How is your company’s culture faring in a crisis? What are the biggest pitfalls you’ve experienced as an employer? Will your organization stand up well to the challenges of operating during a pandemic? 

Over the past several weeks, of course, organizations of all sizes have dealt with unparalleled changes as they’ve responded to the health and safety threats of the COVID-19 emergency. Regardless of their size, companies are facing challenges that are testing not just the adequacy of their emergency planning but also the depths of their communication, management and leadership abilities. 

To take the temperature of the Greater Des Moines business community’s response to the crisis so far, the Business Record invited four human resources experts from a mix of organizations to share their experiences virtually in an online panel on April 1. 

Moderated by Business Record Publisher Chris Conetzkey and Senior Staff Writer Joe Gardyasz, the panel included:

CJ JacobsonVice president of people and culture | ITA Group
Ali PaynePresident | ethOs || Practice leader of organizational engagement | Holmes Murphy & Associates
Jo Ellen WhitneyAttorney | Davis Brown Law Firm
Amanda Young SVP, chief human resources officer | Bankers Trust

Among the themes that emerged from the discussion is the importance of communication, compassion and continued human interactions as organizations respond on the fly to make critical decisions involving the health and safety of their employees, clients and customers. 

Having a strong culture and a strong sense of community within an organization goes a long way toward success in a time like this, Payne said. 

“Organizations are really having to ask themselves, did we have the proper [procedures in place] to do what we needed to do, which was execute something that we thought would never happen,” she said. “They’re asking themselves: Is our culture strong enough to hold both when we’re in the office and when we’re working from home? Do we have the right relationships built with our customers so that they feel supported at this time?” 

Flexibility will be more important than ever for organizations to navigate the quickly changing landscape, Young said. “What we’re all trying to do is strike that balance between hopeful  optimism and practical realism to maintain that mental fortitude to keep up this pace,” she said.  

ITA Group’s vice president of people and culture, CJ Jacobson, noted that her company and many other organizations quickly shifted to successfully work remotely from home. Being able to accomplish that in two to three days, even though about one-quarter of its staff had never worked remotely from home, felt “truly remarkable,” she said. 

“I recently saw this definition of the word ‘agile,’ and it is ‘the ability to change the overall system completely in response to an unpredictable external force,” Jacobson said. “And I think that’s what we’re all feeling right now. Our guiding principles as we walk through this uncertain time are to be calm, to be caring, and to stay connected.”  

The COVID-19 crisis has been an exercise in going back to fundamental principles related to good human resource management and communication, noted Jo Ellen Whitney, an attorney with Davis Brown Law Firm who specializes in HR issues. 

“For my clients, the ones who are transparent — who are doing a good job communicating with their employees and telling them what they’re thinking — are doing better than the ones who have less transparency,” she said. 

Here are some selected responses from the panel discussion, edited for clarity and length. 

Q: What are some tips for maintaining company culture during a crisis?

Young: It’s communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s understanding that everybody has different home lives, different community lives and different work lives, and there’s only so much that people can absorb. It’s finding ways to connect with people virtually and getting feedback and making quick adjustments. 

Some of those adjustments included expanding our short-term disability benefit to include individuals with chronic illnesses so they wouldn’t have to come in during this time. Providing an incentive for customer-facing [employees] to come in by providing a child care subsidy, and some more time off so that folks can really look at alternative work arrangements. 
Payne: There are now five generations in the workforce. … Are there additional things we can do now and in the future to help employers figure out how to work with the different generations? I think that’s maybe a bit of a wake-up call that we didn’t necessarily know we needed to talk to our teams about. 

Also, as all of these things are coming at us at 900 mph, how do we make sure [we as leaders] are making those very human connections? And it’s not just an email or a text, it’s also getting in front of our people, whether it’s through FaceTime or Zoom meetings. 

Jacobson: The last thing that I would add is: We have spent a lot of time talking about our employees that have families and it’s really hard [balancing children at home while working from home] ... but we also have employees that don’t have family at home, and they might be by themselves six or seven weeks; we don’t know. So are we making those connections with the employees that don’t necessarily have anyone at home and who are really dealing with isolation in a completely different way than those of us who have little munchkins running around driving us crazy? 

Whitney: I also think we have to help our employees understand how they talk about each other. I have a lot of social media issues [come up with client companies]. We’ve had some people in some counties that we know tested positive, but they were still out in the community and the Facebook comments get out of hand. We can have gossiping when you put people’s private information out on social media platforms that can lead to trolling. So one of the big things we’ve been doing is trying to help our workforces understand how they talk about their fellow employees can have an impact, not just in the business place but also on their personal lives. And I think that’s important for them.

Q: What have been some of the thorniest or toughest situations that you have had to deal with during this crisis? 

Young: We’ve been able to provide a lot of temporary [absences] or extend some of our different leave practices to support those employees that need to stay away the most. … Certainly we have had situations that have struck fear, and we’ve had to come in and get to the facts in those situations to really evaluate and consistently apply who needs to be at work and who can be away during these times. … And it’s trying to muddle through what’s fact and what’s fiction in those situations and consistently apply [policies]. 

Another situation — not necessarily a thorny one, but one that’s unprecedented for us – is just onboarding new employees at this time. I had somebody start on my team last week and we had to learn how to connect virtually and did some emails to get to know individuals across [departments], and setting that up was difficult and not necessarily ideal in how we would want to onboard somebody. 

