Covid Files

During the confinement period and emerging from lockdown, we have been speaking to HR and Talent Leaders across Europe to see how they have been managing Covid-related HR issues, and how they are planning Talent Acquisition to ramp up recovery. Find their thoughts and comments below:

 

Alex Carnevale, Global Operations Executive & Turnaround Expert

Current: 

Which measures have you seen taken from an HR perspective to keep operating during the lockdown?

  • High frequency of communications on all levels (senior leadership, local)
  • Transparent discussions (don’t lie, be open on things that are unknown or evolving)
  • Proactive and professional cooperation with unions, works councils
  • Create systems and processes for people to be heard (2-way feedback)
  • Manage HR on national level (ie government subsidies) keep consistency by country even if you are organized differently

Over the last months I have participated on several global multi-panelist webinars with Safestart (a workplace safety training company) to exchange best practice safety protocols in a Covid environment. Every participant has been open, humble and able to admit they don’t have the answers.

Some of the panelists had never been involved in a factory closure, and participants in the US noted that more facilities were kept open there compared to Europe, where around two thirds of production plants were shut down at one point.

Across all industries and regions, the consistent message was that this is an opportunity to build trust and unity between management, leadership, workers and unions – there can be differences of opinion, but everybody wants exactly the same thing – a workplace which can be productive while safeguarding the health of all employees.

What particular challenges are companies facing? Anything which hasn’t been talked about in the business press?

  • Managing information and misinformation is a huge challenge (especially in hyper-available information age, social media, etc)
  • Facts about the illness itself have evolved, changed as more has been learned
  • Balancing desire to keep plants open with appropriate risk is harder as things can change on daily basis

Which sectors have fared better during the crisis?

  • Technology, especially remote
  • Manufacturing (varies, depends on supply chain challenges)
  • Food and essential services

Obviously, the air, cruise and hotel industries have been pummeled by the crisis, and probably not all the major incumbents will survive. On the other hand, due to the enormous uptake in food deliveries, packaging has been booming. Even on a much smaller scale there are positive stories – as more of us shop locally to avoid large supermarkets, specialised stores are benefiting.

What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on the way companies are resourcing and approaching Talent? (hiring freeze, slowdown, only replacements...?)

  • Freezes were first reaction (cash conservation)
  • Good companies will discuss keeping continuity on talent development and attraction
  • This crisis exposes what the leadership and operating culture of a company really is
  • Finding and developing agility in talent (remote working, dealing with ambiguity) becomes more important

What do think will be the impact of the Corona virus on general Talent strategy over the next 12 months? Will companies adopt a conservative wait-and-see attitude?

  • Good companies will move much quicker than 12 months, will find available talent and develop from within.
  • Most companies will wait and delay, as much for cash reasons as anything

How have organizations managed messaging and internal communications across the region? How has this contributed to maintaining employee engagement?

Best practice is deliver “context” message from senior leadership (situation, expectations, commitments, priorities) then let local leadership have the freedom to manage the day to day.  Things change so quickly the operational management has to be done on the ground and not centrally.

A multinational I have been working with has been through a journey of modernization over the last 5 years. The efforts made to embed strong leadership principles, agile culture and dealing effectively with ambiguity have really paid off – working with constantly changing messages, bad information and unknown situations typifies the Covid workplace, and the whole company has been able to maintain its focus on how to create successful outcomes despite this.

Have you seen any creative ways in which companies have contributed to the fight against Covid-19 (not necessarily financially)?

  • Engage the families (24/7 mentality)
  • Share supply chains on PPE, protective equipment with neighbor companies
  • Support families, ie schoolchildren situations
  • Change production to make PPE (ie a building products company changed a knitting line over to make masks)

Future:

What do you think companies should be doing to get back on track?

Simplify Priorities, Set Clear Protocols On Covid Management, Keep Communicating.

To kickstart growth, where do you think investments in new resources can best be made? Sales and Marketing, Procurement, or other areas?

