Connecting Again: How HR Has Realigned the Workplace


Bob Dylan once said, “Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” His words seem particularly pertinent to the past two years of unknowns in both personal and professional contexts.

But among the uncertainty, one clear truth has emerged — the increased importance of connections between people, especially as those who were accustomed to working in group situations began to work from home and leaders often had to lead virtually.

“Connection was critical to help us navigate through the chaos the pandemic created,” says Rita Ferrara, Executive Director, Human Resources, at the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, which employs 5,200 full-time and part-time employees throughout B.C. at liquor and cannabis retail stores, its corporate office in Burnaby, and three regional distribution centres.

“It gave employees the opportunity to communicate with us and tell us what they were experiencing, and for us to respond. It was possible through understanding their experience and connecting with them constantly, understanding what’s happening on ground, what’s important at any given time, what we need to do, and not assuming that if we didn’t hear anything more about an issue, that it went away.

“Each of our lines of business had similarities but also differences. Staying connected was critically important to navigating successfully, and it continues to be.”

Connection More Important Than Ever

Rita Ferrara, CPHR

Deb Paulsen, Chief Human Resources Officer for long-time Canadian outdoor retailer MEC, highlights three reasons connection were so important.

“Keeping a sense of normalcy in an abnormal time was key, as was finding ways to keep virtually connected in what became a very isolated, lonely world for many staffers,” says. The business has 1,400 employees between its 21 stores, home office in Vancouver, eastern and western distribution centres, and their remote-based service centre.

“Listening to our staffers and what they needed, not assuming what they needed, was also important. We held focus groups and conducted surveys. The information we gained helped us tailor programs specifically for them.”

Third, she says, it was imperative to “act with compassion, empathy and flexibility, understanding that everyone has different situations and needs that are unique to them.”

That basic understanding of unique individual circumstances was important to Deborah Fox, too. She’s the Associate Director, HR Operations, Americas for Kohler Company, and a professional certified coach through EVOLVE Leadership Development.

Connection “supports the new paradigm and supports the flexible family,” she explains. “We’re just not living in the same time as we used to. People are stressed out, but we‘re moving ahead faster than we ever have before. That would be impossible if people were not engaged.”

“We can’t use technology as an excuse to ignore engagement. Connection keeps everyone present, makes them think about how they show up and be the person they know they can be.”

As Senior Director, Human Resources at international cyber security company Sophos, Fiona Ho found herself in a situation different from many. Organizations increasingly recognized the importance of cyber security as they moved to virtual work, so Sophos was still hiring aggressively during the pandemic, bringing its total to almost 4,000 employees in more than 35 countries.

“It was important for employees to remain connected and have a sense of purpose when there was so much ambiguity,” she says. “For the mental wellbeing of all of us, it was important to understand our purpose and to have a positive impact on our customers and the wider community. It reinforced the importance of what we do day to day.”

Prior Experience Eased Transition

Fiona Ho, CPHR

Many organizations already had a portion of their workforce operating remotely, which meant they already had at least some of the required infrastructure in place to switch more employees to working from home.

“The company outfits those working remotely,” Fox says, noting that “things that would have taken years to make a decision on happened quickly. We have a portal with a menu of what remote employees are eligible for to outfit their home office and give them an allowance to get what they need — monitors, chair, desk, bulletin boards, mats, etc.”

“We already had a pretty sizable employee population working remotely,” Ho says. “We also had people going into offices around world, so we were very fortunate that we had the infrastructure in place for those people to seamlessly transition from office to remote working. There was no disruption to our business operations; people were still able to do their jobs effectively. Some critical roles we eventually had to have back in the office.”

“It was still a challenge to ensure all our employees remained engaged,” she adds. “Before the pandemic, we had the luxury of being able to travel for in-person meetings and to visit offices; there was still strong in-person opportunity for connectedness. The pandemic forced us to change many things, but we did it holistically.”

“Our service centre began working remotely in late 2019,” Paulsen says, “so obviously we had the infrastructure in place, when the pandemic forced approximately 300 head office staff to switch to working from home. We continued to connect and communicate with them through intranet and email systems. It made a huge difference when we were able to turn the lights back on and welcome people back.”

