Think your job is hard? From helping to oversee an unprecedented and ever-changing collection of pandemic-era safety measures and workforce policies, all while continuing to recruit new employees and keep existing ones engaged, human resources professionals have been put to the test over the past two years and have emerged more dedicated than ever to supporting their organization’s critical human assets and contributing to their team’s success.
Following, HR professionals from across the industry share their pandemic experiences, the challenges they still face and the importance of their role to achievement of a company’s objectives.
Background and Key Responsibilities
Fran Watkins, Loeb Electric (Columbus, Ohio): Joining Loeb in August 2018 was exciting for me because I had the opportunity to define the contribution and value human resources can bring to an organization that wants the partnership to support the growth and success of the business. Like all senior HR executives, guiding organizational change, tackling the day-to-day needs of our associates and building on the culture and history we’re so fortunate to have at Loeb are my priorities every minute of the day.
Lindsey Cropper, United Electric Supply (New Castle, Delaware): I started at United Electric in talent acquisition, focusing on staffing and promoting United’s employer value proposition. I quickly fell in love with the company and its corporate culture. From there, I became the manager of talent acquisition, which still focused on staffing but also involved more special projects related to compliance in preparation for moving into the vice president role. Now as vice president, I oversee all aspects of human resources, including benefits, talent acquisition, talent development and compliance.
Lezlie Ensor, Milbank (Kansas City, Missouri): I’ve been employed by Milbank for 34 years. I started as the receptionist and worked my way up through various positions to director of HR in 2006, vice president of human resources in 2011 and senior vice president of human resources in 2016. Over the years, I’ve been responsible for all HR functions, both corporate as well as manufacturing. I’ve led the safety team in the past, currently have an eight-person learning development team and also work closely with our VP of manufacturing and plants during collective bargaining for each of our manufacturing locations.
2021: The Year of ‘The Great Resignation’
Ensor: We’ve seen employees quit to stay home with family members (such as children or aging parents), retire early and leave for full-time work-from-home opportunities. The pandemic has made people look at their lives and evaluate what’s important to them. People are putting their health and family first, as they should. They want to do things they’d planned in retirement but no longer want to wait for retirement to do them.
Cropper: COVID-19 forced employees to take stock of their priorities. Folks that haven’t been happy in their current positions are deciding to finally make a move. Employees that haven’t had work/life balance in the past are now making it a priority. Most professionals spend more time in the office than they do at home with their families, so it’s incredibly important for them to feel connected to the work they do and the organization they’re doing it for.
Watkins: I don’t think we experienced the “great resign” at Loeb like other industries. We were defined as an essential business and we continued to have great growth opportunities and success over the last two years, which ensured very stable employment for our associates. While we can point to the pandemic as an event which may have made people think differently about their job/career based on their situation, this has always been true for the many years I’ve been in HR. People look for different things at different points in their lives to help ensure that they remain challenged, feel valued and meet their personal needs. The challenge for us is how to keep pushing ourselves to be better and more flexible/nimble when it comes to reacting to the needs of our associates and customers.
Primary Effects of the Pandemic on the Workforce
Cropper: Emotionally, our workforce has been under an unprecedented amount of stress and their mental health has suffered because of it, so over the past two years we’ve increased our focus on and support of stress management. We’ve also found that it’s been challenging to maintain operations in the current environment; specifically, it’s been hard to hire people and our existing employees are out more due to COVID exposures or illness. We’re in the process of implementing a test-to-stay policy so that we can minimize the amount of time employees are out of the office and reduce some of this strain.
Ensor: We’ve had employees lose family members to the virus. We ultimately implemented a program through a chaplain service that brings a care partner onsite twice a week to help counsel employees—not just on pandemic-related issues, but on any personal issues they want to discuss confidentially with the care partner. They recently visited our plant to help with grief counseling when we had an employee pass away unexpectedly. The employees have been appreciative of this benefit and the participation has exceeded my expectations.
Watkins: Our biggest challenge over the last two years was how to maintain the collaborative work environment that we know makes us so successful while being flexible and accommodating of the needs of our associates. While our office staff worked from home during the first few months of 2020, our operations associates continued to be at work every day delivering exceptional product to our customers. Once the stay-at-home mandate was lifted, we began our return to the office because we knew that this was essential to our success —we’re better together. This was challenging and took longer than I thought it would. We needed to adapt to the ever-changing school schedules for our associates with children, the ongoing safety concerns in the workplace brought about by COVID-19 and just the overall effect the pandemic had on people in terms of how they felt at work and what they needed at home.
