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Podcast Length Icon 40:56 7 Sep 2020

The HR world post-COVID-19

What can HR professionals do when an employee is going to tell them that they can not wear a mask at work because of anxiety reasons? In this episode, we are joined by Suzanne Lucas, the Evil HR Lady. Suzanne and Agnes chat about the particular challenges HR professionals encountered during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, her take on flexible working and teleworking, and how she sees the evolvement of the post-pandemic work and workplaces. They also touch upon the Black Lives Matter movement and discrimination at work.

What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Suzanne - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight! To know more about the work of the Evil HR Lady or sign up for his daily blog please visit her website here.

Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you very much, Suzanne, for joining me today on this podcast conversation, we are happy to have you.

Suzanne Lucas: I am happy to be here!

Agnes Uhereczky: So, let’s dive into the topic of COVID-19, spring 2020, where the world was grounded to a halt, with a total lockdown implemented in many countries across sectors. And, as I just learned from you before the podcast conversations, that a lot of the responsibility for dealing with this situation landed on the tables of HR professionals, right?

Suzanne Lucas: Absolutely. When you think about all the things that are going on such as shutting down businesses and reopening businesses that is where HR falls front and centre. HR is the one that has to make sure that you (organisations) comply with laws and regulations, they are the ones that deal with employee consent, they are the ones that make sure that people are being paid properly according to the local laws, and when someone has concerns for example after the reopening of businesses with coming into the offices as says: “look I don’t feel comfortable coming into work because the only way I can get there is to ride public transport which I don’t feel it safe” that falls on the lap of HR.

In normal times when you have a problem it is something that someone has dealt with in the past so you can ask a friend or mentor who would have information about it, or you can Google and there will be an article written about it, or you can figure out what’s the best practice from there. With this it is all-new, we have never had a time when everything shuts down all the same time. And we have never had a time when everything needed to open up and with all of these new rules with social distancing, masks and handwashing and all of those things.

All this is new, and HR has to figure it out.

Agnes Uhereczky: I spoke to large companies in terms of how they were coping with the situation and I learned from several different ones, such as SAP, that they had this big cross-country, cross-department COVID-19 task forces put together. So you had a sense of community and peer learning, but those HR people who work at small businesses or in more rural areas, they must feel a little bit isolated and with heavy responsibility.

Suzanne Lucas: Absolutely. Because a lot of small businesses have one or two HR people, or a lot of small businesses have zero people, and there isn’t someone who could lean on. One of the things that I have seen to be fantastic is the HR community as a whole reaching out to one another and helping each other through this. I have seen a lot of the online HR communities really blossom and work together with each other to bounce ideas off and to share what they have done and be helpful. And that has been a great thing to see that people came together when it’s been a very difficult time.

Agnes Uhereczky: What would you say were the biggest challenges for HR people to solve? I imagine you have received so many questions just in the past couple of months. But did you see a pattern of the issues that were causing the biggest headaches?

Suzanne Lucas: Well, some of the biggest headaches are that nobody could have made up their mind including countries or the WHO. For example, the WHO went back and forth back and forth on the question of the use of masks. They went back and forth on whether COVID-19 is contagious to persons, which we know that it is now, but at the beginning, they said it wasn’t. And, your HR person who is not a scientist trying to guess as to what needs to happen, and how to put this together. Besides, every morning you wake up and there is new guidance. Because scientists can't agree, and the governments can't agree, a lot of countries that are operating across multiple borders have to come up with entirely different sets of rules for their different offices because countries can't agree on what is and what isn't important. That is a stressful thing. Add to it things like employee pay and whether people are eligible for unemployment pay, or if the company needs to be paying if they are furloughed, or how do you deal with childcare with all schools being shut down. All of these things just are incredibly difficult and they land on HR.

Agnes Uhereczky: Would you say that there was a leap forward in terms of organisations, employers understanding about the vulnerability of their employees in the sense that, I find that we still zip on some kind of professional persona and outfit when we go to work, and we leave a lot of who we are behind. But now, as you say, colleagues and team leaders got a glimpse in the lives of people. Do you think that this, however, even though it was really difficult, this glimpse into people’s lives is going to have a lasting mentality shift about how we think of the employees, as not just ideal workers, but a whole person?

Suzanne Lucas: I hope that it will allow us to see people as a whole. There is one thing that is exposed for a good thing, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in that a lot more jobs can be done from home than anybody thought before. The other thing that comes out of this as positive is that we learnt what agility is. It is a term we like to talk about in business and HR, and talk about how agile our company is, but the finding of what exactly it means has always been a little bit murky. Now, we have the chance to see exactly what it means to be agile. We watched companies overnight switch things around. That is agility. They may not have been at conferences earlier saying look at our great agile programmes but they did switch.

Schools switched from brick and mortar to online literally within 48 hours. For example, at my daughter's school, the shutdown started on Monday and by Tuesday all classes were up and running on Zoom. That is an advantageous thing. We have also seen a mentality shift towards teleworking; that when employees said that “Look I have a disability and it requires me to work at home” to which businesses often replied to “No, your job can’t be done from home”. Now and forevermore they are not going to be able to say that with a bunch of jobs. They can look back and say that “Look that we had in these 3-4 months, this job was done from home without any problem, so you can’t tell me that this doesn't work for me to work from home”. This is something that has opened a lot of eyes, and management circles, and hopefully will lead to people seeing their employees more as human and less as “we need to do this in this way because this is the way we have always done it”. In some cultures, for example, in Switzerland, where I sit in, tradition is king. So “this is the way we need to do this, because this is the way we have always done it” is a super Swiss thing to say. This force has changed and nobody can say now: “well this is the only way to do it because this is how we have done it for 500 years”. After all, suddenly we had to do it differently and it turned out we could.