The BC Distribution Branch was gearing up to offer telework to 900 corporate staff when the pandemic hit. “We were going to be sending out the communication, we had documentation ready, and were going to start with a minimum of three days per week in the office and review the impacts,” Ferrara says.

Their plans were quickly accelerated. “We were navigating what was important to our people and what it meant to our business, knowing that our tools had to be accelerated to allow that mobility and operational effectiveness,” she adds.

Communication Remains Vital

Most organizations increased their online communication, providing employees with forums to raise questions and concerns and leadership the opportunity to address them. Many also did more research than they may have in the past, through surveys, focus groups and informal conversations, to identify what employee concerns were in such an unsettled situation.

Quarterly leadership updates became monthly or weekly check-ins. Increased frequency of updates “helped employees to feel connected and to know that the company is here to support them and how, and to share how we’re doing as a company,” Ho says. “It really gave employees a sense of comfort and security, having that transparency and the ability to connect with the larger organization. This connection was very important.”

“We really made sure people understood that there was flexibility, knowing that they were dealing with child care, elder care, lockdown, etc. We allowed people to feel comfortable with flexibility during the day, knowing they didn’t have to be at their desk exactly from nine to five.” It was important to get managers on board with the concept of flexibility, too, she adds.

Employers recognized that informal communication between employees needed to be maintained, too. “One of the downsides of working virtually is that you do tend to do back-to-back calls and work, and you don’t take time to step away,” Fox says. “We started creating Coffee Talk Time and social groups that meet throughout the week to let people collaborate and recreate that in-the-office feeling. Activities have ranged from Build a Bear to assembling charcuterie boards to dancing online.”

“We did a happiness survey every few weeks, asking what’s getting in way of your happiness,” Paulsen says. “Through that feedback, we developed online workshops. We also did leadership workshops to enable our leaders to gain tools and techniques to support staffers with remote work, mental wellbeing, productivity, health and safety and more.

“We tried to keep as much normalcy as could; we kept the same cadence of workday, such as having our daily huddle for 10 minutes. It was clumsy at first but it evolved into a real fun event that everyone looked forward to every day. We brought in some fun, some family members, dogs, cats, kids, themes, music…The silver lining of operating online is that we saw other people also logging on who couldn’t have participated in the office huddles, such as retail and distribution staff.”

“We asked how we could add positivity and help people express it to each other,” Ferrara says. “We provided different kinds of cards that people could give each other. The handwritten cards allow people to put their thoughts and emotions down on paper and share them with others, about things they see at their worksites or community, or great things people are doing to support others. It was about the people, not the business, and the things they were doing to increase their own levels of connection.”

Training — How and What

Deb Paulsen, CPHR

Training quickly moved online at most organizations, sometimes even for employees who were still on the job at their usual site. “We immediately moved all our learning to online, which increased our connection to our retail and distribution lines of business as they could now be sent a laptop or borrow one from the worksite and attend training from home, which wasn’t possible prior to the pandemic,” Ferrara says.

“What we were communicating became a bigger focus than how — that we were talking to people. We needed to understand that we’re not number one in importance to our people, because before they ever walk in the door to work, they have family and other things that are important to them.”

“We’ve got an-house team putting together Wellbeing Central on the company intranet,” Ho says. “We put out a number of resources for managers and staff, helping them understand how we respond to stress or grief, finding support during pandemic, how to manage mental health and stress in the workplace. We made sure managers had guides and resources so they could support their teams.

At same time, they offered live and on-demand wellbeing webinars on similar topics, as well as on practicing mindfulness and preventing digital burnout — knowing it’s okay to switch off, creating inclusive teams and a culture of respect. “We also have COVID-specific topics such as how to support their communities, provide elder care, support for our children in remote learning, millennial life during a pandemic.”

“We started giving employees a free mental health day that provided an opportunity for everyone to focus on wellbeing. We let everyone off on the same day, so they truly had space to turn off.”

“It wasn’t without its challenges,” she adds. “Everyone connects differently, and we tried to offer a number of opportunities for people to stay connected, hopefully something for everyone.”

“We offered a lot of workshops, introducing tools on hot topics such as how to be resilient, dealing with changing priorities, and balancing care and work,” Paulsen says. “We supported department leaders; we took what we learned and developed programs to empower teams to work effectively and productively at home and communicate with each other.”

