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CHRO Conversations
Evolving COVID-19 Responses of World's Largest Companies
CHRO Conversations

Evolving COVID-19 Responses of World's Largest Companies

by Larry Emond and Ellyn Maese

Story Highlights

  • Leaders are adding new means of supporting employees
  • COVID-19 has created a whole new paradigm for human resource allocation
  • Leaders are focused on current and future needs

Last month, Gallup gathered the initial COVID-19 policy and strategy responses of 100 members of the CHRO Roundtable, an organization that includes the CHROs of over 700 of the world's largest companies.

Since then, Gallup has conducted 15 industry-based videoconferences with over 200 members of the CHRO Roundtable to discuss their evolving health, labor and economic responses to the pandemic and their outlook on returning to work.

Disease Containment Protocols and Employee Support

Along with the now-standard containment and hygiene policies, leaders are constantly adding new means of supporting employees and containing the spread of the novel coronavirus, including:

  • tracing the contacts of employees who have tested positive
  • using CSR funds, employee relief funds, and industry or foundation funds to aid employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or those who have family members diagnosed with COVID-19
  • adding new benefits for all employees, such as childcare subsidies and reimbursement
  • adding benefits (e.g., paid time off, health insurance extensions) for part-time or hourly workers who previously didn't have them
  • offering reimbursement for costs/premiums related to COVID-19 that aren't covered by insurance, such as tests, doctor visits or hospitalization
  • employee-crowdsourced assistance, such as babysitting
  • equipment, operating systems -- such as staggered shifts -- and physical barriers that separate employees from each other and customers

Some companies have removed limits on paid time off (PTO), while others are capping PTO with ranges of 40 to 80 hours. Some are allowing employees to log negative balances, and a few have allowed employees (particularly senior leadership) to donate their PTO to coworkers.

As COVID-19 test kits become available, many organizations have added company-financed testing for employees who show symptoms and those they've been in contact with, as well as employees who have returned from essential travel and expats coming back home.

Engagement and Morale

There are few bright spots to be found, but one is a renewed focus on mission, engagement and employee wellbeing. Many companies are making their mission the foundation of their COVID-19 messaging, especially in healthcare, biotech, retail and postal/shipping sectors. And all CHRO Roundtable member companies offer some form of wellbeing assistance, such as webinars, wellbeing check-ins, apps, expansion of in-house wellbeing programs -- even Mental Health Champions who are trained to provide advice and guidance.

Managers and leaders are reformatting their engagement strategies for remote-only workers -- more frequent communication, for example, or more time dedicated to team socializing -- as well as front-line workers who are most at risk and most vulnerable to burnout. These efforts have positive effects on engagement, as Gallup analysis consistently shows, that will outlast the pandemic and help companies bounce back.

Staffing in the New Normal

COVID-19 has created a whole new paradigm for human resource allocation. In some sectors, employees are afraid to go to work, requiring some companies to incentivize attendance (some with hazardous duty pay) and/or penalize absences that lack just cause. Some companies are staffing business-critical functions only, and some are repurposing idle employees to support understaffed functions. A few teams have created their own employee-run concierge services -- laundry, grocery shopping, babysitting -- to cover their own needs, independent of leadership.

But leader-driven policies are vastly more numerous and include:

  • cross-training team members to perform critical functions in the event of an unexpected absence or quarantine
  • creating duplicate teams in separate locations for critical functions (e.g., payroll)
  • documenting critical business functions, processes or procedures in the event of an unexpected absence or quarantine
  • filling understaffed but critical operations with temporary workers -- up to 5,000 a week in some industries -- with some businesses intending to convert those workers to FTE when it's possible to do adequate screening
  • temporarily suspending background checks and drug testing to speed up hiring
  • using facial recognition software as a form of cybersecurity
  • reskilling idle or low-demand employees within the company to provide critical functions (including IT and transportation)
  • creating portals to help redundant workers find new jobs with partner organizations
  • providing "hero pay" to critical front-line workers, which can include gift cards ranging from $25 to $100, salary increases ranging from 10% to 50% or an extra $1 to $3 per hour, bonuses ranging from 5% to 100% for all or only extra time worked, and increased company discounts
  • honoring all outstanding job offers, though some companies are delaying start dates (some are onboarding those new workers virtually; others are pausing onboarding until new hires are on-site)
  • rescinding job offers -- up to 50% of them, in some companies
  • delaying or canceling internships, and/or reducing internship stipends
  • honoring internships with the intention of hiring interns as per usual (some CHROs consider it an ethical obligation in high-unemployment markets)

Navigating New Legislation

A number of national governments have enacted legislation that affects RIF and benefits policies, and replaces some portion of lost income for workers and businesses. Some CHROs said they have designated personnel to study federal policies and stimulus package details to inform their company policies, and many are coordinating their own organizational response to government benefits in their countries of operation. Industry/Sector lobbying efforts are stepping up, and some legal departments are reviewing their legal liabilities as they pertain to workplace exposure to COVID-19. Leaders in shipping businesses, incidentally, say they hope the current situation brings about long-needed legislative changes.

