Innovative HR Team Leads with Remote Onboarding, Contact Tracing and Benefit Expansion

HR Super Heroes:

Sonja Atkins, Vice President, Learning & Organizational Development

Megan Mathews, People Team Business Partner, HRIS and Benefits

Erin Otero, People Team Coordinator

Jona Plath, People Team Business Partner

Jennifer Spaulding, People Team Senior Business Partner

Organization: GEI Consultants, Inc., is a consulting engineering and environmental firm that provides professional services to a range of private and public sector clients and has offices in 29 US states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

Number of Employees: 959

Size of HR Team: 6

Sonja Atkins, Megan Mathews, Erin Otero, Jona Plath, Jennifer Spaulding

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, HR professionals have supported and guided their organizations through great change, helping employers adapt and respond to new challenges.

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

In response, Julie Jennings, senior vice president and principal at GEI Consultants, nominated her people team of five as HR Super Heroes for their collective leadership and innovation in the face of the pandemic, the company's furloughs and reductions in force, civil and social unrest and more. XpertHR spoke with Jona Plath, people team business partner, about the group's efforts on behalf of employees and the company during the pandemic.

The interview has been edited for length.

Can you tell us about your company and where you're located?

GEI is an engineering and consulting firm. It was founded by five engineers out of Woburn, Massachusetts, 51 years ago. We are in 29 US states, Washington, DC, and Canada, with 40 offices in the US and three offices in Canada. Our projects include dams and levees, water storage facilities and other environmental science and engineering projects. In fact, GEI was one of the design firms that developed the freeway system that goes under the city of Boston.

You and your colleagues were nominated as HR Super Heroes for your leadership in response to the pandemic. What were some of the specific challenges that GEI faced, and how did HR respond?

Our team is small, but mighty: there are six of us. We support a staff of just under 1,000 people, so we do a lot with a little. We had the responsibility to lead the company through the pandemic, supporting the employees, advising the company how to respond safely based on WHO and CDC guidance, and developing a contact tracing app.

The company made every effort to minimize RIFs (reductions in force) and instead implement full-time and part-time furloughs, if needed. GEI had never had to reduce staff like this before, so the people team managed the process, providing talking points and scripts, guidance and support to managers to help them have the hard conversations. Nobody wants to be on the other end of that call to learn we're either letting you go or we're going to cut your hours down to 20, or we're going to temporarily lay you off. So we guided supervisors on how to have a personalized conversation through a virtual video call, and how to be compassionate without removing yourself from the responsibility of the decision.

I understand you also went to some lengths to adjust your company's benefits as a result of COVID-19.

GEI is part of a captive benefits program, so our team had to negotiate with all of our benefits partners to make sure that our furloughed and partially furloughed people still qualified for benefits. When COVID-19 didn't go away overnight, we negotiated again to keep our benefits active. In these tough times, we wanted to do the best we could for our staff.

We added telehealth, we eliminated deductibles, and we added additional coverage, creating a new temporary benefits classification. Since we have employees in 29 states and two countries, we have to keep up with multiple laws and regulations. Who has COVID-19 sick leave, who doesn't, what does that look like? Paid or unpaid? So, we're constantly looking at those things, mostly on a case-by-case basis because they change so quickly.

We also extended benefits for all employees to include small home workout equipment, like hand weights and yoga mats, because gyms were closed in many places. We wanted to do what we could to encourage people to find a different healthy outlet.

Another challenge was monitoring unemployment fraud, watching unemployment claims that came in and advocating for employees who found themselves subjected to people using their information to fraudulently collect unemployment benefits. Fortunately, we offer an identity theft benefit that employees can enroll in to help monitor their overall identities for multiple types of theft or fraud.

Your company created an in-house contact tracing application. Can you tell us more about this? Was it an HR-led initiative?

At the start of the pandemic we created our own contact tracing protocols and process, which was extensive. Because the work GEI employees do is considered essential in some locations, and we have employees out in the field, it was important to be able to notify staff of potential exposures. One of our team members, Jen Spaulding, became our contact tracing guru. Jen was the one making the connections and figuring out who would have to quarantine and what rules they should follow.

The people team worked with our SharePoint designer in IT to get the check-in and -out app up and running. There were two apps originally created: one if you were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and one that would track where you were and the day and time you arrived and left. This allowed us to figure out who you may have come in contact with if you were on a job site or in the office. Our offices were closed, but people could come in, if necessary, to get a proposal out, for example.

We still use the apps now, with the COVID-19 variants going around.

The pandemic caused your department to switch onboarding from in-person to virtual. How did you go about making that switch? Any hiccups along the way?

Our onboarding was always handled in person, at the branch level. We worked with the IT team to get equipment to new employees. IT had to have some conversations around security because now that new employees are not coming to an office, we switched to sending equipment to their homes, where people need to sign for it. We ran into some issues, such as if the person backs out of a signed offer, how do we get equipment back? So we worked through some of these issues as a partner with IT.

At the beginning of COVID-19, new hire paperwork was emailed and we instructed individuals to encrypt emails when they sent it back. We found that left us open to risk and wasn't compliant with new privacy laws, so we moved all of our onboarding documents to DocuSign. Now, we don't have to worry if people understand how to encrypt an email. It also allowed us to move the process directly to the people team, which streamlined things for our administrative assistants, cut down on wait time, and also enabled us to get our I-9s on time.

In DocuSign if an item on a form is required, you're not moving on in the form unless you supply it, so it's prevented a lot of incomplete forms from being returned and the follow up phone calls, which makes us more efficient. There are also timelines in DocuSign that allow you to make a document no longer available to a person after a certain time. So we had to come up with a new process and timeline for when new hire and benefits paperwork goes out and when it's due back.

Now the documents come directly to the people who need them, there's no extra set of hands, we're not waiting for someone to scan them. It's really gotten a good response.

Do you expect your company will permanently switch to a hybrid version of remote work?

We are considering it and are adapting to our clients' and employees' needs in real time. We are reviewing who needs to have access to office equipment, what issues working remote could cause and working on solutions that will help GEI thrive into the future. Like many companies, we are also reviewing our current commercial real estate needs and how to adapt our office set up to accommodate fewer people coming into the office on a regular basis. We expect that anything we roll out may need to change as things are constantly evolving with COVID-19.

Were there any other learnings that you and the team took away from the past year?

Well, collectively as a team we decided that we can pass on this ever happening again! But we really learned that it's critical to have a great HR team that works well together to respond effectively in stressful situations. Having the right people in the right roles during COVID-19 was very important. We have our key roles and we do them well, and we work well together.

We recognize the individual strengths of each team member and funnel work to the right person to get it done quickly and efficiently. And we're able to be thought partners with our teammates when we get stuck or we need help, or we'll direct them to somebody else in the organization that has experience or would know how to find a solution, for example: "We need to go to this person in IT for our app to be built."

We already knew we had a great team, but the pandemic underscored it for us.