Boyden Executive Search

“Return-to-work” implies a going back to where we were. Is there a “going-back” or are we simply moving toward a whole new reality?  In conversation with human resource leaders across the U.S., Boyden's Steve Nilsen explores cross-sector return-to-work strategies. 

By Steve Nilsen

This issue of HR: Return Strategy features Lily Prost, EVP & CHRO, J.M. Huber Corp.

Nilsen: Is there a “going-back”? 

Prost: We are considered an essential business so, you are right, the idea of returning to work doesn’t apply to our manufacturing sites, or even our administrative offices, because we maintained business continuity at all locations. We are tremendously appreciative of our manufacturing employees, who could not work remotely, for showing up at their workplace every day in order to serve our customers. Huber has always had a world class EHS performance. During this crisis, we have elevated our safety protocols at the plants to ensure that the employees are safe. This includes minimizing the density of the employee population, providing PPE, thermal temperature screening and implementing enhanced hygiene practices.

However, our associates in the three offices in NJ, GA and NC have been working from home since March 18. When they return to the workplace it will look different in many ways. We are lucky that we have our offices in Asia Pacific to learn from. Our offices in China, Japan, Singapore, Korea and India all went to remote work when the Pandemic broke out in Asia. Our largest APAC office is in Shanghai and we will adapt most of the protocols that were successful for those 40 employees in returning to the office. We also adopted the learnings from our plant in China. All the protocols we developed there were adapted to our operations here in the US. Some of our associates really want to go back, but our Atlanta offices won’t be seeing anyone return until mid-September on a voluntary basis, and it will be a phased return. We will determine a formal opening date based on a multi-point, data-driven decision process.

Nilsen: What are the biggest changes you have implemented to continue operating? In your return-to-work plan, what will remain as a COVID-19 legacy?

Prost: We have worked to increase physical distancing by adjusting and shifting schedules around to minimize density at any one point in the plants. We have also implemented universal, regular thermal scans for temperature checking. Thanks to our geographic footprint and very quick work by our supply chain and procurement professionals we immediately secured PPEs globally including getting supplies from our Asian operations. This enabled us to implement proper PPE protocols. Signage that we have installed to call out high-touch and other areas of close interaction will likely remain. Masks will be mandatory when we return to the office and we will only be allowed to remove them at our desk or in our offices. As most companies, Huber is considering if remote work will become a longer-term strategy. The executive leadership team is still discussing what will work for Huber and its employees. 

We don’t know where we will come out on that but it will likely be some kind of hybrid solution. Once we are through the Pandemic phase, we will also review to what extent remote work will also help us build and sustain a talent pipeline.

Nilsen: What metrics are you tracking to help guide your organization’s return-to-work? Are you implementing new related internal metrics?

Prost: We determine when is the right time to return to the workplace based on facts and data. We have an Incident Response Team that monitors and gathers information country by country, and state by state relative to the case rate, hospital utilization rate and death rate, as well as state and local orders related to when the communities are opening back up.

Our first and foremost concern is employees’ health and wellbeing. As we design a Return to the Workplace strategy, that is the only criteria we must keep in mind – how to keep our employees safe. We have proven that we can all work remotely for an extended period. The only way to return to the office is to do it safely. Meanwhile, we are highly focused on meeting the needs of our clients and we are doing well so far.

The Atlanta opening in September is what we consider a “soft start” – designed only for those who volunteer to go back to the office. It will be for a limited population. We will determine a formal start date after we assess the external conditions and see how the soft start is working.

Nilsen: In what new ways are you using technology in your return-to-work strategy? 

Prost: Zoom is our preferred video conferencing tool. We also use Microsoft Teams as a collaboration platform and we are still pushing that out to everyone. We will likely continue to use these tools as we return to the office.

Nilsen: What do you anticipate will be the greatest obstacle in the return-to-work phase?

Prost: Changing behaviors and adopting the new habits will be a challenge, as in using only one door as an entrance and another for exit only. Business continuity is important so we cannot risk that a whole department coming in and getting infected. But this consideration is countered by how effective we can be with only half our teams in place at any given time. We don’t know yet but there may still be concerns for some employees about returning to the office. There is a viewpoint that we have been good at getting things done remotely, so what is the compelling reason to go back before the end of the year?

Nilsen: What is your greatest learning from this so far, and what advice would you offer as we continue to navigate these unchartered waters?

Prost: I have been thinking about the future of work. We could not have imagined that we could send everyone home and maintain business continuity. Will culture suffer? Will we have to continue using remote and collaborative platforms to keep attracting young talent to join the organization? I don’t know if processes will be better or worse, but they will be different. Our technology solutions will absolutely need to keep up, and how we interact and collaborate will definitely change.

Read Issue 1 of HR: Return Strategy with Cathleen Allred, SVP, HR, Renfro
Read Issue 2 of HR: Return Strategy with Corderiette Calhoun, Head, Human Resources of Duke Foods

Read Issue 3 of HR: Return Strategy with Tracy Staines, VP, HR Global Media Operations of Nielsen
Read Issue 4 of HR: Return Strategy with Phil Webb, Global Head, HR, Crown Laboratories​

Read Issue 5 of HR: Return Strategy with Karen J. Viera, SVP & Chief People Officer, Church's Chicken

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