Podcast: Managing Employees During a Global Pandemic

Working from home is one thing, but working from home with children in the house 24/7 or elderly relatives to care for is quite another. On this podcast, XpertHR Managing Director Scott Walker discusses those challenges, how this crisis has affected him personally and specific steps he has taken to maintain staff morale.

"We don't know when this is going to end. All of our offices are in a form of lockdown," said Walker. "You need to strike that right balance between creating a sense of fun and engagement when people are working at home disconnected from their team members." Other key topics Walker addresses include:

  • Planning for the future not knowing if it will be 4 to 6 weeks or 4 to 6 months until some sense of "normalcy" returns;
  • Challenges from a business continuity perspective;
  • Ways to use video technology as an opportunity; and
  • What he is hearing from colleagues at other companies.

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Additional Resources

Podcast: How Employers Should Handle Coronavirus Concerns

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Workplace Resource Center


David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld for XpertHR.com, published by Reed Business Information and proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

Whether you work for a global business, small company or something in between, no one's work life has been unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic. And that's certainly true for us all here at XpertHR. So on this podcast we'll look at the challenges of managing a staff that's suddenly 100% remote, plus how to plan ahead when the immediate future seems so uncertain.

And we'll do it with someone who, like you, is facing those very issues, XpertHR's Managing Director Scott Walker. Scott is responsible for employees in the US, UK and the Netherlands, and he joins us from his home in London. Scott, it's good to have you back on our podcast series but wish it was under better circumstances. [0:01:08.5]

Scott Walker: Hi. Thank you David. Yeah, as always it's a pleasure to speak with you. And it's been interesting times.

David Weisenfeld: That is for sure, on both sides of the Atlantic and many other places as well. And really, Scott, the closest parallel, if there even is one, to what we're going through was the Spanish Flu of 1918, so needless to say no playbook at all for this. How did you go from zero to 60 in having a staff all at home really all at once, as opposed to in the office? [0:01:37.2]

Scott Walker: It was interesting. I think probably it's worth noting we're luckier than most. So obviously we're part of a large, global organization, being part of the RELX group. So, things like business continuity planning and disaster recovery and all those sorts of contingency plans are in place. So, we benefitted from already having a very well established, if you like, back-up plan should things happen. We haven't had to worry too much about that, which has been great.

Also I suppose the other thing for us is because we're essentially a digital publishing company we can function remotely. So, we don't require being face-to-face with individuals in order for our business to function. So, those two factors aren't necessary. It's not always that straightforward for our customers - we certainly know that. So in many ways we were luckier than most.

But even having said that, it's not straightforward. So, firstly just in terms of enabling that to work we actually made sure that we had the right kit in place, that individuals had laptops. And luckily most of the organization were already readied, but there were a number of individuals that we had to get a new kit for in order to make sure that they could work from home.

And certainly when it comes to running our systems and our products we had a couple of test scenarios. So, whilst we already knew that we had confidence that our systems and products could run completely remotely, we actually set up a couple of test days where the technology teams were remote.

So, we went into this with a high degree of confidence but pivoted quite quickly because what we saw, David, of course, was a gradual escalation. So, we had offices open and in different jurisdictions and in different cities around the world. They were closing down at different rates. So, we could see that that was likely to happen. So, we had a bit of time to plan ahead.

So, the technology piece is a big part of it, but again we benefit from being a digital publisher, which allows for us to function successfully remotely.

David Weisenfeld: So working from home is one thing, but working from home with children in the house 24/7 with schools closed is certainly another. What's this been like personally for you? [0:03:58.5]

Scott Walker: Yeah, it has been interesting. And no one will come out of this without being affected. So I have two children, Scarlett and Olivia, ages 12 and 9, and actually my wife lost her job last week. She works in real estate and lost her position. So, in many ways that's made it a little bit easier because she's been around to support us in the delivery of home-schooling.

