IBM VP for Health & Safety Joanna Daly: Caring for co-workers in times of crisis

Watch a replay of Joanna Daly's presentation


Over the past month, the widespread impact of COVID-19 has caused deep stress and strain in our professional and personal lives. For Human Resources (HR) directors, the game has changed in this time of crisis.

“The job of HR is to create an environment where employees can perform at their best, but that’s hard to do when they’re continually worried about their health and the safety of their families,” said Joanna Daly, IBM’s Vice President of Total Rewards and Corporate Health & Safety, during a Think Leadership livestream event on April 16.

The role of HR professionals has shifted, Daly said, from simply answering questions about compensation and benefits, to working closely with employees to ensure their health, safety and mental wellness. This includes supporting an at-home workforce, broadening the sense of employee needs, and helping to adjust management practices accordingly. 

HR professionals must be empathetic, accommodating and flexible while helping ensure a sound technological infrastructure for workers suddenly removed from their workplace. Leadership, at every level, is put to the test. “If there was ever a time that a company’s culture is going to revealed,” Daly said, “this is it.”

In sharing her ideas and experiences during the livestream, Daly addressed questions from the audience and ones she has received from her industry peers in recent weeks.

What makes COVID-19 more challenging for HR departments than what you've prepared for and managed in the past?

This is different from any challenge I've faced as an HR leader. We’re dealing with multiple complexities. First, we’ve shifted our workplaces to the home, and so need to keep people productive and manage a remote workforce. But this is also a public health crisis, and that affects everyone in significant personal ways.

People are scared. They may be grieving and uncertain about their future and finances. They may have kids at home who can’t go to school or daycare and need attention. And it’s not just our employees we must be concerned about. Are their families safe? Do they have the benefits in place in case they get ill? Are they doing everything they can to stay healthy?

We want to ensure that our employees have the best information available and are aware of health guidelines, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on down. We all know that there's a lot of information out there, and we want our employees to have access to information that’s accurate.

How are tech tools helpful? 

If there's ever a time to think about automating parts of your HR, this is that time. We’re in the midst of a crisis, yet HR must maintain its critical function of supporting the people who make the business possible. We still need to explain benefits programs and help people think about their careers. We need to make compensation decisions and discuss things like equity grants.

Some basic questions about standard HR issues can be satisfied on our internal sites by features like chatbots. In the past few weeks, our chatbots have answered about 1,100 queries. That frees up time for our HR professionals to deal with more pressing issues and provide personalized attention on other matters.

Everyone is functioning in a time of high anxiety. What advice can you offer HR management?

Recognize the different realities between working in the office and working at home.  About 95% of our workforce is working remotely and managing new stressors. There may be kids and dogs in the picture. Schools are not open. Daycare is not open. Someone may need to leave a video conference because there is a sudden, unexplained bang in the other room. Or a personal matter may make a scheduled meeting impossible to attend.

Your primary role in management now is to keep people safe and recognize how they feel. There is a big need for increased empathy. Your team is going through things they’ve never dealt with.

Do managers need to adjust their style?

They may need to adjust their style very significantly, because we’re talking about matters of health and safety. This is not something where we can go away for two weeks or two months and study it. We need to make decisions quickly. So some of the principles of agile leadership apply.

Managers must be clear with their teams about the outcomes they’re trying to achieve. Then maybe step back a bit. All the face-to-face moments in the office, when you might run into someone and have a quick chat and come up with a solution, are gone. So it may mean more delegation, or allowing people to be more self-directed and to come up with solutions on their own.

Managers must be more flexible and empathetic. But, in reality, the key is good communication.

Mental health is so critical now. Any best practices that you'd share?

We need to recognize the fullness of the human experience as part of the workplace. Our business and personal lives are not as separated as they once were. And we are in a stressful collective experience, not just as a company and a nation, but as a global society.

There’s so much anxiety, but it’s important to understand what an individual’s driver of anxiety is, because it provides the groundwork to think about and talk about mental health.

They may know someone who is sick or lost a relative. So there may be grief. They may have kids who have missed graduation ceremonies, so the normal markers of progress that you have worked so hard for have just been wiped out. These rituals of advancement are paused or even eliminated. That’s painful. We are experiencing this together, and it’s important to recognize that interconnection.

Are you starting to think about what a return to the workplace will look like?

I don’t think it will all happen in one day. It will be a measured approach. And when we return we’ll need to think about social distancing, because COVID-19 will not have gone away, and we will still be susceptible to it.

We’ll need to think about keeping desks further apart and how many people can be in the office. We won’t be able to interact with people the same way we did before. It’s time to consider more tactical floor plans and layouts to ensure that the workplace is safe. We also need to consider strategies if, for instance, a localized COVID-19 outbreak happens. We may suddenly all need to return to a home office environment.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned in the past few months?

It’s that fact-based decision-making is so important in a time of great uncertainty. Sometimes, in our day-to-day decisions, there can be an overreliance on past practices. That doesn’t work now, and it’s not helpful when we have new information coming in every day.

Before every decision, we have to ask: What are the facts? What do they mean? How have they changed? Because there is no past precedent in our lifetimes for this level of a public health crisis. You must make fact-based decisions, and then factor in human behavior on top of that.

In HR, we’re supporting the business, but we’re also dealing with human beings. We must remember how they behave and feel, now more than ever.

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