Like many companies, Kohler has been offering more online talent options and has registered all employees with LinkedIn Learning. “Typically, we push out three or four new learning opportunities every week,” Fox says. “Managers realize people are more effective and efficient if they have the ability to learn and grow at same time.” They’ve also offered opportunities to learn about such things as Indian culture, cooking and Bollywood dancing; mental health, nutrition, meal planning and simplifying life; and other activities, which can be accessed during work hours. “We trust our people to be concentrating on the right thing. We’re making sure people feel like they’re part of the team.”

“As things open up, for those who have the ability to work on-site in larger centres, we have Collaboration Days where we meet all together and do some group thinking,” she adds. “Every leader creates their own model. Some meet one day a week, some groups twice a week. Departments figure out what works best for them.”

Learning from Challenge

Deborah Fox, CPHR

The pandemic’s effects haven’t all been negative. Fox notes that they have access to more talent because locations are less relevant. She says that pre-pandemic, she probably wouldn’t have been considered for her own current position because she’s located in Armstrong, B.C.

Working remotely “has actually made the organization feel smaller despite a record year of growth in headcount and sales in 2021,” she adds. “You feel like people are more accessible. Nobody knew how to use the tools before, but now we use them as a business tool, and don’t feel so far away.

“You get to know people in ways you might not in an office because it’s more intimate. You can reach out to resources whenever you need help and it feels a lot more comfortable to connect with them.”

As well, “We had to become faster at making decisions as an organization. What it taught us is that if we really want to, we can move pretty quickly, if we’re passionate about it or it’s a business necessity.”

Some of the learning has been as simple as recognizing that scheduled phone calls are more effective than emails, so people can hear a live voice and ask questions in real time to help them navigate what they faced week to week, Ferrara says.

Facing dual pandemics — COVID and fear — she’s learned that “Flexibility is our number one response mechanism. We really needed to demonstrate putting people first; we needed to take care of them in order to take care of our business.”

“For me, it was critical to hear from people on the ground about what they were experiencing, so we knew what we needed to do to support them. We are looking at things through a very different lens because we are clearly responding and connecting in an emotional way. ‘We see you, we hear you, here’s what we want to put in place to create safe space for you to be emotional, to have fears, to ask for different ways you can do your work,’” she says.

“I would say this has been the most challenging time in my 30-year career and, at the same time, the most rewarding,” Paulsen says. “All eyes have been on HR to lead significant initiatives to meet these challenges and deal with everchanging regulations. We’ve supported leadership to remain agile and managed challenges with resiliency and adaptability.

“We’ve recognized again the importance of enforcing our commitment to employee wellbeing. We need to be compassionate, show empathy, as a core part of employee management.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

Many businesses expect to replace prior on-site work arrangements with a hybrid of on-site hoteling stations and remote working when the pandemic is under control. In some cases, it will enable the organization to reduce its corporate space significantly, even while expanding operations. Some will have a minimum number of days per week that employees must be on-site; others will be more flexible.

“Everybody has their own life outside of Kohler,” Fox says. “We’ve realized that life is important; some really prefer to stay working remotely, the majority comfortable with hybrid, and some want to be on site to keep the work/home boundaries clear.”

Communication and flexibility will continue to be vital to success as work patterns change to give people more autonomy and power to manage their schedules, coupled with understanding what some of their challenges are and having conversations with them about them, Ho says.

The pandemic has also resulted in the loss of some employees, Paulsen says, because staffers took the opportunity when they were off to contemplate what was next for them, whether it was going back to school or changing careers.

Looking ahead, “Flexible work schedules are now an essential, not a nice-to-have,” she adds.

The emphasis on employee wellbeing has also illustrated the need for additional training for managers. At the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, HR is developing new mandatory learning for leaders, as well as an employee development program that leverages a strengths-based growth mindset to shift thinking from negative to positive.

Without doubt, the ‘new normal’ workplace will look different than its predecessor. As Fox says, “We have had to work smarter and fail faster, and then adjust. We’ve become so good at adapting, why would we want to go back?”



Nancy Painter is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Surrey, B.C. and a member of the Canadian Freelance Guild.

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