Learning how to work together when apart is one of the most dramatic shifts brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. HRM reached out to AHRI members to hear their stories.
Some business owners are more anxious about suicide rates than they are about infection rates. This heartbreaking sign of the times was relayed to Jessica Pond, senior manager, human capital at Deloitte in Melbourne, by the kind man who tracked her down to return her watch.
In late March the man and a group of other small business owners had a conversation. They felt more Australians had died from the flow-on effects of the pandemic than from the virus itself. Whether or not that’s true, his words have stuck with Pond.
“HR are the ‘people’ people,” she says, “and what that conversation says to me is that the mental health and wellbeing of people is paramount. That needs to be taken into consideration for everything we do at the moment.”
It’s a common sentiment coming from HR professionals at this time – but they need to turn that care inwards as well. Because it’s likely the COVID-19 pandemic will be the most difficult situation this generation of HR professionals has ever faced. They are managing leave for the infected. They are charged with workplace psychological safety in a time of mass isolation. And they are having to tell workers they are being stood down or made redundant.
In the best of times, HR professionals help others excel in their jobs. In the worst of times, they deliver news that upends their colleagues’ lives.
If you told HR professionals in late February that the times would change dramatically in the space of a few weeks, most wouldn’t have believed you.
Closer to home
When COVID-19 first surfaced, many of us palmed the whole thing off as hysteria.
Alayne Baker CPHR, employee relations manager at TasTafe in Hobart, and AHRI’s Tasmanian state council president, remembers this period well.
“Things were happening in early March, but not really in Australia,” she says. “Then we started hearing of cases in Victoria. Then it came a little closer to home. That’s when people realised they didn’t know what to do. They weren’t prepared.”
AHRI members started contacting Baker, seeking information and clarity around social distancing rules.
“Within a couple of days, I was able to provide them with the information they needed. But I also realised how serious this issue was. All of a sudden there was a huge need – and a huge gap.”
Check out AHRI’s hub of COVID-19 resources, created for members to help their organisation through this time.
On the mainland, Deloitte took a day-by-day approach to its communications as all decisions were made against a backdrop of national uncertainty.
“The communications from our firm started to become daily and increasingly delivered by more senior leaders,” says Pond. “Next thing we knew there was a dedicated team site with COVID-19 information.”
Athena Chintis CPHR, head of people and culture at Cliftons, and president of AHRI’s NSW state council, was slightly ahead of the curve. Her company operates corporate event venues, including some in Hong Kong and Singapore, so they were reacting to client enquiries in early February.
“Early on, we put measures in place to operate safely and although it evolved quickly it was still business as usual. The last several weeks, however, have been a different story. Now, I’m taking one day at a time so it doesn’t become overwhelming.”
In regional Australia, Dan Sawyer, a recruiter for MP Training and Recruitment, remembers talking to business owners who were confident they wouldn’t be affected.
“Then the new narrative started. We started to hear people say, ‘It might not affect you, but it might affect your parents and the elderly.’ Sadly, it’s the younger ones who think they’re bulletproof. They just want to keep on doing things as normal.”
As the convenor of AHRI’s Albury-Wodonga network, Sawyer usually hosts annual events with fellow HR professionals in his region. This year has been different, with COVID-19 coming hot on the heels of the region’s bushfires.
“We usually get together to talk about issues that are affecting businesses and things on our radar for the next 12 months, but the coronavirus has eclipsed all that. It puts us totally in the dark.”
The impacts of the pandemic have not been distributed equally. In Sawyer’s case, while business is definitely abnormal, there is still demand for his recruitment services. The need for healthcare professionals has skyrocketed, and less obvious industries are also still hiring.
“We had a record week last week [late March] with casual staff employed,” he says. “We supply staff to a number of different manufacturers, including a water bottling plant where they’re flat out because people are stockpiling water.
“One of my biggest clients is a company that does fruit labelling, including all the stickers for apples, and fruit and produce is flying off the shelves. There are companies that are genuinely succeeding in this climate, yet the roads are very quiet.”
Sawyer, who worked as a recruiter during a time of major turmoil in New Zealand in the late 1980s, says creativity is important in a crisis.
“Two of the largest companies collapsed and took down the whole New Zealand economy. Businesses were all falling over, but they still needed some staff. They needed credit controllers and debt collectors, because cash was the most important thing.”
