Who should be on your COVID-19 task force?
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In late February, John Kelly was asked to take on a new role at IBM: build and direct the tech giant’s COVID-19 Task Force, a global group of senior leaders responsible for the safety and well-being of employees throughout the current crisis. The executive vice president and former head of IBM Research, who joined Big Blue back in 1980, had held many roles in the company. Still, this was unprecedented territory. Over the course of about 10 days in early March, IBM moved 95% of its 350,000 global employees from offices to work-from-home environments. Now, the task force has shifted gears to focus on bringing everyone back.
“It was difficult moving to working from home, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult rewinding this,” says Kelly.
There’s no singular playbook for how to do so, though IBM has taken a stab at developing one. But many companies who have the resources to do this are starting with putting together a task force dedicated to figuring out the right processes for their employee base. Having the right people in place, who represent diverse voices across your organization, is probably a good first step. But who should be on the task force? What expertise should they draw from? And how should global businesses navigate the different regions (and regulations) they must work across? Fortune talked to Kelly and executives helping to lead similar initiatives at other big companies to learn about some early best practices. Here are some takeaways:
Realize that it’s a full-time job. IBM’s outgoing CEO, Ginni Rometty, asked Kelly to step away from his day-to-day responsibilities and lead the COVID-19 Task Force 24/7. There’s good reason: IBM has a massive employee base, spread across the globe. Coming up with a plan to shut down and then reopen offices is equally massive. Smaller companies can also benefit from the full-time dedication of the person at the helm.
Appoint people who know your company well. This isn’t the time or place to enlist people who are still wondering “who does what” within your organization. Kelly has been with IBM for four decades. “I know the wiring system of this company and the countries and governments where we operate,” says the longtime executive, when asked why he thinks Rometty asked him to take on this new role. “And it was clear that speed mattered here.”
Embrace diversity. Health care provider Blue Shield of California also put together a formal COVID-19 task force at the onset of the pandemic. The working group consists of about 10 people, including the organization’s chief information officer, head of real estate, and chief health officer. But Mary O’Hara, chief human resources officer and head of the task force, says she realized she was missing a point of view early on: someone who could advise on external affairs. “Our goal is to strengthen the communities that we serve,” says O’Hara. “We needed to have someone who would bring a community lens to the way we were thinking through everything.” It’s not just diversity of thought that matters. Employee bases represent different genders and sexual orientations, people of color, and those who are more or less at risk for the virus. Task forces should also represent this range because your decisions will impact different employees in different ways.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Your company’s task force needs to be in constant communication with employees, and the flow needs to go both ways. “The appetite right now for clear and factual information and two-way dialogue is insatiable,” says Blue Shield’s O’Hara. The human resources executive worked in banking during the 2008 financial crisis and says she learned then that when people have an absence of information they have a tendency to make things up. Figure out how to get information in and out with much higher frequency than before, and flatten existing communication hierarchies to make sure everyone feels that they have access to the task force.
Bring in the experts. Heather MacDougall, Amazon’s VP of workplace health and safety, already had a team of 2,500 safety professionals on hand, tasked with the well-being of employees. But as she and others at the company have had to rewrite regular processes owing to the unique risks of the virus, she brought on more expertise from outside the company. “We added people like industrial hygienists and epidemiologists,” says MacDougall, who now has upwards of 3,500 safety professionals on her team. (Earlier on in the crisis, some of Amazon’s frontline workers voiced concerns about insufficient protective gear and a lack of other safety measures; Amazon has said it is investing about $4 billion on COVID-related initiatives and that it has provided more than 100 million masks to its sites.) To be sure, not every company can afford to hire its own Dr. Anthony Fauci—the nation’s top infectious disease expert and member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force—but businesses can enlist contractors or at least pull from published resources written by experts.