Depends on the industry.  All of the above represent opportunity.  Sales is huge opportunity as the traditional ways of selling (ie high face to face) may be radically changed.  So this is big opportunity.  Partnering on helping customers production stay active is another opportunity. It should also be remembered that many great companies have been founded in times of crisis and depression.

How do you view the next 6-12 months from a growth and HR perspective?

There will be opportunities but it will be selective rather than broad (ie individual companies and industries) overall will remain depressed vs prior years but pockets of growth will be there.

Do you anticipate that the crisis will make any lasting changes to the way people work, or the way they are allowed to work? (eg more teleworking, less/more travel, more reliance on IT tools, other...)?

All of the above.  I think of it as a rubber band that is not fully retractable.  Things will come back in the direction of “normal” but not fully.  There will be more use of remote and technology.  Face to face interaction will still be valued but may look differently

What have you been surprised by in a positive way from an HR/TA point of view?

People at all levels (including unions) are more open and flexible because everyone recognizes this is seismic event.  So there is an opportunity to make real change happen faster than it was possible before.

To conclude:

What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?

Companies being able to change faster than they thought possible.  Better cooperation in many directions

What changes will you make to the way you live or work after things get back to normal?

  • Keep better health, life balance.
  • Be thoughtful and selective on meetings

 

Joris Blommaerts, Chief HR Officer EMEIA - Sumitomo Drive Technologies

Which measures did Sumitomo Drive Technologies take from an HR perspective to keep operating during the lockdown?

As soon as the first signals of a covid-19 outbreak became apparent in Europe, we switched to smart working/working from home for all of our office staff. For our colleagues who could not work from home, we provided facemasks, sanitising hand gels, wipes for cleaning keyboards and telephones… We increased the cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities. On top of this, we made sure that social distancing was possible in all the areas in our factories. We changed the layout of the changing rooms and the canteen, we enforced a maximum number of people in each room... We changed shift patterns where possible so people could take care of their children who were suddenly at home during lockdown. Extra flexibility in terms of office hours helped our employees to combine all the tasks that were expected of them… Finally, we increased the frequency of our meetings with our unions to keep the finger on the pulse and to be able to take additional measures quickly and with the buy in of all our stakeholders. We also intensified the communication to our employees on suspected infections in order to reduce panic and avoid rumours. Especially during the first days this was very important. Our approach worked and we were able to keep operating for the entire period.

What particular challenges has Sumitomo Drive Technologies faced through Covid-19?

There were many… In the beginning, there was a lot of pressure from some of our employees to stop production. People were afraid to come to work. Our illness rate skyrocketed. On the other side, some colleagues still needed to be convinced that it was not just a seasonal flu. We needed to stop some very ingrained habits (like shaking hands) which was for some people not easy. Gradually everybody saw the need for these measures and we now even have a lower illness rate than normal. Luckily, we had stocked up facemasks and sanitizer before the beginning of the crisis, but after a while we had problems replenishing our stock. We managed to get additional masks through our colleagues in the group in Asia. Solidarity and the spirit of ‘getting it done’ has really emerged during these difficult times.

What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on your Talent Acquisition planning in the last months?

In the beginning of the crisis we didn’t have a severe impact yet. In the meantime many of our customers are going through tough times, which means we are also starting to feel the impact. This means we look very critically to all open positions. We are still investing (especially now), but very focused, aimed at these areas which are critical for our future growth. What will be the impact of the Corona virus on your Talent strategy over the next 12 months? At this time the future is very uncertain. Nobody can predict when the crisis will be over and how severe the consequences will be. This is why we are very careful. Nevertheless, we do know that we will have quite some (early) retirements coming up in our group, so we need to plan for a proper succession.

What implications do you see for your resourcing needs due to the coronavirus?

No change.

How have you managed your messaging and internal communications across the region? How have you maintained employee motivation?

We have intensified our communication with all our internal stakeholders. We had periodical corona crisis team meetings. In these meetings the general topics were discussed and communicated. Through our intranet, we updated the organisation on a daily basis of the number of infections or people that had to be tested (luckily not a lot) and countermeasures in place. We also encouraged managers to have regular team meetings to discuss the status and to provide a forum for employees to raise any topic. We stressed the fact that we were one of the few companies that remained open in the early days of the crisis and the fact that we were very proud and thankful for the resilience of our people. Our general managers were insisting on being present in the factory and available for their people…

Are there ways in which Sumitomo Drive Technologies has been able to contribute to the fight against Covid-19?

