CHROs share lessons from a ‘really challenging year’

Two very different companies with frontline employees offer up how they are coping with the pandemic.
By: | March 18, 2021 • 5 min read

At first blush, Northwell Health and The Parking Spot are about as different as two companies could be. But when the COVID-19 pandemic became reality early last year, both faced unprecedented, albeit different, challenges as the year unfolded.

On Thursday, CHROs at both companies shared their experiences at Spring HR Tech—which is running through March 19; click HERE to register(Note: If you can’t attend live, you can still register to receive on-demand access for 30 days to all the session recordings, resources and tools).

The session, “HR Hot Spots: CHROs Answer Today’s Burning Questions,” was hosted by John Sumser, chief principal analyst at HRExaminer, who sat down with:

  • Maxine Carrington, deputy CHRO at Northwell Health, New York state’s largest healthcare provider and private employer with about 75,000 employees, and
  • Mary Ruberry, chief people officer at The Parking Spot, an off-airport parking provider based in Chicago.

“Mary and Maxine represent organizations that have changed their way of operating because of the pandemic,” Sumser said. “Theirs is not another story of ‘We sent everybody home with their computers.’ ”

In The Parking Spot’s case, the company went from poised for one of its best years to facing bottom-line disaster in late February 2020, when Ruberry said the company realized “this was going to be something big.”

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It immediately formed a COVID crisis team, began searching for PPE, sourcing sanitation and developing strategies for safety, cleanliness and the future of the business, she said.

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What the company didn’t yet realize was that it would have to lay off about 1,700 people in all, the bulk of its workforce. The dual challenge became keeping customers who did travel safe while also figuring out how to shut down operations and, hopefully, prepare for a comeback in 2021.

“We were living in a new world, where we were a skeleton crew,” Ruberry said. For context, she said, the company went from a pre-pandemic high of 78,000 parking stalls nationwide with 85% occupancy to about 1,200 cars on average at the pandemic’s low point.

“It was one of the most devastating things we ever faced,” she said. “Our GMs and management teams in the field literally watched cars leave but never return. We were in survival mode.”

Reducing expenses and planning for a comeback, which Ruberry says has begun, were priorities. The organization shifted focus to engagement, culture and staffing, she said, noting that, with the reduced workforce, for example, an operations officer might pull duty as a cashier.

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Carrington noted similarities between The Parking Spot’s story and Northwell Health’s story, including the emphasis on culture.

Also much like Ruberry and her HR team, Northwell HR immediately went into crisis mode at the start of the pandemic, tapping into its strong emergency management infrastructure.

For example, HR increased its focus on safety and managing supply in partnership with the company’s procurement teams. To do that, Northwell quickly moved its procurement workforce remote to ensure it could handle the demand for PPE as the health provider geared up for the impending onslaught of fighting COVID on the front lines in New York.

“We had to think about how we manage PPE. Do we have enough? So, very quickly we knew we’ve got to send a good portion of our workforce remote to help us manage our PPE and, obviously, for safety reasons,” she said, adding that the company did some innovative things even in the beginning, such as turning to a third party to produce 3D-printed swabs for testing employees.

“Our organization was stressed,” she said, noting that Northwell treated the largest number of positive patients in the nation. “It was a privilege for us to do so, but it certainly was taxing.”

Looking ahead, Carrington cited employee health and safety among her top concerns. Containing costs is another challenge, she said, adding that Northwell spent a lot of money during the crisis.

See also: Marriott HR exec talks COVID-19: ‘It’s been a grueling year’

Finally, she again cited the importance of culture.

“This is the aspect of political and societal—what’s happening out there and are we being responsive to our team members’ needs?” she said. “If we don’t get that right, especially with new generations coming in, it doesn’t set us up [for the future].”

For Ruberry, The Parking Spot has to also contend with demand in the travel industry, as its inevitable comeback is really key to the organization’s future success. She noted that partners in the company’s space likely will not survive the pandemic.

“I think staffing will always be a challenge,” she said, wondering whether employees will want to be around people coming and going from different airports, different countries.

“That may have changed the whole pool of talent that we’re going to try to retain and attract,” she says. “Would they rather work in fast food or in retail and not be around as many people as they’re traveling through the airports?”

Finally, culture is also on her radar.

“I would say that’s one of my big worries is maintaining our culture,” Ruberry said, adding that the longer the organization stays in a cost-constrained environment, the higher the risk of losing talent. “And so that makes me a little nervous.”

In closing, Sumser commended Carrington and Ruberry on how they managed during arguably the toughest workplace crisis most employers will ever experience.

“I always have had this view of the world that the tech companies are at the state of the art and nobody else is,” Sumser said. “And what I learned is that, before the pandemic, but now amplified by the pandemic, frontline organizations that have essential workers in them are operating with the same level of complexity, maybe even ahead of the Silicon Valley firms. This session has been transformative for me.”

Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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