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5 of the best tips for navigating the pandemic at work from chief HR officers

August 31, 2020, 4:45 PM UTC

Heads of human resources have a lot to talk about these days. There’s a raging public health crisis to deal with, which has forced many companies to transition to at least a partly remote workforce. There’s also a racial reckoning underway, which has brought issues of racial violence and inequities into the forefront, pushing organizations to grapple with uncomfortable topics—and, at least in some cases, take the steps needed to get to greater parity within their own ranks

Caring for employees has never been harder, therefore, or more ripe for change. It’s no surprise, then, that during a recent virtual gathering of top female chief human resources officers, part of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women event series, the executives in the “room” had a lot to say—and to share.

“I’ve never seen so much best practice sharing,” Tracy Keogh, CHRO at tech giant HP, said to her peers. “With all the negativity and the downsides [of the current crises], that’s been a real bright spot for me.”

There are some silver linings to the current challenges facing HR officers: Being pushed to rethink the workplace, even when it happens for all the wrong reasons, can lead to fruitful results. “We were always wondering when that moment of disruption would arrive,” said Grace Zuncic, chief people officer at Chobani, and another participant at the recent event. “You never wish for it to come in the form of a pandemic, and yet, we have this opportunity to redefine how things will be done.”

Others jumped in with equally optimistic takes: “The new way of working creates opportunities in the area of inclusion and belonging, with remote work allowing companies to hire from anywhere,” said Tracy Layney, CHRO at Levi Strauss & Co. “I think there is so much opportunity embedded in this moment that if we just harness it, it can actually help us address multiple crises that we are facing right now.”

Yet there was little doubt that the biggest challenges are still ahead for heads of HR. “Returning our people back to our offices is actually going to be harder than removing them from the offices,” said Mala Singh, chief people officer at Electronic Arts. “It’s only been six adrenaline-fueled, acute months of work, and we’re not willing to say yet that how we have worked in this time should define what this company looks like going forward.”

One of the highlights of the video event was the embedded chat log, which lit up with tips and takeaways throughout the conversation. Here are just some of the takeaways, edited for clarity and brevity:

Do what you can to combat burnout. “We moved to no company meetings on Fridays so that people could take off without FOMO [fear of missing out]; it has helped tremendously.” —Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer, Accenture

Communicate, communicate, communicate. (And use your people to do so.) “One of the best things we did was rely on our global site leaders. Each of our sites has a site leader, and we have a strong network, and they really leaned in during this pandemic and have become a trusted voice throughout. We also use our employee resource groups to advocate our messaging.” —Ruth Cotter, SVP of worldwide marketing, HR, and IR, AMD

When it comes to tackling racial inequality, get beyond the hashtag. “First, you have to look at what you believe as a person, then you decide who you are as a company. And look at it as the business problem that it is. Use your metrics to show you where you are, and set goals for where you want to go. The gap is where you set strategy. That’s how companies address business problems every day.” —Kim Seymour, chief people officer, WW International 

Provide flexible solutions. “We’ve created a menu of flexible schedule options that managers can choose from in support of their employees; it has helped a lot. Like others, we do specific town hall sessions with managers to help them navigate through this.”
 —Ashley Goldsmith, chief people officer, Workday  

Reevaluate how you evaluate. “For performance management, we decided to combine it with our goals and ask employees to tell us what three to five things they are most proud of, and what they need more or less of from their manager. We then had the managers respond to that and indicate what they need more or less from the employees. The hope is to start more of a dialogue and embrace empathy.” —Jill Larsen, CHRO, PTC