Our products are used in many essential applications, ranging from energy, over waste water treatment to medical industries (a.o. respirators). We are very proud that we were able to continue to supply our customers and in this way contribute to keeping the essential industries running. We also printed some headsets for face shields on our 3D printer and donated them to the local hospital.

Future:

What measures are in place for the return to work (or to the office)?

We will keep the current measures in place. This means less people in each office, bigger distance between the desks, keep doors open so people don’t need to touch the door handles, more space in the dressing rooms and the canteen.

Will the crisis make any lasting changes at Sumitomo Drive Technologies to the way people work, or the way they are allowed to work?

Our way of working will definitely change. Even though we were already working on flexible working, digitalization etc, all of these discussions accelerated. Teleworking will be the new normal, albeit that we also need to consider the disadvantages. We will keep a minimum of presence in the office in order to keep a strong connection between colleagues. MS Teams calls cannot replace the informal conversations at the coffee machine. We will certainly continue our efforts to work paperless and digitalize our processes. And I hope we can keep the agility and the way most of our people embraced the changes.

What have you been surprised by in a positive way from an HR/TA point of view?

I was positively surprised by the speed at which telework was adopted. After months of discussions about technical issues and who would be eligible for telework, we were thrown from one day to another into this new reality. Our people have been very resilient and open for this new way of working. Also in our factories people understood quickly that a change was needed. Sometimes work became harder, but nobody complained, adapted their way of working and helped each other out. Our core values are ‘customer first’, ‘passionate about technology’, ‘respect’ and ‘embrace change’. These VUCA circumstances have really given us the opportunity to show that we actually are living these values.

To conclude:

What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?

I have started traveling again last week of June and I must say that even though we managed to work together well by videocalls, I have enjoyed my first Italian coffee at the coffee machine and my first dinner with colleagues after all these months… The personal contact I have missed a lot over the past couple of months. I also look forward to the moment where we can say this crisis is over and we can celebrate in one way or another that we have managed to manoeuvre through this crisis and come out stronger.

What changes will you personally make to the way you live or work after things get back to normal?

I will definitely appreciate the small things in life more. Playing table tennis with my son in the garden or playing a boardgame with my daughter. Working from home will also be a new standard in my life. The time I gain while not having to commute, I will spend on some quality time with my family.

Wolfgang Schiller, VP HR Communications, Ideal Standard International, Brussels

Which measures did Ideal Standard take from an HR perspective to keep operating during the lockdown?

From looking at the situation in March, when the lockdown seemed likely, I am rather proud of the speed at which we executed our plan; in early April we prepared for “short time” work, managed the ramp-down of our plants, and shifted all office-based white-collar staff company-wide to teleworking and 3 or 4-day weeks. It was a new experience for our HR team across the region, but they implemented it extremely well.

We introduced a Leadership contribution scheme, in which our senior team took a salary cut while continuing to work full-time. All temp agency and consulting agreements were stopped and all recruiting was halted as part of our efforts to protect the company.

Combining these measures with funding strong focus on cash management, we are in good shape and moving towards recovery.

What particular challenges has Ideal Standard faced through Covid-19?

We have similar issues to other companies including our competitors with a wide manufacturing footprint; underutilized factories have quite an impact on our overall profitability.

Also most of our customers’ warehouses were closed, so we couldn’t deliver stocks – we are B2B, so have store owners or DB’s as customers. We do not yet see a major impact on our business from a slowdown in construction, but it is not inconceivable that it will come. Our e-commerce business represents an opportunity for future growth – while fittings are well-suited to ecommerce, relatively few people buy bathroom ceramics on the web to install themselves.

What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on your Talent Acquisition planning in the last months?

