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CHRO Conversations
A CHRO's Perspective on the Workforce in a COVID-19 World
CHRO Conversations

A CHRO's Perspective on the Workforce in a COVID-19 World

Trinity Health CHRO Ed Hodge

by Ed Hodge
Executive VP and CHRO for Trinity Health

Guest writer Edmund "Ed" Hodge is Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic healthcare systems in the U.S.

Leaders are always concerned with building the right culture, increasing the capability of their people, and improving the performance of their organization and its teams. The COVID-19 global health crisis has not changed those concerns. But it has forced businesses to rethink their future to attain long-term sustainability -- and for some, to merely survive -- as entire industries retool and reposition themselves to adapt to a dramatically changed business environment.

At the same time, employees have continuously evolving perspectives about work, family, priorities and their lives. In many cases, COVID-19 has severely exacerbated preexisting pressures on individuals, families, teams, the workforce, organizations and society. So when employees "show up" for work, they are who they already are -- shaped by the many conditions of life that transcend economics alone. That is the backdrop against which an employee may approach the agenda for the day/week/month/year and could influence leaders' near- and long-term plans. Now more than ever, leaders must appreciate that employees are not robots or algorithms. They are human beings with wants, needs, problems, emotions, ideas and aspirations.

This view of employees as real people does not mean that leaders' obligations are excused or diminished. We will always need to achieve the mission and business outcomes. Incredibly difficult decisions about a myriad of issues must still be made; the future of the organization depends on that accountability and stewardship. But we must consider the foundation of how we approach our decisions. We must demonstrate care and concern -- and lessen, within reason and the organization's ability, the adverse impact of such decisions on our employees, customers and communities.

The Shifting Landscape

As of this writing, 5.9 million people around the world have contracted COVID-19 and more than 350,000 have died, with the U.S. claiming approximately one-third of global cases. In April, one American died from the coronavirus every 44 seconds. Meanwhile, 40 million U.S. workers have filed for unemployment benefits, with many more expected to.

This experience has changed day-to-day life for everyone -- but the personal impact varies dramatically along socioeconomic, geographic and even racial lines. Gallup has found a record drop in life satisfaction and a continued decline in overall wellbeing. Leaders should not underestimate the significant physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social and financial toll the COVID-19 crisis has inflicted.

Now more than ever, leaders must appreciate that employees are not robots or algorithms. They are human beings with wants, needs, problems, emotions, ideas and aspirations.

Accordingly, leaders must be cognizant of changes in employees' personal perspectives, their views about work and their expectations of organizations. The following changes and challenges may be prominent in employees' minds in the months to come -- and should be factored into the way we lead. This article is meant to enrich the conversation about our workforce as we think about leading in a COVID-19 world.

Psychological and physical safety. COVID-19 is highly contagious and extremely dangerous, and there is tremendous uncertainty about immunity. With that in mind, long-standing employee concerns about potentially disruptive customers and workplace violence will be compounded by basic but important questions such as:

  • "Will I be required to wear a face covering from now on?"
  • "How close is my workstation to my peers'?"
  • "Is it safe to eat in the company cafeteria anymore?"

Sick people with insufficient leave benefits may come to work, regardless of screening mechanisms like temperature scanners, if they fear losing income. That will put other employees at risk. As a result, many workers may become obsessed with cleanliness and safety practices. They will be highly attuned to their safety and potentially hidden exposures and may become upset with those who are not.

Resiliency. Now more than ever, employee wellbeing is being put to the test -- and it continues to decline, reaching its previous low. Many employees are confronting their own vulnerabilities, and some are suddenly awakening to the value of seeking help. They will need our employee assistance programs, counseling, behavioral health services and other resources to support them and their families. It may take a long time to fully understand the level of resiliency that is both healthy and needed for this situation, but supporting employee resiliency will create a workforce able to cope with what is happening now and recover from what lies ahead.

New careers. Because of this experience, some employees will proudly reaffirm their choice of profession, while others will reassess their career choices -- perhaps the entire industry in which they work. The furloughed and unemployed are already at the crossroads; others are on their way. This financial and health crisis will redefine "a life well-lived" for many people. Those who can't reaffirm their career choice, for whatever reason, will be on a quest for meaning and engagement in their work, to be employed for the right company and to do the right work, by employers who care about them. That may mean a renewed interest in formal education, but it will certainly involve self-reflection and big choices that will affect human resources for years to come.

Family focus. Ironically, "social distancing" brought many individuals considerably closer together and made the importance of family even more evident. Some employees will emerge from this crisis with even stronger family bonds -- and some may be pushed right over the edge into divorce. It will prompt a reordering of priorities among a host of considerations, and that will affect their behavior at work.

