How culture helped this org ‘pull through the storm’ of COVID

While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on many organizations and their workforces, some are looking to the silver linings for inspiration. PMI Worldwide, for instance–a global manufacturer of food and beverage containers–is taking pride that 2020-21 was its most charitable year: Apart from “robust” cash gifts, the organization donated more than 100,000 products to healthcare and emergency workers and brought a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion to charitable giving, says PMI Chief People Officer Tammy Perkins.

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“It made us feel proud, like we could have a positive impact, even from the isolation of our own pods,” she says, noting the charitable commitment helped the organization demonstrate its core value of “creating a better world”–heightening employees’ connection to organizational purpose. People and culture were also at the forefront of the organization’s forward-thinking, agile business decisions, she says, “which helped our company go bigger and win business in the uncertain environment that the pandemic created. This was centering and calming for our team–knowing that we could pull through the storm together.”

That sense of resolve and confidence is persisting, she says, as the company envisions a post-COVID world.

Perkins, who previously held HR leadership roles at Fjuri, Appen, Microsoft, Amazon and Sitel, among others, recently shared how the organization is looking to bring the successes of the past year-and-a-half into the company’s future.

HRE: How have your HR priorities shifted since the start of the pandemic?

Tammy Perkins

Perkins: The pandemic has not changed PMI’s core HR priorities, but it has altered what we emphasize; for example, we’ve long been committed to continuously developing our culture and communication strategy. Direct, transparent, ongoing communication anchors trust in leadership’s relationship with our employees. The pandemic has solidified our commitment to refining and streamlining our communication strategy.

A renewed focus on people insights allowed us to get a clear picture of what was working and what was not. It helps leaders to know what to celebrate and prioritize and where to go deeper. Three essential questions to ask: Are we seeing a moment in time or a theme? Is this specific to an individual, team, region, or is it organization-wide? What action is most valuable? Recognize that people insights come from various inputs, teaching leaders to genuinely listen.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

The pandemic affects all of our employees. Acknowledging this and building a communication strategy around alleviating our team’s anxiety builds a deeper connection. We enhanced our employee experience by creating a flexible, empathetic environment. When we can ease some of their concerns, we create a more productive culture.

HRE: How have employee expectations of PMI Worldwide changed throughout the last year?

Perkins: Employees’ need for assurance and connection has been more pronounced during the pandemic. Our employees have been eager, for example, to know that their jobs and their company are secure. They welcome updates, so they know what to expect. Employees appreciate having opportunities to voice their concerns and share their feedback.

When leaders communicate transparently and listen empathetically, it builds trust. Our employees trusted PMI’s leadership team and looked to us to demonstrate vision, set goals and show strength. This helped us generate a clear business road map in the darkest moments of 2020.

Employees expect our policies, practices and processes to evolve as we learn and as circumstances change. Employees are managing their own wellbeing, but they also expect more work/life balance support from the company.

HRE: What is PMI Worldwide doing to stem the tide of the women’s exodus from the workforce?

Perkins: We recognize that diversity, inclusion and belonging must stay front and center for PMI to succeed. That means providing each of our employees with equal job and development opportunities. To that end, we are committed to having more women in recruiting shortlists. Our aim is to elevate women within PMI, especially in leadership positions.

In 2020, PMI launched “Strong Her,” a women’s leadership and empowerment network intended to accelerate the progress of women through workplace inclusion. This volunteer network, open to all employees, strives to unleash potential, magnify business contributions and increase women’s representation at all job functions and levels. Our Parents Network is another employee experience solution to help foster a sense of belonging for PMI moms and dads. We find fun and easy activities for our PMI parents to do with their kids as work/life balance is more blended.

We’ve found that to fully include our working moms, especially during the pandemic, we need to extend as much flexibility and adaptability as much as possible. These are far greater retention tools than even compensation.

HRE: Has your own approach to HR leadership changed throughout your career? If so, how?

Perkins: The global crisis was a test in HR leadership without a playbook. My approach has evolved during the pandemic. When facing tough decisions, it’s OK to pause and consider your options, but you need to decide quickly while navigating with ambiguity and uncertainty.

As HR leaders, we influence and reinforce culture. We position individuals and teams to thrive–my approach to HR leadership is as a champion for development and business outcomes. I love helping others unleash their potential. As the chief people officer, I wear many hats: I’m an advisor to the CEO. I coach leaders across the globe and lead a team. My job is to make decisions that help us create a culture where everyone can do their best work.

The HR function shifted from transactional to strategic and innovative, as technology and businesses evolved. The pandemic presented unique challenges, highlighting HR’s role as essential to business strategy and success. We are the finders and keepers of talent acquisition. We are talent architects who shape culture. When we do this right, it brings out the best in our teams.

See also: 6 HR lessons from Microsoft’s CHRO

HRE: What’s the best (or worst) piece of HR advice you’ve received?

Perkins: Best advice: Hire smart people and empower them to do meaningful work. My team inspires me to be a better leader; I couldn’t do what I do without them. Worst advice: Hire or promote culture fit. At PMI, we prioritize culture add over culture fit.

HRE: If you hadn’t gone into HR, where do you think your career would have taken you?

Perkins: I’m impressed by great ideas that are well-stated. If I had not pursued a career in HR, I would have pursued a career in journalism. I’m happy that I found HR.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].