2020 NAHR fellows

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Carol Surface, chief human resources officer at Medtronic

HRE: What is your outlook on remote work? Do you think it will survive on a widespread basis after the pandemic?

Carol Surface

Surface: I believe a new model of productive work, and where it’s done, will be one of the outcomes of the impact of COVID-19. Of course, it will depend on the business context. If you design and produce products, employees will likely need to be on site to develop and manufacture them. However, for companies that have at least a portion of their workforce working remotely, that will likely continue in some form. I don’t see us going back to pre-pandemic work expectations. What will emerge is a new hybrid work experience, where employees have greater flexibility to determine when they work on site versus remote. This flexibility will be an important part of the value proposition, and the best talent will be attracted to employers that can meet this new expectation.

HRE: How has the pandemic reshaped technology’s role in the HR function?


Surface: The pandemic has exponentially increased the number of employees working remotely. In many cases, the workday has expanded and live interaction within traditional work hours no longer meets the needs and expectations of most employees. If the HR function isn’t already leveraging robotic process automation, AI, virtual chatbots and other ways to deliver core HR programs and processes 24/7, the impact of COVID-19 is accelerating the need for the function to make those investments. The pandemic is also reshaping how HR uses technology to support critical employee health and wellbeing priorities like safety-related phone applications to support contact tracing and social distancing. The HR function has even closer partnerships with IT and communications teams to leverage technology in new ways that keep employees connected, engaged and productive.

HRE: Burnout and depression are rampant among American workers during the pandemic; what is HR’s responsibility in this regard? And how does it differ from the historical HR approach to mental health?

Surface: Before the pandemic, HR’s focus has been to ensure healthcare benefits and employee assistance programs appropriately supported mental and physical health and wellbeing. Today, mental health is at the forefront of the decisions we make and has expanded well beyond a responsibility of HR to a top consideration for many CEOs and business leaders. There is a realization that employees are dealing with a range of anxiety-producing and stress-related issues that include everything from the impact of isolation to fears about personal and family safety. If these facets of mental health are underestimated or ignored by employers, we will fail in providing the level of support required for employees to be productive contributors to their companies and communities. The entire employee experience agenda has taken a new position and top consideration. Topics like burnout and depression are proactively discussed and considered, and HR is taking meaningful actions to ensure managers and employees are equipped to have the right level of conversation, intervention and support.

HRE: What should HR leaders be doing to advance the conversation around diversity and inclusion?

Surface: I think HR leaders need to focus on a few key areas:

  • Ensuring the CEO and senior leaders authentically believe inclusion and diversity is a business strategy, not an HR strategy. Our leaders need to be able to articulate the compelling case for why inclusion and diversity matters to the organization beyond it being “the right thing to do.”
  • Driving accountability at every level of leadership with meaningful incentives and consequences that shape behavior and outcomes. This is enabled through role clarity among business leaders, talent management, HR, and inclusion and diversity teams. Everyone should know what outcomes they are expected to deliver.
  • Integrating inclusion and diversity into all core talent programs and processes.
  • Measuring and monitoring progress over time, including the degree to which employees feel a sense of belonging. Companies that are ineffective at sustaining an inclusive environment will not be able to retain diverse talent long-term.

HRE: The role of HR has changed dramatically in 2020. What are the most important skill sets HR leaders of tomorrow will need to fulfill those roles?

Surface: This year has presented us with a series of significant challenges and no playbook. The ability to identify and respond to external trends that we may not have experienced before—carefully assessing and evaluating the implications of different actions across multiple stakeholders like employees, customers, shareholders and the broader community—will be imperative. Courage, transparency, optimism and empathy remain timeless leadership skills. Higher levels of digital and marketing acumen will also be important to deliver on the consumer-grade experience that employees increasingly expect at work, especially related to core HR processes. Overall, this year has taught us the importance of collaboration across multiple disciplines like medical affairs, communications, IT, operations, legal and government affairs, to write the playbook together.

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