When Business as Usual Is Anything But

Mar 21, 2020 |
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The coronavirus and COVID-19 may have blown into North America and Europe like an early spring storm, but our offices in China and across the Asia Pacific region have been dealing with this crisis for months.

Our VP of Human Resources, Karyn White, has been spearheading RGP’s business continuity efforts since the beginning. In this Q&A she shares some of the very human challenges that organizations around the globe are experiencing—along with some practical suggestions for managing the “people part” of business continuity.

“It’s just a headline until your own activities come to a screeching halt and then you realize what your colleagues have already been through.”

For RGP, “human resources” describes both the firm’s core asset and a key function of supporting our business. How is this current disruption impacting the way you manage business continuity?

With other types of disruptions, like natural disasters, there’s a specific event that starts and stops, and then we clean up and move forward. Right now, this feels like the longest tornado in history, right? It just keeps going and going, and you not only need to work while it’s happening, but also plan for where it’s going and how it’s hitting.

That’s different from what we typically plan for or respond to. Does crisis response and business continuity usually sit with HR? Probably not, but because our business is so people-centric, HR partnered closely with our leaders to create formalized communications and approaches for our offices in Asia Pacific, and now, globally.

Since RGP’s Asia Pacific offices felt the impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19 first, what can we learn from their experience?

First, there’s a sense of being really uncomfortable that we’re in uncharted waters, even more in Europe and North America than Asia Pac right now. It’s just a headline until your own activities come to a screeching halt and then you realize what your colleagues have already been through. You see individuals hit that point of, “Oh my gosh, I’m in the deep end and I don’t know how to swim.” And you see them adjusting and getting a sense of normalcy.

“There are ebbs and flows of normalcy and change. Expect it, anticipate it, support it.”

Business leaders need to recognize that and allow people to process and get comfortable with it. There are ebbs and flows of normalcy and change. Expect it, anticipate it, support it.

There are things we’re not used to asking our teams, like, “Have you had any of these symptoms, and where have you traveled?” That’s kind of uncharted territory for us, especially in Europe and the United States. But we had to ask to identify those individuals that needed to self-quarantine so we could ensure a safe workplace for everybody else. And in Asia Pac, the responsiveness was really impressive, because they knew instinctively that this was the right call.

On a practical, operational level, we’re looking at implementing some of the alternate working arrangements that our colleagues in Asia Pacific implemented during the H1N1 virus outbreak a few years ago: A/B staffing, for example, where staff A works the first week from the office and the second week from home, and staff B works the opposite schedule. This minimizes the commute to work and makes it possible to maintain social distance in the office. Those are practices that are already familiar to our teams in China and Hong Kong that we’re now starting to explore elsewhere.

How does this experience with the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic change the way companies look at business continuity?

I think it changes everybody’s business continuity plans. It’s no longer about responding to an event; it’s living through an extended, ongoing process. That creates a new type of business continuity plan for any organization. It’s being able to pretty quickly change how your operations work rather than responding to clean up and having cloud-based information.

Some of our clients have asked, “What’s your business continuity plan and is there a risk to you being able to continue to provide services?” Fortunately, we’re already uniquely positioned to respond more quickly because we already work in an agile way. We can shift work to other locations and are poised to work remotely, whether on- or off-site, and we already have experience doing that. For example, we’ve been able to move workstreams from places that have been highly impacted by the coronavirus to other locations. And we’ve picked up work by helping clients who are experiencing an interruption to their own workforce as a result of COVID-19.

“Only 43% of U.S. workers agree that their company or organization has a plan for how they’ll manage the risk associated with the coronavirus.”
Forrester Research

A recent Forrester Research survey revealed that barely half of the employees believe their companies will put their health and wellness first. How can businesses close that confidence gap and instill a greater sense of safety?

Empathetic communication from leadership goes a long way to instill confidence and a sense of virtual camaraderie, as our President and COO Tim Brackney did with a personal message of reassurance to RGP employees: “As we grapple with the immediate blending of work and family, let’s commit to staying connected and to giving each other grace given our new surroundings…then with a growth mindset, let’s embrace it!”

We’ve also held virtual office hours, hosted by the HR Business Partner team, where global leaders were able to hear the company actions and guidance with respect to “the new temporary normal.” Specifically, things like accelerated IT programs to support virtual working and guidance around work from home, office status, deep cleaning protocols and how the company is using external sources to inform RGP-specific business decisions. Overall, there was a sense of similar experiences globally and confidence that the company’s preparedness is allowing our people to keep the business moving without really missing a beat.

We’ve tried to be neutral in tone very purposefully. That doesn’t mean we’re not empathetic to what’s going on. It’s very uncomfortable, but it’s not our place to write the headlines and call attention to that.

Where we can be most helpful is providing a sense of calm, purpose and continuity. In a time that’s already very uncertain, feeling like you’ve got a job to do and a purpose makes it feel a little bit more manageable—it gives you a sense of control. So, our communication should be action-oriented and intentional. We want to provide a sense of confidence both to our clients and to our employees that we are comfortable with our approach and that we can still help you go about your work, even if it’s in a different way.

How is this different from the challenges that we’ve always faced in implementing flexible workforce policies and infrastructure? What are some unanticipated challenges?

While there are studies that show working from home can be more productive, those studies were likely done in a different environment: kids and spouses were not at home, virtual office spaces and connections were already set up, etc. Currently, both partners may be asked to work from home, and schools are closing, and students are learning remotely. We also know there is likely to be a childcare crisis soon, not to mention the need to care for a family member who becomes ill.

These are distractions that have not been taken into account previously, especially not on a long-term basis. We’ve already heard from clients who say they’re distracted because their spouse or adult children are all working from home or who are concerned about how they’re going to manage with their kids home from school. Finding ways to creatively juggle separate workspaces with remote homeschooling and learning taking place right alongside remote work is a novel challenge.

How do you balance those personal needs people have right now with business needs?

We need empathy for the real-life challenges people are facing. They’re going to have kids at home. They’re going to need to work differently. But if you can just allow for that and then let people re-engage—even if it’s in a new and different way—they’ll surprise you with their productivity. So, don’t try to micromanage it, don’t try to worry about it too much. Understand that productivity may look different than it did last month. You could actually end up getting more out of the collective workforce, and they’ll feel better about how they’re contributing to something big.

“Let people re-engage—even if it’s in a new and different way—and they’ll surprise you with their productivity.”

On one hand, you’re going through this from a logical business perspective, and on the other you have the personal aspect of, “Oh, this just hit home.” I think the surprise is how resilient people are. We’re seeing how people can live through this and keep at their work until it hits them personally. There’s a ripple effect where people’s personal scenarios force them to slow down a little bit. Then, you can see them respond to it and get to where they regain a sense of normalcy and purpose, which allows them to feel emotionally and productively engaged again.

We’re all in this together, even if we’re apart.

As this global pandemic forces us apart in many ways, it’s bringing us together in others. People crave human connection and are finding creative ways to foster it. Our leaders and teams are getting together with virtual happy hours, celebrating “Take Your Pet to Work” day from their home offices, and sharing their own experiences of working virtually with colleagues and clients.

When all is said and done, the steps you take now will help prepare your business for the future of work, when it will be vital to empower an agile workforce with both choice and flexibility. As our CEO Kate Duchene says:

“Business agility is an imperative today. This is a moment to take a step back and look at a much larger story that’s emerging: How will people work in the future? What will be the lasting effects of the current crisis? The workplace may never be the same after the pandemic fades from the headlines.”

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