Adapting to Remote Work: An HR Perspective

Adapting to Remote Work: An HR Perspective

We've been hearing from many of our customers about how best to make this transition and still maintain high-performing teams. We felt this was an important topic to facilitate and to hear how other leaders have successfully adapted their companies to remote workforces. One of those is Lance Emery, who is the North American human resources leader for Willis Towers Watson based in Chicago. Here is what Lance had to say at a roundtable event.

How did the shift to 100 percent remote work impact your business from an information technology readiness and security aspect?

We're a professional services organization, so most of our colleagues had the ability to work from home already. However, I don't think we were quite prepared for the onslaught of VPN usage.

We needed a refresher on training colleagues on when it's appropriate to be on the VPN and when you should sign off. For example, don't overdo looking at videos. Think about the size of your messages, just so we can reserve that VPN capacity for our client work. So that took a lot of training and just regular reporting and getting our teams together to say 'Here's where we are'. We're nearing capacity currently. Can we start using other servers around the world?

The other thing we really had to think differently about was onboarding colleagues from an IT perspective.

How do you enable somebody with a laptop if they can't go into the office? We can fast forward on some technology that allows people to access systems using their own laptops, and we're using that for some of our interns.

I think this summer will be spent figuring out a new way of working so we don't have to invest in the cost moving forward. So training, by far, is the most important thing that we had to do from an IT perspective.

Did you experience a change and shift in priorities that had to be immediately addressed by the business?

I think for the most part, most of our roles could be done virtually, as we are seeing our clients all the time.
But one of our core values for our company is 'clients first'. So, we are going to do whatever we can to bring you the best and brightest, and a lot of that means collaboration.

Now all these people cannot be in the office any longer and collaborate or meet in huddle rooms. I've just been proud of what I've seen, like the creativity that people are doing to come together.

Some people suddenly had four kids from ages four to 10 that were at home and not at school and they're doing e-learning. These parents had to take on a second career in teaching. So how do we allow those colleagues to not have to take PTO instead? Maybe they work off-hours and still be part of the team.

I think there's a little bit more understanding about somebody who might be taking off from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. off, then coming in late at night.

Are there other measures that you put in place for working from home or preventative things that you were working on prior to this happening?

I'm going to jump on the business continuity train here because we have a strong global team. And thankfully they saw this starting to happen in China and start to spread. So, when the global business continuity team already started putting travel restrictions out, we were able to flag colleagues immediately who had traveled to us through infected areas to make sure that they were being quarantined. We had some guidelines in advance and were able to learn from what other countries were doing before the United States was impacted.

What's interesting is when we were setting up all these teams originally, somebody joked, 'Oh yeah, what's this incident management team?' You don't realize how important it is until you're actually in it. And now I think people are going to be asking, who's on your incident management teams moving forward and do you have the right people that can make decisions?

Any thoughts on how companies might be addressing morale and culture change with changing workloads?

I think there are three things I'm seeing related to this:

One, I don't think people are as afraid to go on video. Before, people would put a piece of tape over their cameras to make sure they didn't accidentally turn on. Now, they are not afraid to be on camera, which I think is bringing people closer together.

The other thing I'm seeing is that some people are really enjoying working from home. They didn't fully realize that it takes an hour to drive to downtown Chicago and now they're more productive and getting more work done.

They might miss the water cooler talks, but you know they didn't realize how much time they were spending walking around the office.

So, does this mean whenever we get back to whatever the new normal is, are we going to have more people say, 'Hey, can I work from home part-time? I enjoy this. This is actually working for me.'

And then you have the flip side where some people always thought they wanted to work from home, but then realize their one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park is not going to do it. They're feeling trapped and miss human interaction. They might be coming in more. So, I think all companies are going to have to deal with what that new normal looks like. And what flexibility they're going to offer because I really do think that colleagues, whenever they're looking for new opportunities or looking to join your organization, it's a question, they're going to ask you, 'how did you manage through this? What did you learn from it? What opportunities do you have for colleagues to be flexible moving forward?'

I think that's really going to change the culture and a lot of companies that maybe didn't have to address it formally in the past, now it's going to need to be part of their culture forever.

Seeing leaders put themselves on video and be comfortable with showing what their home office looks like is great. A few months ago, I started sending a weekly episode' via email to my team. I'd start off with some business clips, things that they need to be paying attention to. Then I said okay, now the fun stuff. I always have a section on what's cooking in my house, give recipes and show pictures of my family doing things like gardening, exercising, games. It makes us human, and people need to have that connection to say they're going through the same thing. I think it pulls us together and makes us better leaders to be that open to say 'Hey, it's impacting me, too.'

There's also the part about accountability and how you know how you're measuring your teams. Have you found the right recipe for metrics to measure your team?

I don't think people should be jumping to changing what their standard metrics are, because we don't know what the next couple of months should look like. It's going to vary business by business and even within your different business practices. In fact, some parts of our business are the busiest they have been in a long time.

We have a human capital part of our business, which is booming right now because we have a lot of tools that can help. There are other parts of the business that are not as busy. Not to say that I want people to adjust their sales goals or their billable hours goals yet; just don't jump on it too quickly, because we don't know what the next couple of months are going to be like.

Recruiting is a great example of this. We have slowed down our recruiting, but our recruiters have taken the opportunity to start new projects, clean up data, do sourcing, and start looking at potential candidates in the future --- things that maybe they didn't have the opportunity to do before. But now they have the time.

We've talked about training throughout this. This is a perfect opportunity if people have the capacity. Get that training done and start building your own skills because so much of this training is now available online and a lot of it is free.

Sustainable Pace: Are you able to find a happy medium and prevent burnout?

I think we are. But what I think we're finding are unique groups that need some extra support and we've been really working through our inclusion and diversity teams to provide this. Two examples stand out.

First, working parents. It's always been a group that we've had. We've got these people together to discuss how they're balancing their lives, and now it means even more. How are you keeping your kids occupied? Is there something that you can do to introduce the kids to what you're doing?

The other group that's emerging as needing support are the baby boomers. A lot of times they might feel isolated; maybe they're empty nesters or even living alone. And work was the one thing that brought them around other people. They may not be able to come right in when we reopen.

So how are we engaging that group? We have a team working on that. Because it's a bigger population than you think about and they really do feel isolated. A lot of this can be found in our benefits section. Some of you have employee assistance programs that may have additional resources available to us to start exploring. But there's so much online as well from a resource standpoint that's free.

When we find these things, we're trying to make them public. We have a  page on our intranet where we try and direct everybody to that includes tips from working from home to how to make your computer setup better for you, how to balance your work day, how to occupy your kids, and how to occupy your aging parents.

What do you think the new normal will look like?

I'm glad you said the new normal. Because I don't think we will go back to what normal was before. We have a task force that we set up to explore what that looks like now that we have experimented with flexibility. Does this mean we need to have less of a footprint in an office? Can we do more virtually that reduces costs and maybe even improve employee engagement?

I think what we need to be doing is looking at what we've learned over the past few months. Don't be so quick to go back, but if you have the health and safety of your colleagues at the forefront of your decision-making, you'll make the right ones. You've got to think about what transportation will look like for them. Would you be comfortable getting on the metro right now in a crowded train? Do they have childcare if the schools are still closed? If a colleague is working effectively from home, let them continue, especially if they like it. I think every company is going to have a different variety of what the new normal looks like, but I would really struggle to see that anything is going back to the normal that we knew a few years ago.

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