How COVID-19 has altered HR leadership

Financial services firm Edward Jones has long been familiar with stress tests, when regulators subject a financial institution to all sorts of pressure to see how it will hold up and react to harsh conditions. But COVID-19, says Kristin Johnson, chief human resources officer at Edward Jones, has been the ultimate stress test for the firm.

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“Those stress tests are hypothetical. The ones we lived through is all too real,” Johnson said at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. (All sessions are still available on-demand. Register here.) “The [pandemic] stressed us in more ways than we could have imagined. We had to find new ways to work and new places to work practically overnight. Our associates had to strike a different home-work balance, juggling the demands of a job while protecting their family and making sure their children were still getting an education.”

Kristin Johnson, Edward Jones CHRO

Although it’s been a difficult year, Johnson says it also brought new opportunities for better serving employees and rethinking leadership.

“As human resources executives, we were in the thick of everything, which is appropriate because the pandemic, at its heart, is a human crisis,” she said. “It made us more aware than ever how much value we place on human connection and relationships.”

For Edward Jones, that focus on connection and employee relationships came in the form of new benefits and programs, and a heightened focus on employee health and wellness. Among the changes the company made due to the pandemic were providing 10 extra COVID days off–because Johnson said “we didn’t want any of our colleagues to choose between their careers and their families”; waiving deductibles for testing and treatment of COVID-19; adding programs for emotional and mental health; and giving an additional number of free mental health visits, made available for all employees. For parents, the company also provided tips and resources to navigate virtual learning and homeschooling.

“We had to step up our game when the pandemic struck,” Johnson said.

The firm also became intentional about employee connection, which was tough as the majority of employees have moved remote because of the pandemic. To combat that, Johnson also began “coffee chats”–which she hosts twice a week with a partner from the organization for all of its 49,000 employees. The chats welcome different guests to talk about a variety of subjects–best practices on emotional health, for example, or a business topic for their branch teams. “We started the coffee chats because we heard from colleagues just how cut off they were feeling and it was vital that we stay connected,” she said.

“The pandemic has reinforced the idea that when it comes to taking care of employees, the best approach is a holistic one,” Johnson said. “Our people have many needs, and we need to address them all if we expect them to give their best.”

In the future, Johnson said, the company will take these lessons and let employee feedback and employee engagement survey results help guide them on benefit and program changes.

The pandemic helped bring new leadership qualities to the forefront. “To succeed during COVID, we need to display qualities that aren’t always associated with leadership–empathy and vulnerability,” she said. Those qualities were also vital to addressing the racial and social unrest that plagued the nation over the last year, she said.

Although it was the toughest time of her career, Johnson said the last year has been an important shift–one that she thinks will, and should, continue for company and HR leaders across the nation, she told attendees.

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“We are moving from a know-it-all mentality to a learn-it-all-mindset,” she said. “Going forward, one of the biggest risks we face is assuming that what has worked for you in the past will continue to work in the years ahead.”

The HBLC session will be available on-demand until June 11, click here to view the entire session.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.