How HR Leaders Are Fostering the Human Connection During the Coronavirus

Culture & Engagement

COVID-19 has been hard on people and People Ops teams. Startups have cut nearly 6,000 jobs in the month of March, and according to a recent Gallup poll, 26% of employees ages 18-44 say that their mental health is suffering. In addition to that, we are all facing uncertainty about our futures, concern for our families, and wondering what life will look like once this is all over. So how can People Ops teams best support their people and provide the resources that they need to work remotely, without adding to the stress and difficulty of the current moment?

We spoke with Lee Turner, People Operations Manager at Fleetsmith about how to foster the human connection during the coronavirus. Fleetsmith was ahead of the curve when it came to preparing for and managing the COVID-19 crisis, and we cover how to keep your workforce informed of the most current information, give employees the flexibility they need while working from home, and provide your teams with resources to take care of themselves so that you can be a people-first organization.

Q&A with Lee Turner, People Operations Manager at Fleetsmith

How has your role and your focus changed since the emergence of COVID-19? What does your day to day look like now and how do you hope to help support your teammates?

We were recently acknowledged by the San Francisco Business Times as a “Best Places to Work” recipient. When we received that award it meant a lot to us. To continue being a “best place to work,” we knew that we needed to dedicate our focus right now on COVID-19.

Our priority in People Operations is always people-first. That carries through at Fleetsmith: we are a people-first company. So it’s not that our focus has changed, it has just been enhanced. When we first heard about COVID-19, we were very proactive and started a work from home policy almost a full week ahead of the mandate in San Francisco. As we were implementing this policy we had to think-through: how do we support a fully remote workforce, when most of our workforce hadn’t worked remotely before.

We also realized that COVID-19 affects more than our direct employees. So we also wanted to think of supporting our workers and their families, especially through their challenging transitions. So for example, we encouraged and gave our teams time to travel and see family before traveling bans were put in place. 

When we were first implementing all of this, every day was just 10-12 hours of staying current with information about the pandemic, which was always evolving, and providing medical, administrative, and financial resources to our teams. It was a total whirlwind but we are now in week seven of working from home, we’ve expanded our resources, internal wikis and  communications, and we’re doing our best to support our teams remotely on a daily basis. 

What have been the top challenges you, your team, and your workforce have faced since shelter in place took effect?

The first thing that comes to mind is: feelings of isolation and missing our culture and engagement. We are a really collaborative and communicative company, and to pull people out of that, while not being able to see each other every day and have positive in-person engagements has been challenging. And that ties into our commitment to our employees’ mental health as well. The People Ops team has been focusing on different aspects of our employees’ health each quarter, which includes: mental health, financial health, and physical health. So we chose to focus primarily on mental health this quarter because we really wanted people to know it was okay to talk through your frustrations and difficulties, and to discuss them with your managers and to get outside resources when needed. 

Top-down leadership has been amazing at setting the tone and example and living that truth. We’ve all seen those one-time emails or Slack messages where a CEO sends a general message about the pandemic, but doesn’t actually drill down into what that means for the company or its people. But at Fleetsmith, we’re not only being told to take care of ourselves by the leaders of our company, we’re being encouraged to take a PTO day while all of this is happening to decompress and step back because we just can’t be expected to be productive 100% of the time. And those kinds of actions speak volumes; we know and feel we’re supported by our company. 

How has the crisis changed how you look at hiring and how you look at shaping your employee experience? When it’s no longer business as usual, what have you and your team found most effective in helping your teammates find meaning and connection in their work? 

We onboarded seven people in the last six weeks and did a fully remote onboarding experience. But our focus hasn’t changed on how we support our employees; it has evolved and become more comprehensive and holistic. Some of the work is figuring out how to make our remote onboarding experience just as engaging as our in-person experience. And, it’s also about giving new hires the space they need to adjust and acclimate. 

With all of our employees, we’ve focused on giving our teams flexible hours and making it clear that we’re ok with kids popping into a room during a Zoom meeting or whatever it may be, we’re allowing for that to be the new normal. Some employees live by themselves and as a People Ops team, we also wanted to make sure that they feel encouraged to reach out to their team, to others, and to us. In some cases, there are now families of six people all living and working together under one roof, and so we’ve made it clear in our communications that it's okay if there’s noise and distractions during a meeting, hours are flexible, and we’re being as supportive as possible around deadlines shifting.

What have been your top priorities in terms of creating a sense of unity, belonging, and safety at work? Do you schedule meetings differently since shelter in place, do you have zoom hangouts — how have you helped your employees stay connected to each other and your company’s mission?

All of the above. The People Ops team sat with leadership to make sure we were thinking through all possible outcomes and situations to be inclusive of how we support our teams. We set up a virtual water cooler and cafe so our teams can talk over coffee about non-work life. We have virtual happy hours every Friday, and someone on our marketing team even created Fleetsmith bingo. We’ve created new Slack channels and a fitness tracking Slack challenge to encourage people to stay active. We’ve also created additional TV and movie channels. These are all resources to help fully support our employees. 

A lot of employees are struggling right now during this crisis, whether it’s financially, because a family member is ill, or because they are apart from loved ones. What are some tools, strategies, resources, or techniques you’ve found helpful in fostering the human connection and helping your employees feel supported during this challenging time? Do you have any best practices you’d recommend? 

When it comes to our internal wiki, we like to say: there’s a Slab for that. So we are constantly creating new process documents, new hire trainings, and updating teams with the most recent news.  Everything is searchable via Slab. With COVID-19, we also started writing more comprehensive articles on mental health resources to provide a central source of truth for our employees to obtain any information they may need.

We already have unlimited PTO and sick leave, so we also informed our employees that anyone financially struggling to make arrangements or having difficulty finding supplies and medical care should reach out to our People Ops team. 

When the mandate was issued, we offered the team the opportunity to take home any equipment they would need to be more productive and we extended a Work From Home stipend to all of our employees.  This budget allows each person the freedom to personalize their home office and do so comfortably. In addition, we’re providing weekly wifi reimbursement until we can get back to the office. 

What’s a takeaway you’ve learned through all of this about fostering connection at your company during a challenging time?

One of the reasons I joined Fleetsmith is: there's a true commitment to people-first and that was apparent to me in every stage of the hiring process. We are a business, but without great and engaged people those business needs won’t be met. Our people have always been our focus, and now more than ever, we can’t lose sight of that.


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