How COVID-19 has spotlighted HR’s strategic value

Here’s the secret about strategic HR planning and implementation: It not only sets your company up for short- and long-term financial success, but it also lets you be ready for the unexpected. Like, for example, a global pandemic.

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Roll back the clock to April 2019, when Jane Elliott became senior vice president and chief HR officer at Deluxe Corp. The 105-year-old company invented the first printed check and continues selling them to consumers today. It has also expanded its offerings to a variety of products, services and technology solutions for 4.8 million small businesses and 5,100 financial institutions around the world.

“I have always believed that people are our most important asset, no matter what kind of company you have,” says Elliott, whose three-decade career includes not just HR but also accounting, finance, investor relations and business operations. “Therefore, it’s very important to tie HR to the overall strategy.”

Related: How HR is becoming the heart of the organization

Deluxe’s president and CEO Barry McCarthy hired Elliott to re-strategize the company from a people point of view. With an organization that grew from 50 acquisitions in seven years, the challenge, McCarthy told her, was “not for the faint of heart.”

Under the company’s One Deluxe strategic plan, the highly siloed organization transitioned to four new business segments–payments, cloud solutions, promotional solutions and checks–and Elliott led the transformation to build a culture of development and learning to fuel business growth.

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The management structure was flattened from seven professional layers to four, and the HR team implemented a quarterly performance process, talent development management and succession plans, and an online professional development series called REDTalks (a take on the company’s logo color and TEDTalks-style presentations).

Meanwhile, HR launched a company-wide wellness program, a standardized benefits program and systems, a company-wide parental-leave program that included all parents, and its first inclusion and diversity strategy and employee resource groups, to name a few.

The HR goal, Elliott says, has been to develop a high-performance culture to support the company’s financial goals and put Deluxe onto “best places to work” lists.

And then a novel coronavirus changed the whole world.

HRE: Did the pandemic raise any HR initiatives to the top?

Jane Elliott

Elliott: When I first arrived at the company, the [former] CHRO was trying to get a work-from-home/flexible work policy passed. [Until then,] it was very manager-specific: If somebody wanted to work one day a week from home, they could. We had all these exceptions, with about 750 employees working from home, and they weren’t all in sales. You can’t have this happening and then not have a policy. We had done a market research study and small focus groups internally and then COVID-19 happened. We literally moved 3,000 people to work from home overnight. I’m like, “I think we really need that policy now.” So, fortunately for us, we’d literally done all the work. We were incredibly happy to get over the finish line because work is going to change, right? We are not all going to being physically [located in a company facility]. People are going to end up doing something different. I think that is the trend.

HRE: And you’ve said that the employee resource groups became valuable later on. How was that?

Elliott: We had already implemented employee resource groups [before the pandemic began] and got employees involved. We set up an ERG task force that developed a framework, charters and an internal intranet site for posting things. We have ERGs for African Americans, women, veterans, LGBTQ, LatinX and working parents. These groups were based either on our demographics or because of expressed interest. They show how employees are feeling now and that they can make a difference.

[At the beginning of 2020,] we asked, what were we not doing? We had a bunch of floating holidays but Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn’t an actual holiday. The ERG proposed a wonderfully written reason why MLK Day should be a day off, and Barry [the CEO] and I did a vlog giving credit to the ERG. We were unable to give the day off this year because of timing but we celebrated a whole week of MLK Day.

See also: How to keep employees connected to EAPs and other resources

This came in handy when George Floyd died because, by now, the ERGs were cemented. They understood that they had a lot of say, and it served us in a wonderful way to help our employees deal with all the anger and anguish that has been going on in the last few months.

They hosted a “Let’s Talk” session shortly after Floyd’s death [the company is headquartered in Shoreview, Minn., near Minneapolis] and then Ahmaud Arbery’s death in Atlanta [where Deluxe has operations as well]. It was meant to be raw, so folks could have a safe space to share their grief, anger and sadness. Barry and I hosted a session with them a couple of days later. We have a communication titled, “Deluxe will be part of the solution.” We provided two additional volunteer days for folks to go out and help their neighbors clean up the city. We gave $1 million out of our operating budget to a foundation earmarked to combat racism and social injustice. As a result of all that, we now have a task force to really accelerate a true inclusion and diversity strategy, so we can publicly and internally say these are our strategies and these are our goals and report on them.

HRE: Your company has provided essential services throughout the pandemic and continues to follow guidance from the various states and countries where Deluxe operates. What do you think the next months will be like?

Elliott: Keeping up has been the most difficult thing, as states [and Canada and Ireland] come out with additional requirements, such as temperature taking. We’ve got that down [and] we’re requiring everybody to wear masks. Some of our spaces have been reconfigured for social distancing. Kids not being able to go back to school physically is going to be our next challenge. We were very lenient in the beginning, like if you had to deal with your child because of [remote] learning, we flex-scheduled. We introduced crisis payoff, which means if you thought you were exposed (and, in the beginning, there weren’t enough tests) with an abundance of caution, we said, “Just stay home and we will pay you for two weeks’ work time and we won’t count it against your PTO.” That was really beneficial for the employees because we didn’t want them to feel like they had to come in if they weren’t feeling well.

HRE: On a personal note, how would you describe yourself and your approach to your work?

Elliott: I am very, very honest, loyal, reliable and I get stuff done. If I know what you want to try to get to, then I’m all in.

I love to surround myself with people who are way smarter than me. Collectively, teams are able to achieve so much more than just one or two people and so my approach would be a democracy. I bring change to the forefront for the team to consider and then we brainstorm. I’m a facilitator, a connector. I’m not a micromanager.

I want to make sure people can achieve and be their best. If somebody is in a role that is not exactly great for them but they’re very good at something, I’m good at figuring that out and then giving that person an opportunity to shine in something different.

I want folks to be successful, and my goal is to make sure they have every opportunity in front of them to make sure they can succeed and that they have risen to the challenge.

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected].