Make detailed plans. Start small and expand incrementally. Always put the health and safety of employees first. And be prepared to learn and change.
These are the big takeaways from conversations with leaders at international food giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and China-based Internet search company Baidu, both of which have been restarting operations and bringing employees back to the workplace since late February, when China began to ease restrictions imposed to curtail the spread of COVID-19. On a
webcast moderated by Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), they shared lessons learned and cautioned U.S. businesses to take it slow.
“I feel like there is this pent-up desire for people to want to come back … and that’s one of my greatest fears,” said Michael D’Ambrose, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at ADM, which employs about 38,000 people at facilities in 200 countries and is headquartered in Chicago. He advised companies to bring back employees in very small groups, starting with those whose work can only be done on location, such as scientists who work in labs. “Here’s what will happen,” he said. “Every group you bring back, you’ll learn about protocols and experiences in that facility and then you’ll make it better for the next group that comes.”
Baidu’s China-based workforce worked remotely for about a month starting in mid-January, said Lee Liu, senior vice president and chairman of cloud business and former senior vice president for human resources. When local restrictions were lifted, the company began bringing its tech workers back in 10 percent increments, with direct managers deciding who should go first. “We started to have 20 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent, and week after week we were monitoring and making adjustments,” he said. “We are back to 70 percent now.”
Daily Calls and Constant Re-Evaluation
Because food products are considered essential around the world, ADM continued some production operations throughout the coronavirus pandemic but sent nearly all salaried personnel home to work remotely. In early February, the conglomerate created a hierarchy of leadership teams and committees representing various sectors and time zones and began daily check-in calls. “Every morning, we get an update from every region in the world, and, every morning, we rethink and learn from each other,” D’Ambrose said. “So, what’s happened in China and other parts of Asia we have learned from and applied into Europe and North America and South America. … The only way we can stay on top of it is by sharing openly and meeting on a very regular basis.”
As government restrictions eased, ADM responded with careful planning. “We are not just coming back when the government says it’s OK,” D’Ambrose said. Instead, the government’s green light becomes a starting point, followed by a detailed review of facilities and identification of critical roles that cannot be performed remotely. Before any employees return, physical layouts and pedestrian traffic flows are changed to minimize contact at workstations and in bathrooms, breakrooms and hallways. Prominent signage reminds employees to wash hands and keep their distance.
All returning employees first view a presentation developed by communications and human resource teams on new policies and protocols at ADM. “We’ve taken the approach that onboarding is something we should do for every colleague coming back,” D’Ambrose said. “That makes this real and helps people understand the next steps.”
The coronavirus crisis has underscored the importance of strong communication, including listening to employees, D’Ambrose said. “We are communicating more and more effectively than we ever, ever have,” he said. “That’s one of those practices I guarantee you we are never going to stop.”
In the Office but Still Isolated
For employees who have returned to work at Baidu, each morning starts with a temperature check, health assessment and a free mask that must be worn throughout the day, Liu said. If someone has a fever or shows symptoms of COVID-19, an emergency plan kicks in that involves a call for an ambulance. Tissues are provided in elevators with instructions to use them to push buttons and then discard in an adjacent trash can. Doors and windows are opened to allow fresh air to circulate. Some workplaces have been split into two shifts so that employees can have more space while working.
The workplace is nothing like the one that employees knew only a few months ago. Their priorities have changed too, Liu said. “They are very aware of their safety,” he said. “When people arrive, they go straight to their work areas.” No more in-person meetings. No more workouts in the gym or salad buffets in the cafeteria. No more lunchtime walks with colleagues. Absolutely no handshakes. “Less social interaction,” Liu summarized.
The description prompted Taylor to remark that many employees want to return to the office precisely because they crave interaction with colleagues. Without it, he asked, “Why wouldn’t people want to remote work forever?”
Liu conceded the paradox and noted that even at a firm like his, that is so steeped in technology, “there will always be a need to come all together to have a discussion. People have the need to physically see each other and to have effective brainstorming and effective discussion. Face-to-face is still very important.”
A Moment for HR to Shine
Balancing the needs of remote workers and returning workers while keeping everyone informed and safe is a daunting challenge, one that gives human resource professionals a chance to show their value, the speakers agreed. “That balance will be different for every company, and this is where our profession is going to shine,” Taylor said. “We are not business partners anymore; we are an essential part of the business.”
D’Ambrose echoed those thoughts. “This is an opportunity for us to really demonstrate what HR can do to be impactful when it comes to making their colleagues the top priority,” he said. “I do believe that the reputations of companies in the future, those companies that will have the ability to attract and retain talent and have engaged motivated workforces in the future are going to be the ones that step up and do the right thing now—carefully, thoughtfully and learning from others.”