But it's interesting - the new 'normal' is now getting a window into the world of your colleagues when they're at home. We've invested already in significant kind of collaboration tools. So, we have video conferencing on everybody's laptop. So it's been fun, actually. And meeting everyone's pets and meeting everyone's children when we're doing video conference calls.

It kind of gives you a window into your colleagues' lives, which you never previously got. And as a kind of bit of a positive that comes out of it, you get to know each other a little bit better. We've been, over video, meeting each other's partners and children. It's been fun but challenging.

David Weisenfeld: Absolutely. Well Scott, one thing I wanted to ask you about is during these times, very tough asking people to give 100% or more in many cases, but often that's what has to be done to keep a business running. But how do you do that when, as we noted with kids at home or pets at home, it might be that people only have the 90% to realistically give at a given moment in time. How do you navigate that? [0:05:34.3]

Scott Walker: Yeah, the first thing for us, you have to be understanding. So, we've made it quite clear to our teams, "Look, you have to strike the right balance. You need to do what you need to do to take care of your families." And we've trusted our teams to balance their responsibilities from their families to their employers. And that's meant that some individuals do have to take time out during the day to say, "Look, I'm just not going to be available for these periods of time."

We need to be understanding of that. And we've certainly given direction to our managers to try to mitigate that and plan around it, and we've asked colleagues to demonstrate that flexibility, pick up some slack where it's needed, and really just kind of all rally together as a team. But you have to allow that flexibility because it's a model that none of us are used to, and we all have responsibilities.

And it's not just if you have children. You know, if you have elderly relatives, if you have people that are self-isolating. My wife this morning had to go out and get groceries for her brother who's been diagnosed and is now self-isolating. Likewise she has an elderly mother that she had to go and get groceries for. So, I had to make sure I was available this morning to support the children in their home-schooling and not be available for calls. So we all have responsibilities at this time, and it's about doing the right thing, and as an employer showing that degree of understanding and flexibility.

David Weisenfeld: Yeah, that's a great point. And similar issues with the grocery runs here in New Jersey. I wanted to ask as well whether you've had to take specific steps along those lines to maintain staff morale with everybody being remote? [0:07:22.1]

Scott Walker: One of the things I've been really conscious of is, let's be honest, we don't know in all the three markets that we serve - the US, the UK and the Netherlands - we don't know when this is going to end. We are, all three markets now where we have offices, are in essentially a form of lockdown as obviously everybody's working remotely.

You need to strike that right balance between creating a sense of fun and engagement for people when they're at home and when they're disconnected from their team members. And we have seen some amazing ideas that have come from our managers.

So to give you an example, my UK account management team, so part of the sales organization, they have got a weekly schedule of events. We have a native French speaker in the team, and he's now running lunchtime French lessons over video on a Thursday lunchtime. One of the teams is running daily wellbeing sessions and mindfulness sessions. Again, all over video.

We're really taking advantage of the video technology that we've got to make sure that people stay connected. We've been able to use it to have daily video huddles to start the day. And I've said to my managers, even if it's not talking about work, even if it's an opportunity just to connect and just talk about what's going on in each other's lives.

And I always make this point, David, as well, is I'm at home with my family - my wife and my children - but we have plenty of people that work for us that will live on their own. And actually that sense of isolation escalates quite significantly when you are living alone.

And we have a responsibility to ensure the mental wellbeing of our employees because we will come out the other side of this, and we want our employees to come out of it with us feeling positive and engaged and supported. So, thinking about how we create a meaningful experience for them and create that human interaction, that isn't just jumping on conference calls all day. So the teams have done brilliantly, and I have to applaud the managers for getting really creative around some of the ideas.

David Weisenfeld: Scott you're in a unique position, as you noted, with employees in three different countries that you could be dealing with on any given day. What's been the message that you're getting from above and is it different depending on where those employees are located? [0:09:39.3]

Scott Walker: We have had to respond to the very rapidly evolving situation in the markets that we serve, and that has evolved at a different pace. So, we've had to be really mindful of firstly government advice that's coming out, as well as what our customers need in those markets and our ability to be able to meet those needs.

