Realities of remote work: driven by values

HR can serve as the "conscience of leadership" during this unprecedented time.
By: | April 22, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series related to coronavirus around remote employee strategies and priorities for HR leaders—from HR’s top experts.

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Back in January, Greenway Health (Greenway) assembled a taskforce of cross-functional company leaders to address the potential dangers of the coronavirus for its 1,500 employees and organization. At the time, one-third of its workforce worked remotely.

“[HR] started getting them comfortable with all the what-if scenarios, what COVID-19 means to them and how they would lead,” explains Michele Streitmatter, chief transformation officer at Greenway, a health information technology vendor. “You can’t expect leaders who never even worked themselves remotely or led remotely to lead remotely.”

Read all of HRE‘s coverage of coronavirus and its impacts for HR here.

Company CEO Richard Atkin, VP of Marketing Marissa Carlson, CMO Dr. Geeta Nayyar and Streitmatter led the effort by speaking with the organization’s top 30 leaders personally and in a group. They built up their confidence by reminding them of how the Tampa, Fla.-based company survived hurricanes by enabling employees to work from home and encouraged them that the company’s recently tested technology would support its total workforce in a remote capacity for an extended period of time.

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Related: Will remote work continue post-pandemic?

Many HR professionals, some of whom have never worked remotely for more than several days, are helping company executives and managers lead their entire workforce from home during this pandemic. By relying on their own coaching, training and communication skills, HR leaders are motivating and teaching their bosses and peers how to quickly adapt to a new world of constant change, anxiety and innovation.

To undertake that effort, one of the first conversations taskforce members at Greenway focused on the company’s values.

“[We] pulled out our values like employee safety and created a set of guiding principles that we could use for this situation,” says Streitmatter, adding that the taskforce created FAQs for leaders with answers based on those values.

Since then, she says, Atkin has made weekly videos for all staff focusing on the status of the company and the healthcare industry and on how employees can take care of themselves. HR hosts an online weekly call with leaders to deliver coronavirus facts and address leaders’ questions. Executives also join 30-minute video calls three times a week and complete new leadership-training modules on building trust, setting goals and monitoring employee performance in a remote environment.

“Leaders needed to change their expectations for employees around how work got done,” Streitmatter says, adding that for some, the definition of success changed from the amount of time employees spent at work to the quality of their output. “Our biggest issue is how to help employees balance their need to take care of their family concurrently with the need to take care of our customers.”

Some HR professionals serve as the conscience of the leadership team and are coaching with that in mind, says Beth Bovis, partner, senior leader, leadership change and organization practice at Kearny, a global management consulting firm.

A common question to guide that process is: How do you want customers, employees and the communities you serve to judge your behavior in this leadership moment?

Most are sharing best practices with leaders, including:

  • structure office hours;
  • schedule open time for staff conversations;
  • check in with direct reports; and
  • avoid checking emails or multi-tasking during conference calls.

See also: I’m a remote worker. Here’s what I want HR leaders to know.

Bovis tells the story of a CEO who visited one of his open facilities. Employees stood six feet apart from each other in the parking lot while the CEO used a megaphone to conduct a town-hall meeting and thank them for coming to work.

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She says one of the CHRO’s key challenges is convincing leaders to escape the “tyranny of the urgent,” a concept introduced in Charles Hummel’s book of the same name that addresses how critical matters can crowd out what’s really important.

“You’ve got workers with kids at home who may need to work outside the normal 9-to-5, which creates stress,” Bovis says.  “Leaders need to create flexibility for folks. That’s what CHROs are struggling with—what kind of interventions will help manage this so the level of anxiety and wellness in the organizations is managed?”

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 hreletters@lrp.com.