HR Super Hero Shares Successes in Engaging Furloughed and Working Staff While Planning for an Uncertain Future

HR Super Hero: Hai Nguyen, HR Operations Manager

Company: Right at School partners with school districts to provide before- and after-school student enrichment programs and summer programs at local schools.

Number of employees: approximately 1,500

Size of HR Team: 10

Hai Nguyen

There's no question 2020 was a challenge for us all. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all aspects of the business world, requiring organizations and their workforces to quickly adjust their way of doing business and respond to new challenges. HR professionals led the way, demonstrating again and again their adaptability, resilience and compassion. They've supported and guided their organizations through great change over the last year and a half.

In recognition of these extraordinary efforts, XpertHR put out the call to business professionals asking them to nominate their HR Super Hero. We wanted to hear their stories, so we can celebrate and showcase their achievements.

Our first HR Super Hero nominee, Hai Nguyen, HR Operations Manager at Right at School, was nominated for providing support to furloughed employees with great empathy and compassion and for keeping his team connected during the shutdown. XpertHR spoke with Hai about the challenges his team and organization faced during the pandemic.

The interview has been edited for length.

Tell us about your current role in HR.

I'm the HR Operations Manager with Right At School, and I oversee our compensation planning, labor law and legal compliance. I also oversee and lead staff compliance. Working in this industry, which is essentially childcare, there are regulations to ensure the health and safety of children. So our staff are required to meet certain requirements, whether it be education, experience, certain certifications like CPR. So I do oversee from the staff side on a high level, as well as supporting the technology systems that we use in HR. And I also support our West Coast operations in terms of employee relations support.

What led you to a career in HR?

It was random at the start. I found a temporary position supporting the recruitment efforts of an HR team, and I really enjoyed doing it. That's where my HR career started. I absolutely loved recruiting and just wanted to learn more about HR and grow within the field. I then developed into more of an HR generalist role, which I loved, and that led to an HR business partner role, and then eventually to a position here at Right At School.

Can you tell us about the biggest challenges your team faced during the pandemic last year?

I think the biggest challenge for us, and this is probably no different from other employers, is that we had to switch gears so swiftly. In February, when the pandemic became more of a concern worldwide, our HR leader decided, let's just work from home for a few weeks, let's see where this goes. And March comes around and now it's a full-scale pandemic, and schools are closing. We partner with school districts, so our strategic and tactical plans naturally align to how schools operate and the schoolyear calendar. We had to switch gears from what we were planning to do to close out the school year.

With no schools open, our staff were on call - they weren't working. We were trying to figure out what do we need to do. How do we transition to supporting the needs of our employees, and everyone that's affected, because 85% of our staff work in our before- and after-school programs… but obviously now there's no work available. So we had to switch gears to: what do we need to do to support our employees? We know they're concerned. We had to get out communications, put a plan in place to support them, and do all this from home, on Zoom calls.

At what point did the organization determine it would need to furlough employees?

We didn't furlough anyone at the start because we didn't want to make any rash decisions as an organization. Once it was understood that our school district partners weren't ready to start reopening schools, even on a part-time or a hybrid learning basis, then the organization had to make some tough decisions with furloughs.

You trained and prepared managers to conduct the furloughs. How did you prepare the training? And were there any unexpected obstacles to overcome in preparing and delivering the training?

The HR team worked through the materials we needed to create and provide, such as scripts for managers. We recognize managers aren't doing this regularly. It's okay to acknowledge that sometimes individuals are uncomfortable having these conversations, because these are difficult conversations.

We wanted both the manager and HR on each call to provide as much support as possible for the individual, because we anticipated the individual may have a question about benefits, unemployment, or something that may be under the HR umbrella, that a manager wouldn't be comfortable or knowledgeable answering.  

We wanted to plan and support the managers and make sure everyone understood roles and responsibilities. We talked through what the manager's role would be, what my role would be, and how we could conduct the conversation as respectfully as possible.

What guidance would you pass on to others about how to approach these types of tough conversations around furloughs?

The two things that come to my mind are being as respectful as possible and being as prepared as possible.

It may be often said that the organization is making a very difficult decision to furlough someone, but it's probably more difficult for the person that's affected to receive the news. So we train our managers, and train each other in HR, to be as respectful as possible when having these conversations. Allow time for the affected team members to ask questions. We understand it could be an emotional conversation. We don't want to have a transactional conversation - this is a human conversation.