Faith, life and peace. Religious tendencies and spiritual beliefs may be accentuated or diminished, but it's likely people will have a greater appreciation for the fragile nature of life itself. After stay-at-home orders are lifted, there will be a heightened need to socialize with others -- and possibly a greater appreciation for the comfort, tranquility and satisfaction to be found in solitude.

Renewed stewardship. Many families are making drastic choices for the first time ever: Do we buy medicine or gasoline? Rent or food? Too often, the choice is "neither" because there are no funds available. These are the choices some families make every day, and the pandemic has made their situation even more difficult. We must be mindful of the employees most at risk. Organizations can support them directly and indirectly, and leaders must remember that life situations affect workers profoundly.

But we must also be mindful that even the financially secure may have a scarcity mindset for a while (i.e., saving not for a rainy day but for a hurricane). We'll probably cherish time off, but many will delay retirement -- financial market losses will mandate it. The impact of financial insecurity often translates into increased conscientiousness in the prudent use of resources in general. So there could be greater sensitivity to the wise use of employer, societal and environmental resources -- and activities or expenditures that seem frivolous, or to the benefit of the few but not the many, may seem inappropriate.

Health or wealth. Disagreements about how and when to "reopen" the country will continue to divide citizens as much as any other political issue. Those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus or from caring for the ill will feel their loss was made meaningless by the seemingly unsafe decisions of others. Those who understand contracting the disease will have terrible, even lethal, consequences on themselves or their loved ones will have little patience for those who appear to be unsympathetic to safety concerns. Yet, those "unsympathetic" individuals may be entrepreneurs who are losing their businesses, ordinary people watching their savings disappear, the financially insecure making impossible daily choices, or people who feel genuinely ashamed to rank economic decisions over others' safety or lives but feel more threatened by economic devastation than the virus. Personal financial situations have a material impact on how we perceive this crisis.

And all those people are employees who will share their thoughts and opinions with friends and, perhaps, their coworkers. Like all opinions, they may differ radically from yours -- but must not preclude you from effectively leading your people. Effective leadership honors the person as an individual but also keeps behavior within the boundaries of the expressed culture of the organization.

Self-worth. Because this is a terrifying health crisis with a highly contagious virus, many employees willingly accept the designation as nonessential. But many on the front lines are proud to be deemed essential, and we should be pleased that vital roles like truck driver, housekeeper, store clerk and farmer are getting the recognition they deserve, consistent with the way doctors, nurses, accountants and other professionals are typically favorably regarded. The essential and nonessential labels may influence employees' feelings of value or self-worth, which can have a profound impact on employees' personal engagement, productivity and outcomes.

Community. Shared struggle creates a sense of community with others and an increase in volunteerism. Political and social strife will continue to divide us, but the sense of inclusion will be there for all who wish to find it. Prior disasters have shown us at our best -- selfless, with a propensity to advance the greater good -- as well as a natural tension between the call for philanthropy and the need to save resources for self and family. Leaders should anticipate benevolence to win in the end. That is good news, as a spirit of generosity in the workplace can fuel greater teamwork through employees' genuine care and concern for coworkers and communities.

Everything matters. Recently, a hospital manager wrote a letter to her organization's leaders on behalf of her team because a government list of essential/nonessential businesses that was published in the hospital did not classify their roles as direct patient care while they were battling the coronavirus. You may well wonder if a label on a column truly matters, if it was worth the time to address. In these circumstances, the answer was "absolutely yes." Leaders' words and actions matter to employees, and we should respect sensitivities that may seem extreme to us. During periods of escalated anxiety, more things matter; perhaps everything matters. And incidentally, the hospital changed the label.

When the Pandemic Subsides

Unifying teams. When teams look back at what they accomplished together during the height of the pandemic, a strong sense of pride will likely flourish. Employees in high-risk jobs will warmly recall those who got in the trenches with them when times were extremely difficult. They may understand and forgive those who, for good reason, did not -- but they may also struggle to accept those who seemed to have abandoned them. Similarly, bonds will form among those who were furloughed together, and those whose jobs were not affected may exhibit survivor's guilt. Leaders need to be cognizant of the convergence of these dynamics when some employees are not invited to or choose not to return to work while others are reuniting with their teams and developing a new culture in their environment.

Greater ingenuity. The pandemic sparked great creativity: Thousands of people crafted homemade masks, formed community-aid circles, and celebrated weddings, graduations and other occasions in quickly devised virtual events, among other innovative responses. Employees, too, have created products, services and inventive solutions for newly surfaced problems much faster, with more tech savvy and less bureaucracy than leaders may have thought possible. Their speed to accomplishment -- and the personal and professional fulfillment it gave -- kindled a remarkable, innovative spirit that leaders should foster long beyond COVID-19. Leaders should engage with employees to review what specifically (not generally, such as "the pandemic") made possible the speed, ingenuity and teamwork that generated the success. Leaders can enable that spirit to continue uninterrupted by removing barriers and changing operating procedures and cultural dynamics.

