How this global nomad used her experience to manage the COVID crisis

Sixteen years ago, Mai Lan Nguyen started as an HR intern at Schneider Electric. Since then, she has worked for the global energy management solutions provider in various HR roles in France, China and Brazil. Several years ago, she moved to the U.S. and now serves as the organization’s senior vice president of HR, North America.

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Nguyen considers herself a “global nomad” and speaks five languages, including some Russian. Despite those worldly experiences, her biggest HR challenge began in March: COVID-19.

HRE spoke with Nguyen about how she is managing the pandemic–both personally and professionally–how it’s facilitating her professional growth and what she’s doing to gain control over the fear and chaos.

HRE: What’s the status of your employees during this pandemic?

Nguyen: Before COVID, we had about 3,000 telecommuters–all white-collar employees–already working in some type of flexible work arrangement. The shift to remote has been pretty drastic. Now, about 13,000 have gone remote in North America. We [conducted] an employee survey about how they felt during the crisis, what their expectations and needs are and their doubts returning to a new normal. We will listen to their voice when shaping how we are foreseeing the future when it comes to our workplace. We’re looking at mostly a hybrid solution.

HRE: Are any employees working at your offices?

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Nguyen: We reopened 39 out of 64 U.S. offices [that employ more than 25 people] at no more than a 25% capacity maximum to ensure social distancing and other stringent measures that we have put in place. These employees perform essential work or have an untenable situation at home. We’re learning from them and will allow more people to slowly come back.

Related: Tracking the remote work trend

HRE: What COVID-related challenges do you envision down the road?

Nguyen: We’re going to have to accelerate [digitization] from an employee standpoint. This crisis has also put employee engagement on the map, which has never been so high on HR’s agenda. We’ve had great opportunities to be innovative and really look at things from a different light. How do we now retain people, offer them career opportunities and think about mobility since people may not want to move anymore? How will this situation evolve, how is it going to impact how we used to do our job and how we’re going to do our job? How do we support the business moving forward? There will be many things to take into account.

HRE: When the pandemic gained speed in March, you felt exhausted. How did you regain your energy and balance between your personal and work life?

Nguyen: It was pretty intense. I was barely managing my own stress and anxiety. I reached a point where I told myself that this wasn’t a sprint but a marathon. I realized that I had to shift a little bit on how I was organizing my time and spending time to recharge. I started to exercise, play with my son and go outside in my garden. It works wonders. I’m also a marathon runner and run 5 to 10 kilometers every day.

HRE: What types of projects were you working on before the pandemic?

Nguyen: I was tasked with figuring out a way to create an internal gig economy. When you look at people who leave your company, one of their top three reasons is lack of opportunity. In a company the size of Schneider, people would not see a future because of how big we are and how many jobs we have. It was easier to find their next job [externally]. We decided to really invest time in technology to make the employee and manager own their career. We put in place this platform–an open talent market–where you sign in and enter your preferences and experiences. The platform reveals open roles or projects where you can dedicate 10% of your time to work on something you have interest in or want to gain experience in. I’m very proud of this. It’s a huge shift from a talent standpoint and a great enabler for people to own their career and build their next step in the company.

HRE: How has the pandemic impacted your ability to do your job?

Nguyen: I’ve grown a lot. My capacity to make decisions is faster. I don’t wait for everything to be perfect. I feel so grateful and honored to work with a team. There’s been much more [internal] collaboration. Our culture and values have been our compass in every decision we’ve taken. We’ve become stronger.

HRE: What’s your next career step?

Nguyen: I personally want to strengthen my skills around making sure I understand how to manage unconscious bias. I’ve taken training but feel I could go much deeper. I also might listen to someone who’s offering me another job in this business and take the opportunity. It would probably make me a better HR [professional] if I decided to go back to HR and would be a great way to complement my profile.

HRE: What advice would you give someone pursuing an HR career?

Nguyen: You have to understand financial concepts like profit and loss and have some type of passion for analytics. Being more comfortable around that and coming up with the right insight for your business would make you more powerful, especially if you’re also digitally fluent. When I interview people, I look at how much appetite they have for learning from a day-to-day standpoint. Are they naturally curious? Are they also collaborative? I don’t think you can survive in any company if you’re not a team player.

HRE: Among all of your experiences with employees in different countries, does one stand out from the rest?

Nguyen: About seven years ago, I thought I was having a one-on-one meeting with an employee who was in his early 20s. Then I opened the door to the meeting room and he was with his parents. They were interested in what their child could do to be an even better talent at the company. It was like a parent-teacher conference. He didn’t give me a heads-up that his parents would be there. I was caught off-guard and had to adapt to the moment and go with the flow. This was the weirdest moment of my career.

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected].