What COVID-19 has already taught employers

Wells Fargo, Novartis and Northwestern Mutual share lessons learned from handling COVID-19 in the workplace.
By: | March 30, 2020 • 4 min read
(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Though the coronavirus pandemic didn’t start picking up considerable steam here in the United States until a few weeks ago, Wells Fargo’s American operations had been preparing for the crisis since January.

“Our teams in Asia started picking it up and we knew we were going to have to make some decisions about how we were going to communicate to our employees,” said David Berger, senior vice president of communications at Wells Fargo. Berger was one of several executives who shared their companies’ early learnings from the pandemic on a webcast Thursday hosted by Velaku Software.

Read all of HRE‘s coronavirus coverage here.

As Wells Fargo strategized an internal communication plan, executives were concerned about contradictory information and messaging about the health crisis and its effect on the business, especially given a globally distributed workforce with many different individual lines of business. It became clear, Berger said, that they “needed a single source of truth,” which ultimately was its intranet, where all employees can now look for updates on the pandemic and each step the company has taken in response.

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“I couldn’t imagine what would have happened since things have developed if we had individual teams posting their own information,” Berger said. “It would be chaotic and high-risk for the company.”

Involvement of senior executives in all internal and external messaging was also important; new Chief Operating Officer Scott Powell became the “face of the response,” Berger said. The organization’s operating committee has met twice daily as the crisis has grown, and the communications team is present for each meeting.

Disseminating accurate, timely information to employees has also been a priority at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, said Tina Tuttle, head of the company’s U.S. enterprise and executive communications. The organization has developed three priorities in its response to the crisis. First, business continuity, which involves decisions on remote work and developing new ways of doing business—and ensuring employees are informed each step of the way.

Associate engagement is another focus.

“How do we keep people engaged and connected during this time period?” Tuttle said. “To do that, we’re making sure we’re being empathetic—going above and beyond.”

That point is driven home by the fact that business leaders are experiencing many of the same challenges and frustrations as their employees, she said.

“What’s so unique about this is we have to balance the needs of the business with the needs of our own families, which has posed a real challenge for me personally but all of the employees and associates we serve,” she said.

As a healthcare company, Novartis serves those who are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic, Tuttle said, which is why community investment has emerged as a third pillar of the company’s response plan.

Novartis donated 130 million doses of hydroxychloroquine, which is being evaluated as a possible treatment for COVID-19. Tuttle said employees have been clamoring for ways to help, so the organization launched an internal crowdsourcing site through which they can offer ideas about how the company can help those affected by the pandemic.

Employees’ willingness to help has surprised executives, Tuttle said, as has their productivity in new work-from-home arrangements.

“The thought was that working from home may lighten the workload, but it’s been the opposite effect: We have employees at their computers 15 hours a day, while also trying to homeschool their kids,” she said. Leaders have actually had to intervene to stop employees from overworking. They set standard meeting hours only during mid-day and asked managers to refrain from having Monday morning meetings so employees could have time to gear up for the week.

Mick Trevey, senior director of communications and corporate engagement at Northwestern Mutual, agreed that flexibility—and understanding—have been key, and can help create an “environment of authenticity” for employees. Leaders have been telling managers to “be tolerant if co-workers’ kids, dogs or parents show up on a conference call or the doorbell rings. This is a new environment and we all need to be supportive of one another.”

See also: The new reality of remote work and caregiving

Northwestern Mutual has created a multipoint messaging strategy for both employees and external stakeholders. A prime component is emphasizing its more than 170-year history to convey its ability to weather this storm.

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“We’ve survived wars, depressions and even the pandemic flu of 1918. We have all these things in our history books,” he said. “That history is more than a talking point; it’s a meaningful thing that gives us a sense of confidence in saying that we’ve managed through things like this before and we have compassion for what people are dealing with. But we’ve seen this play out before and we know it will play out in a positive way over the course of time; the day will come when things rebound.”

Until that happens, Tuttle said, it’s important for employers to be open to consistently changing course.

“I’m literally learning every day because things are changing every day,” she said. “Moving fast and being agile has been the most important thing. All the best-laid plans could mean nothing tomorrow, so we have to go into each day asking how we can support our stakeholders today.”

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.