Economic Impacts

A sharp economic division is emerging. Some businesses are booming -- in some cases, beyond their capacity to keep up -- while others are struggling to survive. Companies in the latter category have elected to:

  • reduce hours or create job-shares to preserve as many employees as possible
  • reduce pay by, on average, 10% to 50%
  • place employees on furlough
  • institute internal labor arbitrage
  • freeze hiring or hire only for critical roles
  • rescind job offers
  • cancel internships
  • cancel contracts
  • issue layoffs, though many intend to rehire if possible
  • provide benefits to employees on furlough
  • provide full severance to laid-off workers, with some extending the post-exit benefit period and some staggering payments
  • incentivize early retirement among high earners
  • assist laid-off employees in accessing unemployment benefits

Still, all members of the CHRO Roundtable believe that the economic environment is likely to be changed for some time, and leaders are preparing their companies for today's needs as well as the post-pandemic landscape. Their plans vary -- economic conditions dictate leaders' outlook and response -- but broadly include:

  • thinking carefully about equity and stocks (RSUs and PSUs), structure, and percentage
  • shifting performance targets to later in the year
  • delaying planned 2019 bonuses if not yet paid, though many are honoring first-quarter bonuses
  • suspending cash recognition programs
  • offering reduced-pay leave for idle workers, typically by 25% to 50%, with full benefits
  • suspending 401(k) matches
  • high-earning employees voluntarily donating bonuses to low-paid workers on the front lines
  • rethinking performance pay, including changing structure, thresholds or targets
  • reducing or suspending bonuses, salaries and/or salary increases for top earners, ranging from 10% to 100% of salary (This is especially common among airlines, and cuts range from 10% to 30% -- typically starting with top earners. Pay cuts are not uncommon among lower-wage earners, however, and include reducing or suspending bonuses, merit pay, salaries and/or salary increases for all workers, idle workers only, or workers in certain positions.)

Employee Development and Performance Coaching

Companies seem to have one of two approaches: either more employee development, or much less. Those that are focusing on development and performance coaching are chiefly doing so through online channels to revise performance targets, reorganize priorities and develop appropriate goals. Some have increased their L&D, or plan to. Some airlines are taking advantage of increased time on the ground for training and education.


Communication is evolving as employee needs and pandemic information do, but most CHROs say frequency is still key, and empathy matters. Many leaders are having more conversations and meetings with people managers, and some are auditing employees with pulse surveys and using the results to craft messaging and policies. Indeed, many have added user-specific text and created more channels. These include:

  • weekly all-hands calls and videoconferences
  • employee portals for updates, information and resources
  • tools and guides for working remotely on networks such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Skype for Business, Yammer, Workday and company-only Facebook pages
  • portals/tools specific to parents
  • videos that explain company benefits, unemployment and government assistance
  • emergency communication systems

All members of the CHRO Roundtable believe that the economic environment is likely to be changed for some time, and leaders are preparing their companies for today's needs as well as the post-pandemic landscape.

Returning to Work

Leaders' return-to-work plans are a chief concern and hinge upon the safety of workers -- but also vary by business, industry and location as well as infection rates. Many leaders are considering a phased approach that may include safety protocols that limit contact, promote social distancing, screen for symptoms and test for COVID-19, if sufficient tests are available. Return-to-work target dates vary -- leaders are considering multiple scenarios, and time horizons span May to September.

However, the norms and mores that govern workers' behavior have changed. Dress codes and business hours have relaxed, and evidence of pets and children in videoconferences seems less unprofessional (even among C-level leaders) -- and some of those changes may be permanent. Indeed, there is thought to be a real cultural benefit to increasingly personalized work relationships. These trends may affect company cultures; some CHROs are already rethinking core elements of their operations and cultures. Many leaders are analyzing their organizations' response to COVID-19 and how that applies to:

  • the optimal number of "nonessential" employees in the workforce
  • a new definition of "business-critical" roles and functions
  • employees' skills and adaptability to reskilling
  • IT department expansions
  • changing to full- or part-time remote work
  • limiting the number of workers in the office at a time and their proximity to each other
  • hiring a company medical director to be an in-house expert
  • carrying some cost-saving measures forward to remain more efficient in the future
  • decreasing travel in the future, especially for internal meetings
  • expanding new business functions, such as L&D, that have arisen out of need
  • making new employee morale and engagement programs -- wellbeing programs, apps, informal meetings and social networking -- permanent
  • analyzing lessons learned about agility that can be applied to future decisions

The norms and mores that govern workers' behavior have changed. Dress codes and business hours have relaxed, and evidence of pets and children in videoconferences seems less unprofessional (even among C-level leaders) -- and some of those changes may be permanent.

Many of these policies have been expected -- and in some cases, feared -- since the beginning of the outbreak. But some are new responses to emerging issues, and more will come. Economic pressures are forcing many organizations to rapidly change long-standing business models, market strategies and employee policies.

As a result, leaders are seeing aspects of their companies and employees that hadn't come to light before. CHROs routinely say they're witnessing the sudden implementation of plans they thought wouldn't come to fruition for years -- if ever. Managers are learning new methods of coaching performance and new insights into their teams. Employees are having a very different experience of work, and of leadership.

Those perceptions will remain long after the pandemic is behind us. They'll change the way business is done. They'll change leadership.

We hope the perspectives from the CHRO Roundtable members will help leaders formulate effective strategies of their own -- and aid them in building a successful post-COVID future.

Explore Gallup's resources for leading through disruption:


Ellyn Maese is a Research Associate at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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