Accelerated performance. The opportunity to engage employees in a journey toward elevated performance could be immense. Recent events may make employees even more anxious to demonstrate their capability and value going forward -- to employers and to themselves. Like athletes who shout to their coaches, "Put me in!" so too will certain employees want to get off the bench and take on more responsibilities with more meaningful work. However, employees fueled by the can-do spirit pervasive amidst the crisis are unlikely to be tolerant of bureaucracies and styles of management that dismiss their value. If there is no congruence between employee expectations of contribution value and what they experience, they may feel compelled to seek a better match elsewhere.

Meaningful voices. Now more than ever, individuals will want their voices heard. In the future, sharing ideas and concerns, being heard and having influence, will be even more important. Indeed, it's a minimum criterion for employee engagement -- and leaders would do well to listen and respond to employees' contributions.

Remote work. Employees will have an increased desire to work remotely. Although many industries require on-site workers, there will probably be more national and global virtual work opportunities than ever before. And employees who have proven they can work optimally and just as productively (if not more so) from home may see no reason to spend every day in another workspace.

Granted, some will prefer to work in traditional workplace locations, but more and more employees will seek remote opportunities to enhance family time and avoid health risks, traffic, transportation costs and commute time. More employers will facilitate the arrangement to increase productivity, reduce overhead, expand their geographic reach for talent and allow for more social distancing among those at the company's regular place of business.

Crisis as proxy for the norm. Employee views of leadership will be based upon their perception of leadership's response to COVID-19. People want to be able to trust their leaders. Without trust, workers will wonder if they can depend on their leaders in the next crisis -- they may wonder if they even want to depend on the organization and its leaders in the next crisis. They will make value judgments according to the way they or others were treated during a defining moment of leadership. Some of them will judge how well moral codes and social contracts were upheld when people were furloughed or positions eliminated, especially if leaders' decisions appeared to contradict the company's usual message of the significance of its employees.

Some will be happy to be employed at all, but nonetheless suspicious, disenchanted and hurt by their recent experience. They may become disengaged or disruptive within the organization, seeding doubt and bitterness among customers and coworkers. Leaders need to be aware of this potential behavior and seek to actively engage all employees toward productive behaviors and outcomes.

Conversely, there will be genuinely grateful employees who, although personally and adversely affected, will agree that their organization was fair and made prudent -- even if unprecedented -- decisions under the circumstances. They may be intensely appreciative of and more avidly engaged with their employer, becoming unwavering advocates for the organization.

Best place to work. When economic conditions improve, and the employment landscape advances, people will have a reawakened license to explore other possibilities. They will assess their current employer and either stay or choose their next one very carefully. They will comparably assess the culture, the work environment, and leadership's demonstrated integrity and commitment to a set of core values. The ability to develop and grow within the role and "do what you do best" are top concerns now, and will continue to be, especially among the most talented employees.

Into the New Future

This article serves as a discussion opener for the cadre of issues and implications related to people and the workforce as we start to emerge from the depths of this global health and economic crisis. But underlying all those issues is the thirst for truthful, reliable communication. Employees in search of hope and the best way forward will look to leadership to see why they should care, why they should exceed the minimum, what good their discretionary effort will do them or their team. A rallying message, a meaningful mission and vivid, credible goals for employees to aspire to will find many takers among people in a deeply reflective search for their future. That's why effective leadership cannot be delegated to a single person or function; rather, it is the individual and collective responsibility of all leaders in an organization.

During periods of escalated anxiety, more things matter; perhaps everything matters.

How long this extraordinary period will last, with all of its intense and renewed focus, depends on a number of factors. A sense of national unity in the U.S. followed the 9/11 attacks, but it seemed to last for only a few months. The multidimensional effects of the current pandemic appear to be destined to last much longer. However, the extent of the economic recovery, the magnitude of sickness and death on humanity, the success of discovering a cure and developing a vaccine, and the sustained commitment of human beings to adapt to an evolving new normal will dictate employees' response to this crisis. This unparalleled situation has tested us all. A crisis brings out the best in many and the worst in some. It yields those who pray and those who prey. Some will become better people for it, and some will take advantage of people because of it.

And when it's over, we'll look back and learn from our leadership decisions. Did we do the right things? Where could we have done better? Where were we completely wrong? That's to be expected, but so is this: Leaders who offer hope and engage their employees as people -- the multidimensional individuals that they are -- will be best positioned to understand and address employees' thoughts and fears and aspirations. That connection will make us better leaders of healthier organizations, positioned to navigate boldly in these challenging times and positively lead our companies into the future.

Continue learning how to lead amid a crisis:

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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