Blog Culture/Agency Life

How the Pandemic Gave Our People-First Culture a Whole New Meaning

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Author: Elizabeth Famiglietti, Chief People & Culture Officer at PAN Communications, headshot
Elizabeth FamigliettiChief People and Culture Officer

Our culture at PAN has always been defined by the phrase “people-first.” However, on March 1 in the face of the global pandemic, this important foundation of our core values took on a whole new meaning. Planning training programs, refreshing our reward and recognition programs, and recruiting top talent – all critical parts of our HR team – had to take an immediate back seat to building new protocols to track symptoms, manage travel policies and outline mandatory quarantines.

The flurry of employee questions started to come in. Do I need to quarantine if my roommate traveled internationally? Should I cancel my client meeting for two weeks from now? Some questions were easy to answer. For example, anything that involved the safety of our staff was simple, as the well-being of our team is always the top priority. But other questions required more thoughtful conversation, research and insights shared with industry colleagues.

After working in HR for many years, you start to instinctively know what to do. You know how to navigate even the most difficult waters. But this was new to all of us. – The much-used term unprecedented took on a whole new meaning, as well. This was unprecedented – for everyone.

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But I’m proud to be part of an organization that acted fast, even when all the answers weren’t clear. We were proactive in immediately moving our workforce to 100% remote to ensure everyone’s safety. In retrospect, this helped us as the weeks started to tick by as we were able to quickly move past the 14-day stage of having been together as a team in our offices, lowering the potential impact of the virus spreading amongst our team members.

Working from home was an easy decision for us. Remote work is not a new concept for PAN, and we are grateful to be able to successfully service our clients without disruption. We are also fortunate to have fantastic IT team leaders who quickly sent out best practice reminders to ensure our home technology set-ups were ready to go.

While our employees settled into their routines and together helped to build a virtual PAN community, my focus remained people-first. But what that meant shifted. The conversations I found myself having were not about the usual HR subjects – career development and talent management. They focused much more on the physical and mental well-being of our employees. Our basic sense of security as human beings was threatened. Our job in HR shifted to doing our part to ease that fear in whatever way we could. Daily check-ins with employees became the norm. Consuming as much information as possible on COVID-19 via reliable sources – reading papers, watching the news, joining industry forums, reaching out to friends and colleagues – became integral parts of our day.

employee engagement in a remote workforce

As our CEO reminded us in our first virtual all-staff meeting, this challenging and sad situation will have a beginning, a middle and an end. His number one philosophy during this time has been to lead with transparency. Those words helped me each day to focus on what we were dealing with in the moment and doing everything I could to take care of our people in that moment. Just as many of our client programs needed to pivot to crisis or corporate/employee communications, our people strategy needed to shift as well.

While we have a ways to go before we reach the end stage of this, I can share the critical steps we took at the beginning and now in the middle stage of this crisis.

Six Tips for HR Professionals to Stay Engaged with Employees During a Pandemic

  1. Increase frequency of communication and touch points with staff at all levels. In fact, we over-communicated. During a time of insecurity, the frequency of communications becomes that much more critical. Getting ahead of what’s on the team’s mind helps to alleviate fears and concerns.
  2. Pivot career coaches into life coaches. We’ve tried to balance personal chats with work conversations. During times of crisis, the human element of our roles as leaders and managers is critical. Being able to have a laugh with a team member, share a story of concern or answer questions has kept us all going.
  3. Strongly encourage mental health days so everyone can step away to focus on themselves. Everyone needs a day. And we found during the pandemic, everyone needs a different day. It has hit us all differently and at different times. Encouraging our staff to know when it was “their” time – the day they needed to take a break – helped.
  4. Build a virtual community. We moved our Best Places to Work culture from office to remote. We quickly learned that it wasn’t our four walls (in each of our five offices) that made PAN, PAN. It was our PEOPLE that define what PAN really is about. So, we tried to bring those faces and voices into the forefront in new ways. First, we instituted virtual happy hours, trivia nights and book clubs. More recently, we kicked off an internal initiative called PANshares as a way for our employees to share quick videos on something new for staff to learn – how to make a banana bread, use resistance bands, organize their closets, home haircuts. These are fun and light-hearted videos that really bring our team to the virtual forefront.
  5. Build a comprehensive resource center for employees. (Remote working tips, physical fitness, mental health, nutrition, etc.). In May we launched our new “Be Kind to your Mind” Mental Health resource center. We are building a PAN community to share our experiences and help bring the subject of mental health to the forefront. We think about employees as a whole – in all aspects. We try to consistently create content and programs that cover all aspects of the employee experience and wellness.
  6. Spread good news on a regular basis. There is plenty of it out there! As news people, it can sometimes be hard to stay positive in the face of bad news. We want to balance the tough news with the good news. There is a lot of hope and goodness happening, and we want to remind our team of that!

As we move to the next phase of this pandemic and watch many states start their plans for re-opening, we once again reflect on our “people-first” culture. As much as we would love to see each other face to face, we made the proactive decision to delay our office returns until after Labor Day. It was a tough decision, as it feels far away for many of us. But what made it easier is that we based it on our people-first philosophy – for both PAN and the broader society.

It was important for us to not only take into consideration the safety and well-being of our employees but the safety of the people in nearby businesses that aren’t able to work remotely. We needed to do our part to not crowd public transportation, office buildings and elevators, to allow those who must return to businesses the opportunity to do so more safely and with less wait time.

For our re-entry, we will take the same approach we did when we immediately moved to a 100% remote workforce in March. The safety of our employees will be our top priority. In the months ahead, I will be working with our Return to Office (RTO) task team to evaluate the state and government regulations, the readiness of our staff and office building protocols to ensure we have a safe working environment before any of our employees return. And no one will be “required” to return to any of our offices at any point until there is a vaccine available. People-first!

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