Agnes Uhereczky: In addition to that I also think that the view about working from home to be some kind of perk or reward was thrown out the window and became an essential instrument in business continuity.

Suzanne Lucas: Yes, and there are a bunch of people that learned through this who said that they don’t like working from home. And you know what, that is okay! It is okay to say “I function better getting up in the morning, showering, getting dressed and going into an office”. People learnt that there are people who said that “I cannot wait to get back to the office, this is horrible”. Other people said that “this is an area I can thrive in, having a little bit more flexibility”. Then, some people learned the downside of working from home and is that you never feel like you are done with work. It is always there, there is no separation between your private and professional life. It is always hanging over your shoulders and that can be difficult. It can be nice to walk out of the door at the end of the day and say “I am done, whatever problems appear, I will deal with it at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning”. If you are working from home it is much harder to have that boundary, and that can be a difficult thing that some people have learnt.

Agnes Uhereczky: Looking into the future, how do you see this new normal? What is it going to look like? And what kind of challenges this new reality is going to pose to HR people?

Suzanne Lucas: Again, we are going to have continued challenges with rules and regulations. One of the things the Swiss government has done is that it will not shut down the whole country again. But if there are outbreaks in certain areas, regions, towns they will shut those down. So, while I agree that this makes a lot more sense than shutting down an entire country, from a business standpoint, if you are operating in multiple locations, you have got to be able to jump in and out of production. And you have got to figure out a situation when, for instance, there are certain outbreaks in some regions where a company has to shut down production in Zürich, for example. Can the Geneva office do that work? Does the organisation need to put things on pause? Those types of things are going to be big challenges. So, this is going to be an ongoing problem.

You still get a lot of people working from home which is good and bad and as I said earlier, some people thrive in a work from home environment, and some people absolutely do not. Some jobs are done easily from home, and some jobs just aren't as good. It is possible to do them from home, but if you are, for example, in a creative field where there is a lot of back and forth with coworkers, that is harder to do over a Zoom meeting. So you are still gonna be dealing with those kinds of things. None of that is going away, and we all have the common burden of not knowing what is going on here, and will we ever be virus-free again.

Agnes Uhereczky: I wanted to also ask you something else, and tap into your insight and your sensitivity of listening and following trends and translating that for people professionals and the HR world. I wanted to bring up the Black Lives Matter movement because it is a very current and important development that has spilled over to lots of other countries than the US. So, I wanted to ask you whether you think this flame is going to burn and have a lasting effect and in what way HR and people professionals need to open their minds, ears or hearts and maybe take in some of these messages that are coming.

Suzanne Lucas: This is a complicated subject and you may get people to come after you with pitchforks after I speak. There are a couple of really big problems going on. One is that you see companies virtue signalling; they change their company web page so there are Black Lives Matter slogans or banners on the top. You also have polling after streaming services with particular focus on what we would consider now offensive. Those things are really easy to do. It takes five minutes to have your IT guys go in and put a Black Lives Matter banner on the top of your website. It takes five minutes to have your IT guys go and delete season 3 episode 23. It is so easy, and it doesn't mean anything. It doesn’t make any lasting change.

I see a lot of companies doing this virtue signalling things while they are not changing their internal problems and not dealing with cultural differences. When we are talking globally it is very different compared to the US where the movement has begun and some of the global differences we can see. For example, I am an American and I live in Switzerland. In America, the Black Lives Matter marches many of them turned violent. In my town here in Switzerland we had a Black Lives Matter march. There were 5000 people and there was nothing left on the ground. That is a huge cultural difference. For Swiss people, it would never occur to any of them to do anything violent. Those movements across the world are going to be seen very very differently.

You are going to have conflicted employees because while everyone agrees with the principle that Black Lives Matter, the movement itself is not uncontroversial. Some of the things they are promoting are not that everybody agrees with. The problem is the phrasing they use and if you say “I disagree with Black Lives Matter movement” what people here are “I am a racist”. Those things are not true. It puts companies into a tight spot because you have activists screaming at you if you don’t put up this banner and if you try to just remain neutral in what you are doing. Right now in the US, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has chosen to just remain neutral and there is a large group of members that are doing petitions and protesting, saying that the Society needs to support the Black Lives Matter movement. You are seeing that division within companies and organisations. It is not an easy thing, it is not going to be a solution. The solutions that companies are offering - operating now, for example, with a banner on their website - is not a solution. That doesn't change anything.

Agnes Uhereczky: Would you say that it would be more honest to say that companies and employers declare and highlight their values that we are going to audit our organisations for racism and discrimination and should they encounter instances they would then address them and try to change the environment.

Suzanne Lucas: That would take real work and that is hard. The thing is with hard work that it is not instantaneous. So if you say “let's look at our company and run a pay audit and make sure that we are paying everybody fairly, and not based on discrimination or race” or “let’s look at where we are located and does our staff reflect our society”. Because a lot of things that you have to realize is that straight numbers doesn’t necessarily mean, for example, if your population is 15% black, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have 15% black people in your organisation. Because it depends on what the skill sets are of that segment of the population. In a lot of places in Europe and especially the black population are first and second-generation immigrants, and it's not like that they have been through the same school systems as the white students within that population. This takes a couple of generations for people to build that up. So you can ask the questions of what is our company doing to support education so that students of all races are receiving a quality education. And that is a lot harder but has a longer-lasting impact on making things fair for everyone. So to go in and say “our test scores are lower, or this percentage of people are getting into the top-level programme, what’s keeping that up from being the same across all races” are great questions to start with. The answers could include cultural issues, teachers discriminating, the fact that we are not giving children support in the early years, or that we are not giving parents support in the early years.