Whitney: One of the things that’s been really difficult for a lot of my employers, because they try really hard to work with their people, is frankly just saying “No.” No, you can’t take vacation because you’re essential personnel. No, you can’t drive down to the Lake of the Ozarks and check on your boat because once you do you’ll have to quarantine for 14 days. I think that’s been really hard on [these employers] because they don’t normally do that. They’ve had a lot of pushback where people say, I’m still traveling to Washington, or I’m still going to go see the Empire State Building in New York. Then there’s always the odd employee who gets arrested and the sheriff’s department calls us and wants to know if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, because that’s what they’ve been telling the sheriff’s department, trying to get them to let them go, and they’re calling the employer to find out if that’s accurate.

Q: What are some of the potential pitfalls that employers should be thinking about as they navigate through this time? 

Whitney: One of the things that cropped up a lot in the beginning was wanting to find out who had underlying conditions. Who had COPD that was being treated; who was immunocompromised so we could try to figure out if we could keep them out of the workplace? The problem is, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you don’t get to ask those questions. And so I had a lot of employers who, in trying to be nice, were actually getting themselves in trouble. So what you have to do, really, is make an opportunity for employees to tell you that — to let them know they need to tell you if they’re immunocompromised — as opposed to demanding it of them. And as of today [April 1] you need to have your FFCRA [Families First Coronavirus Response Act] notices up if you’re covered by the Families First Act, and if they’re teleworking, you need to make sure it’s gone out to them. Just those basic kinds of things I think have been really problematic.

Q: If a business is thinking about layoffs or furloughs, what are some important considerations before going down that path?

Whitney: One of the things you want to think about when you’re doing a layoff or furlough is whether or not you’re intending it to be temporary. Because that’s going to have an impact on benefits. A huge concern for people who are laid off is, can they continue their insurance benefits? So you want to think about how long [the layoff] is, and also, you want to make sure there’s wiggle room, because something that’s a two- or a four-week layoff now could be a six- or eight-week layoff depending on how things turn out. So don’t promise a return to work; you’re going to keep in contact with them and you want them to keep in contact with you. 

Payne: And I would just add that you’ve got to think about what that message sounds like to  your employees that you’re not laying off. So continuing to have that transparency, that open communication around why you’re doing what you’re doing — and you might not necessarily know what you’re doing in the future because we all don’t know. And then also making sure that they understand that you still want to focus on the team that’s in place today and making sure they have the right resources, whether it’s mental well-being or physical well-being — all of the things that are very important to those employees you want to take care of. … Don’t get sidetracked on the negative, and try and keep as much as you can on the positive to how you’re going to continue to do business.

Jacobson: Another tactic might be that if this extends a while and team members find themselves with extra capacity, are we looking at what strategic enterprise projects we could tackle during this time — things that we never quite get to? And so at the end of this, how do we come out more productive, more efficient, with better ideas for our clients and servicing them better so that we’re productive during any downtime that we have and that we keep our team members engaged?

Q: How do you think this situation requiring so many of us to work remotely will change the thinking about remote work once we can all return to the office? 

Whitney: Literally [all the attorneys] want to be back in the office — nobody is happy about it because everything we do is sort of touch-intensive in how we meet people and interact, and it’s just a little harder remotely. But I do think you’re going to see a clear demarcation of people who can work efficiently from home. For the HR professionals [listening], that’s depending a lot on your company and the service you provide, but I do think you’re going to see that. 

Payne: What is really interesting when you think about working from home and you think about the generations that really wanted this flexibility to work from home, I don’t know that they necessarily wanted to work from home. I think they just didn’t want to work in the office. They really wanted to work at the coffee shop down the street, and now they can’t do that. So they’re having to work from home. I do think that there are people that asked for that, and now they’re like “Oh, maybe that’s not what I want. What I really want is flexibility and so maybe I should go back to the office and ask for flexibility,” versus [saying] “I want to work from home.”

Q: If a business is thinking about layoffs or furloughs, what are some important considerations before going down that path? 

Jacobson: I would say one of the positives is we’re getting to know our team members on a more personal basis. We’re seeing what their home environments look like; we’re seeing their kids, their parents. I learned last week that one of our team members has a pet rat. I can’t tell you why, but that’s an interesting fact to learn about this person. So you’re getting to know them on a personal level and hopefully that’s going to help us build those relationships when we all come back, and that we don’t lose that. 

Young: I think we’re getting pretty adept with technology. So from a skill-building perspective, we won’t return to the workplace the same way with the same expectations, and so I think you’re seeing people really stretch on what they’re being able to do because they’ve had to learn really quickly. Just like anytime you go through a crisis, there is a perspective and gratitude gained. 

Payne: We all talk about resiliency, but I don’t know that a lot of us do a lot with our teams around that. This gave us perspective that we’ve got to figure out how to instill more resiliency within our workplaces. 

Whitney: I think when we’re through this, or we’re getting at least through part of it, we’re going to know a lot more about the strengths and weaknesses of the people we work with. Even just with the people I work with, some people have just shown themselves to be amazing out of-the-box-thinkers — just amazing in thinking of new ways to do things and how to help our clients get what they need and where they need to go.