While Sawyer has seen some industries thriving, that hasn’t been the case for many others. Retail, tourism and hospitality have been among the hardest hit. Cliftons’ sister company, Apples and Pears Entertainment Group, which operates two restaurants, has been disrupted by the pandemic. While Cliftons was able to transition by promoting services such as virtual events, the restaurants had to pivot completely. After initially operating under the government’s 4 x 4 square metre rule, one of the restaurants was temporarily closed and the other one shifted to selling take-away and home delivery options. But that hasn’t saved all jobs.
“Working in an industry that’s been severely impacted means you’re not always having pleasant conversations,” says Chintis. “Unfortunately, we had to stand down people from our restaurants and reduce hours for others. It’s hard because a number of those staff are visa-holders. They fall through the cracks in terms of government subsidies,” she says.
A big challenge for Chintis has been the navigation of the very fast-moving legislation around the virus. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been on the website or phone to Fair Work,” she says. As Cliftons operates across Asia-Pacific, they’ve had to call around to the various state and government authorities to get the full picture of what they can and can’t do.
“We have a huge number of casuals on our payroll and not everyone will be eligible [for government support]. So, I’m trying to manage expectations, field enquiries and make tough decisions about who meets the required criteria. It’s been very challenging.”
With Tasmania being renowned for its tourism and hospitality industries, closing borders and social distancing rules may have made a huge difference to infection rates, but it’s economically devastating, says Baker.
“When they close restaurants, cafes and bars, it affects not only the people who work there, but also those who supply to the venues. I don’t think there’s one family that hasn’t been affected by this.”
In Baker’s family, her partner’s hours have been reduced due to the virus. Her daughter, who works in the tourism industry, has suffered the same fate.
“Hearing information about what my team likes makes me think about all the things they might not have liked all this time. When I used to work from home… I wonder if that ever made them feel alone or leaderless?” – Jessica Pond, senior manager, human capital at Deloitte.
Remotely face to face
Another shift at this time is the huge number of people who’ve migrated into the remote workforce. The first few weeks of this were difficult for many. Pond quickly realised her preferred way of working wasn’t necessarily aligning with her teams’ preferences.
“I work from home a lot. I’m an introvert and I sometimes work remotely to hide and be productive,” she says. “Video-calling isn’t usually a preference for me. However, I’ve noticed how much my team values seeing each other’s faces. It’s important for them to see my expression when I’m relaying information, like knowing I’m smiling even if it sounds like I’m being strict.”
Pond continues to step out of her comfort zone now because she sees its value. “I had to share something quite challenging recently and I was able to be face to face with the people I was sharing it with. They could see I had a tear in my eye and my hand to my chest. I felt connected to them. Without it, they may not have been able to see just how much I care about them. I felt really touched by that experience.”
This has also made her think about the shadow she’s casting as a leader.
“Hearing information about what my team likes makes me think about all the things they might not have liked all this time. When I used to work from home and they didn’t hear from me for a chunk of the day, I wonder if that ever made them feel alone or leaderless? It’s making me think about the impact I’m having more broadly. I’m watching everything closely now.”
When they have the right resources, HR professionals have been doing what they can to ameliorate the devastating impacts of this pandemic. Chintis was able to give many workers a lifeline. She’s organised a partnership with Woolworths, which is expanding its talent pool during this crisis, to offer temporary roles for staff who have been stood down. She’s also trialing an online labour exchange service called Hatch Exchange.
“It’s like a job swap arrangement. Organisations with workers who have been stood down, or just need more work, register and put out the link to their affected employees. These staff then apply for short-term roles with other employers. The idea is that your employer will still be your primary place of work – hopefully these staff come back – so it’s just about supporting them through this difficult time.”
Pond says businesses should also be paying attention to the mental health of staff.
“One person might not feel affected, but the next person might feel completely isolated and anxious. HR needs to lead the way in creating new norms around things like performance reviews, for example. Creating flexibility in ways we haven’t had to do before. No-one is going to be ‘normal’ right now.”
Looking out his window, Sawyer says he can see a street of small businesses that are closed. A picture framer, various product shops, an electrician… Maybe some of them will never open again.
“It’s really frightening. Everyone is concerned about how long this will go on for. There will be a tremendous upswing in depression and mental health concerns as a long-term effect of this.”
Where you hear hope from HR, it’s in the sense that this is a shared struggle. One that can be overcome by a profession that has been through tough times before.
“It’s going to be challenging for HR, but it always is because we deal with people,” says Baker. “After 30-odd years in HR, you think you have seen it all. Then you work through a pandemic and you think, ‘Well, this is another experience.’”
This article first appeared in the May 2020 edition of HRM magazine and was written in the first week of April. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for support.