So, for example, we had closed offices at different times. So, we didn't shut all of our offices in all locations at the same time. We responded to the advice that we were being given by government and the needs of individual local markets. So, we were definitely demonstrating, as I think is the common-sense approach, is to thinking about what's the right thing to do in each of the markets at the time when it needs to get done.

But I must be honest, again fortunate working for a large multinational, but they've been very supportive of the individual businesses in ensuring that we've got what we need and that we're empowered to make the right decisions for our teams in predominantly supporting our customers, actually, and our employees. So it's been really good, they've been great. And they've allowed us to do the right things at the right time, which has been awesome.

David Weisenfeld: Well let's talk planning, and of course as we record this nobody really knows how long this all is going to last, but here in the US the Centers for Disease Control has recommended no gatherings of 50 or more until mid-May at minimum, and in some states it's a much smaller number gathering than that.

So, people are undoubtedly thinking, "How do I plan for the future, not knowing if this is going to be 4-6 weeks or 4-6 months?" So, how do you plan ahead? [0:11:16.3]

Scott Walker: Yeah, great question. Two weeks ago when this really started to escalate for us in our markets we did a couple of things. Firstly, we needed to make sure that we had the ability for people to work remotely and to be supported and to have everything that they need in order to successfully execute their role. Once we knew we had that in place it was then about, "Okay, how's this going to affect our customers?"

Certainly we know that we're seeing a shutdown of certain sectors and that certain sectors that cannot function remotely are being obviously drastically affected, whether that's retail, hospitality, travel, tourism. So, we know that we're going to be affected because our customers will be affected, even though it doesn't affect our ability to be able to deliver product.

In fact, if anything, the need for our product right now is possibly at its peak because of the nature of what's going on and the pressure that HR are facing. But nonetheless our customers will be affected which means that the longer that this goes on, the greater chance there is that businesses will struggle and unfortunately some businesses may close.

So, we've started to plan for that. So, literally two weeks ago we sat down and we said, "Okay, let's build a financial plan to understand what do we think would happen to our revenues if this lasted until, say, the 1st of June?" We then did another plan of what if it lasted until the 1st September, and another plan of what happens if it goes all the way through to the end of the year. And so we were able to financially model, "Okay, what does that mean for us?" And again, as in all modelling there's a degree of estimation and guess-timation that goes into that.

And then we were able to think about, "Okay, what steps do we need to take now to make sure that we're protecting jobs and protecting our ability to continue to produce and provide value for our customers?"

So, we've taken some really simple steps like we haven't done a hiring freeze but we are starting to just demonstrate caution when we're making new hires. And we want to make sure that we're keeping a decent sort of handle on our cost base so that if this does go on for a longer period of time and a number of our customers are affected, and if we were to see that affect our own revenues, that we would be well positioned to ride through that and without having to take any drastic steps.

So the reality is you never know, but I think it is important that business leaders take that opportunity to plan, to think ahead, and start to think, "Well what does this mean for us?"

David Weisenfeld: Again we're speaking with XpertHR Managing Director Scott Walker. And Scott, you certainly just touched on some of the business continuity issues that you're facing. Are there any other challenges, though, that you think people would want to know about or that you would like to mention? [0:13:56.4]

Scott Walker: When we stop to think about the impact that this is going to have across different industries, and particularly when we think about the support packages that are being put in place by the respective governments, there's an enormous amount of uncertainty, and we cannot possibly know at this point how that's all going to play out. But I think what we're tried to do is we've tried to focus on the customer. So we, as you know David, being part of our US editorial team, we pivoted our resources to focus on coronavirus two or three weeks ago because we saw the possibility that this would have an unbelievably impactful effect on our customers.

So, we've been able to think about, "Okay, what's the right thing for us to do?" And we're starting to now think about, "Okay, what are the things that we need to do to be able to deliver that value for our customers during that time?" So really simple things. We made a real simple update to the product last week to make sure that coronavirus search results were displaying at the top of the results page so that it was easier for people to find the resources that they need.