The other thing is just being prepared. We try to anticipate all the questions, all the needs, all the follow-up documentation that we would want to provide to the affected staff member because that shows support, that shows the person that we do want them back and we are planning to welcome them back once safety precautions are in place so that we can reopen.

I think if we didn't anticipate questions and didn't plan materials and support information - such as here's how you can apply for unemployment, here's what we're going to do to support you - it wouldn't have shown as much respect for the individual as we wanted to show.

Tell us about the check ins your company had with employees to help keep team members engaged and connected with one another.

We did encourage our field managers to do check ins with their furloughed staff. And that actually is just an extension of some of our usual practices. During the summer, we hold summer camps, but we're not operating at the same capacity and same number of staff as the actual school year. So pre-pandemic we encouraged managers to have check ins to connect with their team and make sure they're still engaged and ready to come back for the new school year. We just extended that practice during the pandemic and gave more focus on furloughed team members' wellbeing and mental health. We wanted to see how they were doing, because we recognized that this could be a stressful situation.

We felt that silence was not a good thing. So even a touch base to say, hey, we haven't confirmed a return date yet, but I want to check in and see how you're doing. What do you need from me? Are you getting unemployment benefits? Is the state asking for anything that I can help provide?

The HR team received feedback from our field managers that their furloughed staff appreciated that. So while field managers were checking in with staff that weren't working, the HR team was also checking in with our field managers on how they're doing. And the field managers mentioned that it helped their well being to connect with their teams, and to hear their teams share appreciation that the managers were reaching out, that we're still connected with them, sharing whatever news we can and providing whatever support we can.

Could you tell us about your company's initiatives - and your own efforts - to keep employees connected with one another during the pandemic?

It was summer, we weren't fully operational, though we had some day camps for children of essential workers. So we were still checking in with our furloughed team members, but for those few of us that were, fortunately, still working but working from home, we did start doing more of these engagement activities across the organization, activities that allowed everyone to stay connected with each other. We try to mix it up, so it could be a lunch and learn where we are discussing key topics, or watching a TED talk and doing small group conversations related to it, or it could be fun activities. One of my colleagues on the HR team led a campfire discussion, reminiscing about activities we did as kids, which relates to our mission, supporting the enrichment of children.

Within the HR team, I was leading a weekly get together where we did innovation brainstorms on key initiatives or to try to solve key business problems. And we did games - mini breaks from work to have some fun, regroup, reenergize - and we actually had one today, we played the Price is Right. So we're having fun and building stronger bonds, because it's not just about work all the time.

Will any of the team engagement activities continue post-pandemic?

I'm pretty positive every engagement activity will continue after the pandemic, because even when we get back to the office, there will always be an aspect of working remotely and being a dispersed team. We're in 15 states, we're growing, we're not a brick-and-mortar business model because we partner with school districts that host our programs at their elementary schools. There's always going to be an aspect of working in a virtual environment, and so there still will be value in scheduled engagement activities to bring everyone together.

As a result of the pandemic, did your department have to adapt, or change any processes or procedures on a permanent basis?

If anything, we want to doublecheck and make sure that we always have a backup plan… just ensuring that we always have a plan B, and, if need be, a Plan C in place. How can we be prepared and switch gears swiftly? If roles need to change, if somebody has to jump in and support me, are there workflows, instructions, trainings, etc., that are in place so that we can adapt quickly again.

Have the schools you partner with reopened and have you been able to restart your organization's enrichment programs?

We are approaching the end of another school year, and we are seeing some positive signs with a number of states and districts getting back to the traditional school day. However, there are some that are still determining, is everyone ready? Not just the teachers and school staff but are parents ready to have their kids back in the traditional in-person school day. So, we are seeing positive signs, which is awesome.

What learnings have you and your team taken away from the past year?

Our takeaway is: how can we switch and adapt for the next unplanned thing? Do we have a plan in place to sustain ourselves and to recover?

When it comes to recovery, the challenge that we face is thinking through how we can do things differently. Are there different ways that we could approach our mission? Is it just this particular way or are there different programmatic models that we can offer to children in school districts? So it's almost changing the delivery of our mission and not just how do we bring back our staff and get back to normal, because normal could look totally different.