New, Unique, Innovative HR Initiatives
Ensor: Because working from home has now been tried and tested and can work for the right positions, employees expect us to continue to offer work-from-home opportunities, so we’ve deployed this in at least a hybrid approach. In the area of employee retention, we’ve focused on communicating with our new hires more often throughout their probationary period. In our manufacturing plants, for example, our training team talks with employees throughout their probation to ensure that they’re not struggling to learn their jobs; if they are, we can catch it early and help get them back on track. Previously during reviews, we focused on where new employees needed to be by the end of their probation, but we found that this is sometimes discouraging because the employee feels like they’re still so far away from that expectation. Now during reviews, our supervisors focus on what’s expected of the employee by the next review; taking that process in smaller increments and additionally having HR check in to ensure that there are no other issues getting in the way of their success helps employees feel more confident in their ability actually make it to the end goal. Elsewhere, recruiting has been a challenge this past year—we hired 430 employees and ended up with a headcount increase of 95 because people are looking at work differently and many chose to stop working in favor of retirement or other options. As a result, we employed recruiting methods that we haven’t had to use in the past. Among them, we used social media, posted billboards on the highways leading to our facilities announcing that we were hiring, participated in local broadcast news segments, recorded radio clips, offered referral bonuses and took the company truck and trailer to El Dorado, Arkansas to hold a job fair, where we did on-the-spot interviews. We also took great measures to maintain a workplace where employees feel safe. While our office staff was able to work from home during COVID, we didn’t have that option for our manufacturing employees, so we had to do everything we could to keep them safe and healthy. Plexiglass dividers were used to help separate people, we staggered breaks and lunches so that fewer employees were congregated together during those times and we allowed employees to take a two-week leave of absence early on in the pandemic because many were afraid to come to work. We started temperature-testing daily and created sanitization programs along with quarantine policies and mask mandates. It’s been a challenge to keep up with all of the CDC guidance and changes and we communicated with employees frequently to ensure that they stayed current on the ever-changing policies.
Watkins: Being adaptable defined the last two years for our HR team. First, the HR team remained at work every day—even during the stay-at-home mandate —to support those associates who were at work and to continue to actively recruit. It was important to show that our business wasn’t slowing down and we also wanted new associates to have the opportunity to work together in person if they wanted to. We continued to conduct in-person interviews because we knew we could show candidates the “sizzle” about what makes Loeb successful, but Teams interviews also became an important tool in our interviewing process, which was new for us. Secondly, I’ve never been so grateful to be in a one-story location (no elevators!). In my entire career, I’ve never spent so much time thinking about where people sit, how close desks are, how many people can be in a conference room at a time, etc. We took measures to eliminate the number of chairs in the breakroom, added plexiglass barriers, scheduled onsite vaccine clinics, came up with creative ways of reminding employees to wash their hands and wear a mask, reached out to associates about how they were feeling and helped determine if they should be at home or in the office.
Cropper: In the area of employee retention, we’ve started using data to identify when employees are leaving in the employee lifecycle; once we identify when the majority of turnover is taking place, we then target programs to help reduce that turnover. We’re also in the process of improving the onboarding experience to help new employees feel connected to the organization faster. And we’ve always promoted that we’re an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) company, which is a big part of our employer value proposition, but we’re now looking at how employees interpret the value and how we can improve understanding.
Major Challenges Facing HR Managers
Cropper: Between the Great Resignation and the tight hiring market, it’s harder than ever before to keep the employees you have and then attract the talent you need. HR professionals need to work with management to ensure that the company culture is positive and that employee engagement is the top focus. Happy and healthy employees don’t leave companies. Succession planning is another challenge and today’s tight labor market is due, in part, to the large number of baby boomers leaving the workforce. HR managers need to pay attention to succession and development to ensure that these retirements don’t cripple the organization.
Ensor: We’re still struggling with recruiting and retention—for Milbank, this is our biggest people challenge right now. Fortunately, COVID is becoming less of an everyday conversation and—fingers crossed—we’re finally, after two years, starting to see this go away. We recently had zero employees out related to COVID, which is the first time in two years that we’ve seen this. Keeping people at work is important right now.
Watkins: There’s no question that retention of our workforce is the biggest challenge. It’s about responding to the needs expressed by associates but also staying ahead of the needs of the business and making sure we have the right associates with the right skills to meet and exceed customer expectations. We need to continue to define and implement the steps we need to take and one focus area will be training and learning. Business technology changes every day and we have many examples just in the last year of where we’re using software we’ve never used before and training in its use to maximize its value. We have to make sure we’re providing the tools associates need to gain expertise and knowledge internally rather than simply relying on finding that elusive candidate from the outside. This takes time, but it’s a necessary investment in our future.
How to Gain a Sustainable Competitive Advantage
Ensor: At Milbank, growth and development is an important part of our culture and investing in our employees’ growth and development can lead to greater engagement and retention. Growth and development are the number one drivers of engagement for millennials and this investment is critical if we’re serious about retention. To respond, we’ve developed a program to develop future leaders and are developing a supervisor program for new supervisors. We’re also always watching for opportunities to assist our employees in reaching their career goals through development and mentoring and view the opportunity to mentor our teams as both a privilege and a responsibility. To quote Higgins in Ted Lasso, “A good mentor hopes you will move on. A great mentor knows you will.” It’s our job to prepare employees for whatever their next role is, even if it’s outside of our company.
Watkins: Starting with an internal focus on training and learning, HR can then effectively help the organization reinvent roles, jobs and structure and redeploy associates in different roles to meet changing business needs. Our structure today isn’t the same as when I joined Loeb in 2018; we tell candidates all the time that our business is fluid, we change as we need to and we’ll create a new job where one didn’t exist before. I’ve always believed that HR is a business-driven function and that it’s my job to influence policies and decisions to support the needs of the business, but the company has to embrace HR as its business partner to be successful.
Cropper: Our only sustainable competitive advantage is the people within our organization. It’s important to have a strong company culture so that those employees feel connected to the organization. As human resource professionals, we serve as defenders of the culture so that employees are engaged and can better serve their customers.