Why this CHRO makes frontline employee safety a priority
The work of Sealed Air, which supports the safe delivery of food and consumer goods through such brands as Cryovac and Bubble Wrap, has become even more integral throughout the pandemic—a reality that is keeping CHRO Susan Edwards and her team motivated.
Edwards joined Sealed Air eight years ago and since February 2019 has served as global vice president and CHRO. Prior to Sealed Air, she held HR leadership positions at Circor, Snap-on Tools and Lear Corp. Her work has included experience in international HR leadership, corporate continuous improvement, manufacturing and operations leadership, global project leadership and strategic planning, among other areas.
HRE recently connected with Edwards to discuss how employers today can make frontline employees and essential workers feel more comfortable at work and how to keep employees engaged even while they’re working from home.
HRE: How has the pandemic impacted your operations?
Susan EdwardsEdwards: We have 16,500 employees in about 56 countries around the world, and about 10,000 of those employees continue to work in plants or laboratories. It’s been interesting because we were able to shift very easily to a remote environment because of that distribution of people around the world. Prior to the pandemic, we tended to work a bit virtually anyway because very few people were in the same location together as we collaborated and worked on initiatives. In some ways, it was a very natural transition. This was just another step to experiment a bit and become more flexible and more remote. As a packaging company, providing solutions that enable a safer food supply chain and protect valuable goods shipped around the world, our jobs have become even more important during the pandemic. We are proud to be part of that effort and that initiative.
HRE: What are some strategies that the company has developed in order to keep on-site workers safe?
Edwards: Our frontline employees have always been working on site and many of our offices have already reopened. We left it to our regional leadership teams to determine the safety and readiness of those facilities, and they have the authority to reopen the offices once that criteria has been met. Our employees working remotely have the option to work in the office or remotely or some combination of the two. We are tremendously focused on the health and safety of our employees as well as the protection of our business, so we refer to our plants and offices as the fortress during the pandemic and we want as few people as possible working on site so that it minimizes the risk to both our frontline employees and to those office employees that can essentially work from anywhere. When employees come back to the office, we have protections in place including temperature screening, engineered safe distancing, mask protocols, increased cleaning, and travel and visitor restrictions. We have listened strongly to the local and federal health authorities and have implemented precautions per their guidance.
HRE: What are some HR priorities once the pandemic subsides?
Edwards: Some of the HR priorities that we were strongly focused on before the pandemic have become even more important to us. Culture will evolve, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and we are really focused on culture in a very different way than in the past because we are trying to move our company in a different direction. Being mindful about the culture that we want to have and developing those initiatives have become important to us, and during the pandemic, there are different catalysts that employees are dealing with, so we have to be very intentional about that. We were also having conversations about how to implement more flexible work practices around the globe, and we had even started to experiment with some remote workdays and flexible hours. The pandemic propelled us into full-on remote work for some of our employee population, and it was an opportunity for us to break some paradigms that we had. It also tested our policies and technology to see whether they were fully remote-ready.
HRE: How have you been able to keep up the morale of the employees during such a difficult time?
Edwards: We started to understand that our frontline employees, in the heat of making sure that the business stayed running and our customers were supported, wanted recognition for their work. We already had an electronic peer-to-peer recognition program that was primarily used for service anniversaries and birthdays, so we rebranded and rebooted it so that employees could now recognize each other for the tremendous work and commitment that was happening around our company. We continue to encourage managers to publicly recognize those individuals who are showing so much commitment and dedication to the demands that are a part of this pandemic right now. We also sent out surveys to our 6,000 remote workers to see how they were doing, as well our frontline employees to see what they needed, so now we have teams of people working with the responses from those surveys to evaluate how we can best serve our employees.
HRE: What is the most rewarding part of being the CHRO at Sealed Air?
Edwards: It’s going to sound a little cliché, but honestly, I enjoy our people so much. I genuinely enjoy the people that work at this company. I have a great time getting to know them, I think they are intelligent and funny. Everyone gives each other grace, yet we hold each other very accountable. I love the culture at Sealed Air, so it makes it a delight and pleasure to be in this role with this company and have the opportunity to lead us into more strategic and progressive areas of HR. I love the emphasis and the priority that leaders in this company give to topics that are typically in the HR space; we don’t get that response that HR is a “nice to have” as opposed to it being critical. The services and the things that we do are really important to the company, and it is a great place to work as an HR professional.
HRE: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Edwards: I think it was something like, “Get yourself back up, dust yourself off, assess the situation and try again.” I remember a particular leader I had that was really very effective at helping people to recover after something had happened that wasn’t a complete success. I remember him teaching me and others how to be very resilient about accepting things that didn’t quite work out and how to collect yourself and figure out how to go about it in a different way. I think that was one of the most impactful things I learned in my career.
HRE: What advice would you give to HR leaders who are entering the industry today?
Edwards: Decades ago, when I entered the HR field, it was still strongly considered to be an administrative role, but it is not anymore. I think there is a complete and absolute recognition by the business world that it is now a critical business function. I think the advice I would give to young HR professionals going into this career is to be confident about the importance of this profession. This is a very valuable and strategically critical function that manages our most important resources and assets, so the impact that our profession has and the ability to influence true business outcomes is astounding, and we should never underestimate that.