We have stopped recruiting, but there is relatively little overall impact; over the last couple of years we have upgraded our talent base, especially at the senior level, as well as in our Operations and Commercial departments.

What implications do you see for your resourcing needs due to the coronavirus? 

These months have been a test of strength for everybody – companies have discovered they must make changes in certain functions to survive. We expect to do more upgrading of the capabilities of our existing staff, such as additional technical training for our commercial teams.

How have you managed your messaging and internal communications across the region? How have you maintained employee motivation?

What works very well is that our CEO is very strong communicator, arranging regular video calls with all employees and bi-weekly leadership calls. This is also the case locally by the country leaders. This way all employees are kept informed as fully, personally and directly as possible.

What measures are in place for the return to work (or to the office)?

All our plants are operating again, albeit at reduced capacity. We have implemented strict guidelines on distancing, use of masks and hygiene.

The company has not been at a standstill; most of our colleagues have been working (from home) between 3-4 days per week, with only the senior leaders working Fridays.

A good performer has an intrinsic motivation, so doesn’t need a supervisor’s physical proximity. When I assign work to my team, I am confident of how they will perform; I am really happy about the way they maintained their productivity. Trust is key, and you need to be more clear about expectations of how to work together. I am strongly in favour of giving more freedom.

How do you view the next 6-12 months from an HR / TA perspective

We will remain conservative; as the business recovers we will revisit the question, but overall recruitment activities will remain at a low level.

Will the crisis make any lasting changes at Ideal Standard to the way people work, or the way they are allowed to work?

Yes, the amount of time which can be saved by not commuting is very encouraging. For example, commuting to our office in Brussels can be a nightmare, so I tell my team they don’t need to be in the office every day or they can arrive later, but when we have a meeting, I need them to come in. People shouldn’t be left to work solely from home, but getting more flexibility is very desirable for an employee, and makes an employer more attractive.

We have travel cost savings targets, so a regime of less travel is beneficial for us. We had made big investments in video tools, which were underutilized, but the recent experience has been overwhelmingly positive. One day of meetings sandwiched between 2 days of travel for 15 people can be achieved in a much more efficient way.

What have you been surprised by in a positive way from an HR/TA point of view?

I am very excited that we have been somewhat forced into a test of how to do things differently, and I am really passionate about using this as an opportunity to look at how to work differently together in the future. The model of everybody working in the office all day is a bit outdated, but changing it is all a question of trust.

My main takeaway is that this may strongly impact the leadership profiles of the future. This experience will make employees more demanding with respect to flexibility, but if you maintain your old-fashioned control-oriented leader profile, it will fail.

HR Director EMEA, Steelmaking Support

Which measures did your organization take from an HR perspective to keep operating during the lockdown?

Initially we focused on safety for our employees on site (office staff and operators) by enhancing our safety measures, enforcing social distancing and facilitating personal protective equipment.  At the same time, we started restricting access to all external personnel to ensure our employees were not exposed and as things gradually deteriorated, we restricted travel.  Finally, we mobilized our IT teams to ensure that everyone who could work from home had the necessary tools and internet access.

What particular challenges has your company faced through Covid-19?

The main issue we face is that our sales force needs to be present at the customer as we provide specialized support to their manufacturing processes.  With the travel restrictions in place and borders closed.  Most of our sales teams have had to adapt in order to virtually provide the support to the customer.

What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on your Talent Acquisition planning in the last months (hiring freeze, slowdown, only replacements...)?

Most of the non-critical roles that we were recruiting have been put on hold as a company wide hiring freeze has been implemented.  However, there are a few key roles that we continue to recruit.

What will be the impact of the Corona virus on your Talent strategy over the next 12 months?

The main focus will be to ensure that we can retain the current talent we have in our ranks as motivation and engagement will be a big challenge as we adapt to the new reality of work.  We will continue to look for the best talent for our key roles that are vacant or have been created to support our business strategy.

What implications do you see for your resourcing needs due to the coronavirus? 

I believe things will be more or less back to normal in terms of recruitment but one thing that will change, for many roles, is that working remotely has been proven extensively as an option so we may not look to relocate people to some of our sites as we previously did.

