This is HR’s chance to be the ‘human voice in the room’

Paylocity’s Cheryl Johnson says the pandemic has emphasized HR’s role as the model for empathy.
By: | March 24, 2021 • 8 min read

Flexibility has been one of the biggest words in management over the past year—as employees went remote or hybrid, and many juggled childcare and other responsibilities, employers were expected to relax policies around how, where and when people work. At HCM software provider Paylocity, the company’s approach to flexibility itself became flexible.

This summer, leaders created an extensive list of scheduling options that employees could use to fit their personal situations, says CHRO Cheryl Johnson. It’s an approach that is in line with the company’s human-centric response to the pandemic, which has also included rolling out new resources to help managers lead remotely, an enhanced focus on employee mental health, increased attention to DEI and the development of guideposts around frequent and informal communication to help maintain both culture and engagement.

HR leaders are at the helm of this work, Johnson notes, and that has provided an opportunity to illustrate that HR’s seat at the table is one that should help humanize the organization. Johnson recently shared with HRE how she has sought to use the “human voice” of HR to support the employee population at Paylocity.

Cheryl Johnson

HRE: What were you working on before the pandemic hit—and how quickly did that shift?

Johnson: We had to 100% shift priorities. Everything changed literally overnight. Prior to the pandemic, we were mostly working on management development, a lot of DEI and culture building; that was more next-gen stuff that was focused on moving the needle forward that didn’t seem as urgent as it is in the present tense. I remember being in Utah when the NBA announced it would stop playing all games and I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got get on a flight back to Chicago” because the next day we had to tell our entire employee population that had to go remote and we had to figure that all out. We were already 48% remote but there were whole other parts of the company that needed to go remote. We had to figure out safety protocols, reporting protocols, how to make sure people felt safe—not just physically but psychologically—and could keep their productivity up. And then June came around and social unrest was on the rise and, all of a sudden, DEI was back to the top of the priority list. We were focused on it in January but then the pandemic hit and we kind of went into survival mode—food, clothes and shelter—and then it came back to the top.

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HRE: Flexibility, especially for working parents, has been a big issue throughout the pandemic. Do you see that continuing long-term at Paylocity?

Johnson: This is something we are still managing through with our workforce. I think long-term we will see significantly more leaders and companies willing to be flexible with working schedules. In August, when we saw that many kids were going to be going to school and still doing virtual learning, we quickly came up with a modified flexible schedule. Some other companies have policies where everybody gets the same flexibility—9/80, 4/10, all behind a corporate structure—but we didn’t. We took all the possible ways we could create flexibility for our employees and gave it a la carte to our leaders and said, “Any one of these will work so do what will work for your people.” We have plenty of data showing that working mothers have been more impacted than fathers and we certainly didn’t want to lose women in our workplace during this. So we created a ton of flexibility even to the point of saying, “Hey, if you have to take off two hours in the middle of the day, do it.”

If [the pandemic] had ended in six months to a year, I think it would have been very easy for companies to go back to the old way of doing things. So many leaders I’ve talked to at other companies at the highest levels have acknowledged that this flexibility has created more awareness for how much more productive we are as humans when we balance both life and work. I think more and more companies will keep with that flexibility and those that don’t are going to lose talent—because there are so many others who are.

See also: 8 trends in employer support for the childcare crisis

HRE: How have you worked to prepare your managers to lead remote or hybrid teams?

Johnson: We started doing HR “meetings in a box.” We’ve been picking topics that have surfaced from employees or leaders that are pain points about managing remote teams and are preparing these support kits and talk tracks for leaders where we’re giving tools and tips to deal with everything from mental health, creating a culture of engagement to onboarding new hires—all the different topics that are affected by not being in person.

We’re also coming up with different ways across the company to standardized how we engage our people—how to inject those collisions that you had when you ran into each other in the lunchroom. We want to make sure people still have those opportunities to be human. We’re also making sure to continue to talk about the culture side of this. It’s OK to start your meetings and spend five minutes just chit-chatting. When you’re in the office, that’s what you would do too. When someone walks in, you notice their coffee mug or an outfit or you talk about the basketball game. So we’re working to make it easier for people to have those intentional collision points.

HRE: Connection among employees has been a challenge for many organizations in the last year. How have you personally sought to stay connected to reports who are remote?

Johnson: I’ve had significantly more touch-bases than I would have before. Before, my team members all worked on the same floor; if they needed me, they would see my calendar and knew if I was in a meeting, swing by and pop in for five minutes that may turn into 45 minutes. Now we don’t have that. So with newer leaders, I have two touchpoints a week to begin that’s preserved time and if we end up not needing it we don’t take it. And for more experienced people, we’ll have a once-a-week touchpoint. I also have a regular townhall every two weeks where people get a link ahead of time to ask questions, whether they want to use their name or anonymously. I’m also doing monthly meetings with all leaders on the team and make sure to save time to check-in emotionally and mentally with people too. It’s definitely more meetings but it’s a blend of Q&A structures and just even literally fun meetings just to check-in.

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HRE: Despite the challenges the last year has brought, do you see any lasting impacts of the pandemic, beyond flexibility, that you think will be positive for both employees and employers?

Johnson: I would hope to see an increased focus on mental health as a really important part of what affects workplace performance—and also destigmatizing mental health and focused on solutions. Also, the blending of work and life. I remember when I was growing up, it was more acceptable to go to work with my parents and I feel like I learned so much watching m parents and being part of that working environment, but I think that got lost for a while. I believe now that more and more people will be bringing their family life into work and that humanizes people. I hope we become a more humanized workplace.

HRE: With so much happening so quickly in HR lately, how do you stay up to date on these trends?

Johnson: I do a lot of reading—Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine,Fortune, a lot of LinkedIn articles. I’m also part of a CHRO group; we’re all kind of similarly sized organizations but also dramatically different—public companies, private companies, global companies, all different individuals. We talk once a month and bring up hot topics and share how we’re handling them. I also connect with a bunch of CHROs I’ve met throughout the years. Whenever something happens, I say, “Hey, how are you handling this?” The cool thing about the HR space is that we’re all willing to help each other. There’s no one else in the company you get to talk to as the head of HR—you are the person everybody talks to. So we need to lean on each other.

Related: COVID-19’s impact on workplace mental health

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

Johnson: Psychology. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology. I decided to take a year off between undergraduate and graduate and was going to work, save up money and go back to grad school to become a psychologist. I landed my first gig in HR that year and decided this was where I wanted to be. I actually do a lot of what a psychologist does: I spend a lot of time in conversations about feelings, emotions, triggers, obstacles, mental traps—and I just get to do it at work instead of a clinical office.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Johnson: My family; I have three kids. They keep me really busy—they’re all under the age of 12. So I’m passionate about my kids and my family as well as things like exercise, cooking, movies and shows.

HRE: What would be your advice for someone just entering HR today?

Johnson: Focus on the human. Over the years, HR people have been trained to focus on having a seat at the table and that we had to be the ones holding down the fort and making sure people were complying with policies. HR became the compliance police office and that took the human side out of it. Now is the time to get back into the concept of HR being the human voice in the room. Be human, be that voice, and be willing to be that person who talks about the soft, fluffy stuff we used to get criticized for.

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 hreletters@lrp.com.

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