So we're starting to think about, "Where do we shift where we're making resources available today versus what we need to be doing to really react to the situation that we're in?" So our mantra has really been:

  • What does the customer need?
  • How can we maximize value to the customer?
  • How can we do that in a way that supports them through this process?

We're fairly unique because obviously we are creating content and guidance and tools around this virus, so it definitely impacts our customers in a meaningful way and it's had to result in us shifting our focus and our resources to be able to do that. So I think that's one of the most important things. For me it's always about if you focus on how it affects your customer. Does it change what they need from you in the short-term?

Addressing that, responding to that, whilst continuing to support your employees in a way that enables them to be successful at what they do, you'll come out of this the other side just much better off, hopefully with a stronger relationship with your customers and maybe even your colleagues building stronger relationships with each other.

David Weisenfeld: Excellent point. I'm curious what you're hearing from colleagues who might be sitting where you sit at other companies. Any good insights that you can share? [0:16:20.9]

Scott Walker: A couple of observations. One, I think we are seeing a slightly different response, as you would expect, in different markets. When I speak to colleagues around the world, different communities if you like or populations are reacting differently to it. So, we're certainly seeing a difference in response based upon the location.

Some customers are carrying on more as normal and in other countries and markets customers are harder to get hold of and actually aren't in a kind of work mindset. So, there's definitely an issue depending on where your business is and where your customers are. They may be responding or reacting culturally differently or even because their situation and circumstance are different in that particular country.

And I've seen that actually playing out across many peers that I've spoken to. They're experiencing very similar things. So, I think that's one observation.

The other thing that I mentioned earlier is really the degree to which government is stepping in to provide support, and again the three countries in which we operate in are all taking a slightly different approach to this. And actually what that means for particularly small and medium businesses in those markets and their ability to be able to ride this storm out and get to the other side of this still with a functioning business in place, and there is a lot of concern I know for those organizations that serve smaller businesses as to how this will ultimately affect them and how they will actually be able to get the support they need from central government to be able to kind of ride out the storm.

So, different things happening in different markets. I think really focusing on the customer and the impact on it and thinking about what this looks like for them when they come out the other side of it in, I don't know, a month, three months, five months, however long that may be.

David Weisenfeld: And just before we go, Scott, is there anything else that you'd like to mention for HR professionals in our listening audience? [0:18:18.6]

Scott Walker: For those of you that are customers, you may have had the opportunity to see a message that I sent out last week. I think that the role of HR at this time is so critical. We understand completely that HR professionals are at the frontline of companies' and organizations' response to this virus. We know that HR professionals are inundated, both with requests for advice from below and actually for direction from above in terms of, "How do we handle this?"

So, I've spoken to customers and had some really nice messages back from them and exchanges with the customers. I know how much they're really overwhelmed at the moment with requests that are coming both from employees as well as from their boards and from their leadership teams.

I would say there's never been a more important time as an HR professional to provide value back into the organizations that you support. Hopefully we can help you do that, and I hope that you're making use of the tools that we're busy updating every single day and creating every single day. But just to say, look, everyone is in our thoughts. Please stay safe, stay healthy, and we'll get out of this the other side.

David Weisenfeld: Good message to end on. Scott Walker is Managing Director at XpertHR where he oversees our products in the US, UK and the Netherlands. Scott, we appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to join us. [0:19:40.9]

Scott Walker: Thank you, David. It's been a pleasure.

David Weisenfeld: I'm David Weisenfeld. Thanks for listening. Continue checking our website regularly for more COVID-19-themed podcasts for the duration of this crisis, including How Employers Should Handle Coronavirus Concerns.

The opinions expressed in this program do not represent legal advice, nor should they necessarily be taken as the views of XpertHR or its employees. XpertHR.com is published by Reed Business Information, and is proudly partnered with LexisNexis.

For more information about XpertHR, our subscription offering, or our 50-state Employee Handbook, call us toll free at 1-855-973-7847.