The Changing Demands on People Leaders through COVID-19

If anything has changed, it is that the pandemic has brought into stark relief that a business is nothing without its people. The strength of the business is the strength of its people.

We recently convened a panel of top HR executives who gave their perspective on the changing demands and roles of people leaders during COVID-19. Our panel, moderated by Sarahjane (SJ) Sacchetti, Cleo’s CEO, included:

  • Cara Brennan Allamano, Senior Vice President of People, Place & Learning, Udemy
  • Jude Komuves, Chief People Officer, Affirm
  • Lissa Minkin, Vice President of People & Workplaces, Tile
  • Lily Kohls, Vice President of People, Cleo

We were honored to bring together so many unique, powerful voices who shared their expertise and their organizations’ experiences and responses to the pandemic.

Balancing work with life is top of mind for most working parents these days. In a recent member survey conducted by Cleo, 50% or more of respondents stated they were without childcare. It is no surprise, then, that 52% said that their productivity was at 75% or less than usual, but still astounding that 1 in 4 respondents said they felt their productivity was less than 50% of usual.

With so many pressures, respondents are actively researching different solutions. 37% were looking at whether having other family members stay with them was a good option.16% say they might move. And an astonishing 1 in 5 said they were considering leaving the workforce altogether in order to gain better work/life balance. Clearly it’s a challenging time ripe for novel solutions. With that in mind, we wondered, how have HR roles changed as COVID-19 hit?

What’s Changed?

The pandemic has undoubtedly compressed expectations. Not only are roles becoming more complex but also much more intense in that both the personal and professional needs of the employee base are now within the realm of responsibility of organization leaders. The ability for workers to be effective is now one of the biggest concerns. “Where we expected to be for the next four years is now compressed in the last two months and there has been a fundamental shift in terms of what we’re asked to deliver. Data we used to gather related to the time people spent at work is now data gathered about their work/life balance. We’ve always wanted our employees to be best selves at work, and now we’re addressing that across the full spectrum of their life experiences,” Cara said.

Another change that has surfaced is the need to undertake the role of chief empathy officers. It’s not just about the business any more. CHROs need to think about what’s happening in people’s lives, they need to have empathy and also make sure that their employees see leadership has their hands on the wheel so they can focus on work and family.

In this way, challenges have become an opportunity for connection. Every organization is in a unique situation, but coming together around their shared difficulties has seemed to unify companies as a team — irrespective of geography, time zone, or department.

What is the Impact on People Programs?

Even at Cleo, it’s no different than other employers trying to assess the difficulties their employees are facing. One of the key areas of focus is around mental health support for both employees and members, as well as an emphasis on child care given the strong possibility of burnout on working families as they try to juggle homeschooling, work, and life responsibilities — leaving them very little time for themselves. “Cleo is trying to identify where we can be more creative in specific programs that address not just COVID but that also leverage the collective ideas and solutions we’ve put together,” Lily said. For example, Cleo members are talking about family members or close neighbors sharing joint child care to improve productivity, even if it’s to get an hour or two of time back for themselves.

The need for people programs to drive relationship building, and that training managers is key, were two important points that were raised. Companies need to give managers the tools to have the right kinds of conversations with the people on their teams, so they can identify what their employees’ core needs are. For example, are they sleeping well? Exercising? Eating well? Do they have a productive at-home set-up? And, are they asking employees more existential questions such as how are they thinking about the future of their careers? Giving managers permission to have these kinds of all-encompassing conversations ensures that connections that would normally happen face to face happen virtually.

What Do Working Families Need Right Now?

Companies are thinking about how to balance the needs of the many with the needs of specific vulnerable groups, such as working parents. The key to success here is understanding the true demographics of the population. “We designed a targeted survey that gave us key insight to be able to design the right programs. We found that 24% of our workforce is a caregiver to a child or family member and that 45% of our people managers were caregivers. 80% of our caregivers have a child under the age of 8 years, and 80% have experienced a disruption in childcare. We asked for ideas on what they needed for help and we consistently heard that a unified rhythm for the company and more flexibility around core working hours were critical. That made us roll out ‘no-meeting afternoons,’ which have given everyone space in the day to work heads down or run errands. What seemed difficult to do pre-COVID now is more doable and more impactful,” Jude said.

One theme that surfaced was that the time and effort companies have already spent to articulate the culture they care about has paid off, because for those companies, it has not been difficult to switch to work-from-home mode and have people feel well cared for. Culture stacks should start with psychological safety, teaching leaders to have empathy so people bring their whole selves to work.

What people really need right now is flexibility. It’s clear that the pressure to be “on’ is endless, with defined starts and finishes to the day all but gone. There’s less down time and personal time. That’s why people need to block time on their calendars for work, personal, errands — and they need a mental health day away from the constant pressure.

What Does the Future of Work Look Like?

So how does this period of time shape the future of work and the role of HR leaders work within an organization? From the external economic environment to safety factors, it’s a whole new ball game. For example, there are whole cohorts who have never had a friend get laid off, but factors like that affect how people think about their work life, home life, and also how leaders react on the people side of the business. ”How can we as an organization benefit from more togetherness, more altruism, wellbeing, learning, and innovation? What would that mean if we became a company focused on those things for the future, and how would we translate that to our employer brand and to our culture? Would that make us a company that even more people would want to join and stay?” Lissa responded.

If anything has changed, it is that the pandemic has brought into stark relief that a business is nothing without its people. The strength of the business is the strength of its people. People leaders have known and felt that for a very long time and now it’s a collective conversation, up, down, and in every part of the company. HR’s job is to bring oxygen to the company’s mission and vision through the people. If they are not helping to build a thriving business, people don’t have jobs, paychecks, or the ability to secure a livelihood.

What’s the Best Way to Return to Work?

It’s inevitable that companies will return to work and the question becomes how to safely do so, as well as communicate with teams. Clearly the safety and health of employees is the first priority. Companies are learning how to operate remotely so there is no rush for many to get back into an office environment.

Moreover, leading with empathy as a core value, supported by data, can help pave the way. Companies that make small steps in that direction can ripple into massive shifts in how people show up. Most of all, in this trying time, people leaders are urged not to give up, and to keep driving their family-forward agendas, knowing it’s the right thing to do.

That’s good advice to all of us adjusting to the new reality. If you’d like additional support and resources about supporting working parents during the pandemic, please contact us or visit Cleo’s free COVID-19 resources.