for its own use, featuring instant-messaging functionality and chat rooms. About 90 per cent of its staff in the field have signed up.
“We developed the Mytransdev app in 2018 as a means of connecting our frontline and office-based teams on a single platform,” says Bhayani. “Given the nature of the work, those on the front line have limited contact with our physical offices, other than the start and end of shifts or meal breaks.
“The app has helped to bridge the gap, eliminating the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that can sometimes develop when you have people doing very different types of work. Employees use it to share ideas, suggest continuous improvement, access workplace policies, procedures and forms, and social chat.”
In addition, Transdev’s leaders are increasingly using the app to communicate with their workforce. Bhayani says these messages from the top have been particularly appreciated by frontline staff in recent times.
“What has worked for us over the past year is making sure our leadership and management have been visible to staff on the front line,” she says.
“Those [frontline] staff understand that everyone else wasn’t just sitting at home while they were out driving buses and trams. It wasn’t like that. We were there with them.”
Although each of the HR professionals featured in this story oversees thousands of employees, they all stress the importance of one-on-one conversations between employees and their managers during times of upheaval.
At the Salvation Army, Lovett has spent time establishing a strong chain of verbal cascade communication whereby managers on each level of the organisational hierarchy deliver messages down to their direct reports.
“We’ve significantly increased cascade messages during this period,” she says.
“We’ve found them to be the best way to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.
“Early in the pandemic, we established daily 9am check-ins for our most senior leaders to provide updates and to answer questions. Leaders then shared key messages from these meetings with their teams, who then cascaded to their teams, and so on.”
Cascade messages included critical information about how to access PPE and how services or work practices needed to be adjusted to ensure safety.
The verbal cascade technique has also made frontline workers feel included in the broader organisational conversation, says Lovett.
At Victoria Police, one-on-one conversations have helped reassure vulnerable frontline employees while creatively addressing staffing needs, says McPherson.
“If we have someone who is immunocompromised and works in a frontline role at a police station, a one-on-one conversation can help a manager figure out how the employee might be redeployed.
“Overwhelmingly, we have found that those frontline staff still want to work and they still want to deliver. It’s the organisation’s job to find roles for them.”
McPherson’s team has actively encouraged managers to “think a little bit differently and around corners” in order to address the needs of frontline workers during this time.
“In situations like this, it’s just really important to be open-minded.”
This article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of HRM magazine.