Sage-Gavin: Social innovation in astonishing times

From the start of the pandemic, people have had to adopt entirely new ways of working while navigating blurred lines between their work and home lives.

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I marvel at the way workers have met this challenge. Almost overnight, people’s living rooms, kitchens and garages have been mobilized to keep the global economy in motion. Without this effort, the economic damage of the pandemic would have been unimaginable.

Counting the Cost

However, the home-working revolution has not come without cost. Six months into the crisis, it’s clear that working from home has presented an extraordinary set of pressures, particularly for people with families. My heart goes out to parents who have had to juggle work with childcare, home-schooling and eldercare responsibilities. For some single-parent families, or those where both parents work, the demands of balancing home and work life have proved impossible to meet. Many people have had to make tough choices, including taking a leave or resigning from their jobs to focus on these increased responsibilities with few available support systems.

Moreover, the early impact appears to be disproportionate by gender. In what many are calling a “shecession,” women are losing jobs at a much higher rate than men. From February to May, 11.5 million women lost their jobs compared to 9 million men. By the close of April, a decade’s worth of employment gains for women had been wiped out. The pandemic has revealed women–and particularly women of color–are more vulnerable to such crises, which is believed to be primarily due to long-term wage inequality and gender-role perceptions.

Furthermore, it’s not only nuclear families that are suffering. Regardless of their family situation, many home workers are finding the experience trying. People are experiencing stress and anxiety, and this is affecting their mental health. According to one study, only 28% of workers now report a positive mental state, compared to 62% before the crisis.

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HR is Leading the Way

Fortunately, innovative solutions are beginning to emerge quickly. I’ve been inspired by chief human resource officers I’ve spoken to who care deeply about their colleagues and are working tirelessly to support them. For example, large tech firms, which have provided weeks of additional paid leave to workers who need time off to care for their families, also leverage tutoring and childcare resources for their employees. Support groups are connecting workers with everyday needs, such as care for family members with special needs. Some are leveraging employee volunteers who can tutor students in math and conduct virtual kids’ gym classes and homework clubs. One CHRO has added a teacher to the HR team as an advisor to serve as a resource for home-schooling counsel for working parents. Others are working with leaders on empathy training. Some have put a “care ambassador” in place in manufacturing facilities to help people feel safe when their role requires physical presence at work.

A new report from the Josh Bersin Academy highlights other inspiring examples of CHROs supporting their people in innovative ways. Some companies help enable online learning for workers’ families by opening training courses, libraries and content. Others have invited chefs and fitness instructors to teach cooking and exercise classes to staff, providing valuable social contact for at-home workers.

Companies are refocusing operations around their workers to a degree I’ve never seen before. Some companies use advanced analytics to determine which stores to reopen by examining where employees live in relation to each restaurant, allowing them to get there by walking or cycling (thereby avoiding public transport).

Getting Started with Social Innovation

I recently caught up with Josh Bersin to talk through his report and discuss HR teams’ responsibilities today. For Josh, who will give the opening keynote on Oct. 27 at the free virtual HR Technology Conference, there are three main things that HR leaders are doing to ensure their people can work from home while navigating their family lives and trying to support wellness and good mental health:

  1. Designating a person or team to focus on wellness in general and family wellbeing. Before COVID-19, wellness programs were often linked to companies’ compensation and benefits departments and mostly administered by insurers. Many organizations are now dedicating whole teams to these areas, empowering them to collect data to understand workers’ new needs and accelerating solutions direct to C-suite decision-makers.
  2. Winning the budget. During some of the worst economic conditions in our lifetimes, securing funds isn’t easy, but it’s a challenge CHROs are taking on. The reason is simple: Those who fail to invest in social innovations such as childcare, remote schooling, parental leave, etc., risk damaging trust with their employees and losing the people they need to serve customers and patients.
  3. Providing psychological support. With workers feeling isolated, many HR teams are going the extra mile to keep their people connected. That means keeping in touch with workers and providing them the psychological boost that can only come from meaningful interactions. Team video conference calls, social networks, open town halls, video dance parties and even “bring your family or pet” to team calls are playing an essential role in relieving stress and welcoming the whole human to be part of the team.

As companies adjust to our very different world, business leaders, CHROs and board members I have talked to are confirming that wellness programs have shot up in importance. From being a “nice to have,” they’re now essential to keeping workers mentally healthy and ensuring they can attend to demands in their work and home lives.

New solutions to new problems are constantly emerging, and they’re making a real difference. This is good for workers, and it’s also good for businesses; Bersin told me that the new research he’s almost completed shows the availability of family support programs within companies directly correlates with strong financial performance.

Related: How a ‘menu of options’ can ease the childcare burden

Before the pandemic, one of the significant trends facing the HR community was the move to more responsible business. This priority has been accelerated to protect the people who make businesses work. There are tough times ahead for sure, and there are also ample opportunities to rise. I am confident that HR professionals’ ingenuity and compassion will help get us through these astonishing times and thrive.


The virtual HR Technology Conference & Exposition will take place online Oct. 27-30. Click here to register. 

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].