“We struck a balance between taking care of people and taking care of the business”

June 11, 2020
In times of crisis, the HR function is a key player in the business. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. The French news agency, AEF info, asked Milestone’s Ditte Høyrup-Myhre, VP People, Organization and Site Operations, to share Milestone’s action plan and learnings. Clear communication and a high level of trust, flexibility and transparency in the organization are key to success, Ditte said. Read the full interview.
AEF: What is the role of a Human Resource Director (HRD) during a period of crisis such as the one we are living today?
The crisis is very human centered so, naturally, the HR director plays a crucial role in dealing with it at an organizational level. One of the most critical actions we took was establishing a fast-acting task force covering several areas of the business.

In the beginning, some did not understand or endorse the severity of our actions, which included early travel bans and closing the gym. But as the crisis developed and moved closer to our office doors, those voices died out.

Later reactions were diverse, depending on the circumstances of the individual employee. These included frustration of working from home with kids, feelings of isolation, prioritization difficulties, and relief to have more time to focus. Sentiments shift, though. In a global company, where the crisis is at diverse stages impact levels, it’s vital to have flexible solutions and communication techniques.
At the same time, the HRD needs to pay attention to people’s well-being and working conditions – from both a short- and long-term business perspective. An apparent short-term, “People first” solution or initiative does not always mean that it will be the best people solution in the longer term.

AEF: How did you communicate with employees?

One of the positive lessons learned is that we can’t communicate too much – so long as the communication is timely and relevant. We send at least one update per week. Communication comes from both me and our CEO.

Our messages focus on guidelines, our financial situation, and what we are doing to keep things running. No matter the message, it is important that it is clear, empathetic, and people focused. For example, we addressed the difficulty of working from home with kids, leadership’s understanding that people could not be as productive as they usually would. We also honestly discussed whether layoffs will be necessary and what we are doing to avoid that.

Our tone of voice in these messages is factual, rational, and empathetic. We don’t want to cause panic. We also vary our communication channels for maximum impact.

AEF: When did you start working on the consequences of a potential epidemic in the HR department? What were your first decisions?

We are a global company with offices in many countries. In late January, our local HR department in Singapore was the first to be affected by the crisis, taking actions like travel restrictions and workforce segregation. Around this time, Global HR started communicating about the situation and how it was evolving in the regions.

In February, our task force decided to cancel our largest annual event in Dubai. It was still early days for the situation outside of China, but it turned out to be the right decision. Not long after, we began restricting global travel across and putting those returning from infection hotspots into two weeks of quarantine.

We took a proactive approach to handle the situation and reacted before almost all local authorities in our regions issued regulations. We did this to safeguard our people. It was a “better safe than sorry” approach.
AEF: How did you reorganize the workforce?
Fortunately, most of our work can be done from home. We have an IT infrastructure (PCs, VPN, home internet connections paid by the company) and a culture that supports this. So, we simply sent everybody home from one day to the next across all regions. Employees had one day to collect their computers, papers, screens, and anything else they needed to work from home.

A few employees were not able to work from home, like canteen personnel and facility management. They continued to work from the office with ample space to make improvements to our empty offices. Others were sent home on paid leave.

We have maintained all conditions, including salaries, benefits, etc. All initiatives to reduce costs that have had an impact on employment terms have been done voluntarily, so amendments have not been necessary. We are looking into various options that may become relevant later if our financial situation turns changes, but so far, it has not been necessary.

AEF: The health and safety of employees appears to be the number one priority for companies that continue to operate. How have you worked to maintain this variable?

We have kept employees safe and healthy by being proactive, stopping all travel early, sending people home early, and keeping them home. Before the office closed, we closed the canteen, the gym, and other common areas and provided guidelines for hygiene and social distance.

We also maintain a strong focus on mental health by addressing people’s worries and acknowledging the diverse situations that our employees find themselves in. We also provide ample information, guidelines, and advice. HR has been the hotline for questions and advice. We even offered tips and tricks for home fitness, promoted virtual walk and talks, and hosted a seminar on crisis psychology.

AEF: What is the level of absenteeism and how have you responded to this absenteeism in order to keep the workforce at an acceptable level in the establishments?

We realize that this might affect productivity, so we gave people the flexibility to work when possible. Typically, people with children worked in shifts or during odd hours to make up for the lost time. This has not been a problem. Overall, people have been very grateful for this sign of trust and leadership support. We have not asked people to register when they were working (unless they normally do). Again, most people are used to working from home occasionally and balancing work and childcare.

Now, many children are back in school while we are still working from home, so the situation is much better for many. During these unprecedented times, it seems that we have been able to keep up productivity. By removing worry and anxiety, we allowed people to focus on coming up with creative solutions during challenging times.
AEF: What about contamination among employees? What measures have they taken in this case and how have you communicated to other employees?
To our knowledge, only three people have been infected from our organization. Those that were infected and those who were in close contact with them were put into quarantine. We never named those infected but reached out to the ones they had been in contact with individually. We broadly communicated when there was a new case and in which region.

AEF: How is social dialogue organized in these circumstances? What measures have been put in place? 

All managers have been encouraged to have close and more frequent contact with their people. Most teams have arranged virtual check-ins and other communication, and most regular meetings are still maintained virtually. Workplace is used to post pictures, stories etc. on how we are coping. HR also initiated a daily virtual coffee break, and others have promoted virtual Friday bars and other online social events. Most of it has been done in our teams, but HR also helped share the stories, tips and tricks via weekly manager updates.

AEF: How are you preparing the deconfinement?

From May 18th, we started to reintroduce people to the offices. The key focus has been to do it, so we don’t jeopardize the need for keeping the distance required by health authorities. We will do this through team segregation, meaning that team members will take shifts. One week, part of a team will work from home and others from the office. The next week they will switch. In line with our conservative approach of not putting our health nor our business at risk, we will continue working in this way, until September 1, 2020. That said, working from home every day will not be the new normal for many good reasons – especially the importance of teamwork.

AEF: Have you already renewed your HR priorities? What will they be?
We put a stop to all non-essential training as it created too much disturbance on an organization that needed to settle into a new way of working while keeping up production on our core business. Recruitment has also been cut down to only the most essential positions. The rest are postponed. This has given room to put resources toward handling the crisis and focusing on development projects that can continue overly straining the organization. Other than recording lessons learned from the crisis, our HR priorities will most likely not change. Still, some will be postponed.

AEF: How has the workforce in Milestone responded to your company’s actions?

People are generally grateful for the actions taken and the degree of communication and leadership commitment behind them. People have felt safe, and it has been a transparent journey. Of course, not all initiatives have been equally popular, including urging people to take their vacation, but I believe the majority feel that the actions have been the right ones. We struck a balance between taking care of people and taking care of the business – which is in itself a way of taking care of people in the long term.

AEF: What are the major learnings you take from this period?

We are working on a survey to record what we have learned and will discuss the findings. Overall, I think the entire organization has learned a lot about working virtually and the benefits of the focus time that home confinement can provide. From a leadership perspective, we learned the benefits of good communication and of being decisive and clear on priorities. I think everyone learned from the value that brought.

AEF: Are there any of these learnings that you will implement in your organization or you think would be beneficial to keep?

We were already considering dedicating one day per week to “meeting free time”. This situation has only strengthened our case for doing so. We have several other initiatives lined up to focus on mental and physical well-being in the organization, and this crisis has proven their value. Things like walk and talks, and the importance of getting outside, exercising, taking breaks, and prioritizing have been brought to the spotlight.
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Ditte Høyrup-Myhre
VP People, Organization and Site Operations
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