How have you managed your messaging and internal communications across the region? How have you maintained employee motivation?  

There have been two key developments in this area, a weekly call with our CEO and senior leaders to review the current state of things as well as an internal newsletter detailing the major developments for the group.  On a regional and local level, senior leaders have engaged on weekly or even daily calls to ensure people remain engaged and connected to the business.

Are there ways in which your company has been able to contribute to the fight against Covid-19 (not necessarily financially)?

We have had several initiatives by local teams where we have supported local hospitals and health professionals with protective equipment, manufacturing alcohol-based disinfectant but more importantly, making sure every member and their families are informed and conscious of how they can contribute to stop the spread of the virus has been key.

What measures are in place for the return to work (or to the office)?

Social distancing and clear messages are key at every company site that is open.  We have provided the necessary protective equipment and instructions to ensure these measures are respected.

How do you view the next 6-12 months from an HR / TA perspective?

The biggest challenge I see is going to be related to the risk aversion many candidates will have due to the uncertainty of the current situation.  If we try to engage candidates who are currently employed, they may not be inclined in taking the risk of leaving their employer for another opportunity.

Will the crisis make any lasting changes at your company to the way people work, or the way they are allowed to work?

I believe it should as the office space as we know it needs to adapt for a mobile work force that has proven to be effective remotely.  We can definitely reconfigure our spaces to facilitate collaborative work and not necessarily for permanent physical presence.  Business travel as well should be reduced as we now know that not all meetings need to be in person.

What have you been surprised by in a positive way from an HR point of view?

The solidarity everyone has shown to make personal sacrifices to help their colleagues.  Either by sacrificing salary, bonus or working time in order to save employment, it is a very strong message that we are all together in this.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?

I am looking forward to embracing a new way of working and to learn how this challenging period has had an impact on the way we do things.  Every day there will be more and more stories about innovation and progress that we would have not imagined before this crisis.

What changes will you make to the way you live or work after things get back to normal?

My work was already remote and virtual in a very high percentage before the crisis but it will definitely change in the way we collaborate with the rest of the organization going forward.

HR Leader - Industrial Manufacturing, Tyres (Italy)

Which measures did your organization take from an HR perspective to keep operating during the lockdown?

  • Our business and HR processes already operate with Agile methodologies, so we only halted production and logistics operations. The other departments continued to work from home.
  • We have made heavy investments in IT infrastructure so have the advantange of a good level in “digitalization”.
  • Internal communication on daily basis with operating and positive information.

What particular challenges has the company faced through Covid-19? Any challenges specific to the Covid situation in Italy?

  • In Italy we did not have the time to monitor the progression of the pandemic in neighbouring countries – we had to organize an immediate shutdown. This obviously meant a high level of stress in our workforce. We have concentrated our efforts on constant – daily - internal communication with positive information.

What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on your Talent Acquisition (TA) planning in the last months (hiring freeze, slowdown, only replacements...?)

  • Perhaps surprisingly, not a great deal until now; at the beginning of June we hired a Mechanical Designer selected during the lockdown time.

What will be the impact of the Corona virus on your Talent strategy over the next 12 months?

  • We are now facing some problems in our market so I presume that we will move into a hiring freeze.

What measures are in place for the return to work (or to the office)?

  • We are following a strict set of guidelines mandated by the government, which include all the widely known safeguarding measures. We are close to having 100% of the workforce back in the office.
  • We have a working group comprising HSE, Unions and HR which meets weekly to discuss developments and concerns in the workforce.

How do you view the next 6-12 months from an HR / TA perspective?

  • Emerging from the crisis, I think that our task in HR will be 100% devoted to employee relations, in order to manage the high stress levels across all departments.
  • The crisis has increased the focus on HR as a problem-solver partner to the business and the workforce.

Will Covid-19 make any lasting changes at Your organization to the way people work, or the way they are allowed to work? (eg more teleworking, less/more travel, more reliance on IT tools, other...)

  • Not really; our agile working principles mean that outside of production and logistics, most staff already have the flexibility to work where they wish.