How cultural DNA paved the way for a COVID-19 response

Mental health is a priority for many reasons, but it comes down to the fact 'it's in our cultural DNA'

How cultural DNA paved the way for a COVID-19 response

Like many other employers, in the few years before COVID-19 hit Hewlett Packard Enterprise saw an increase in requests for mental health resources from employees and their families. While HPE’s benefit plan covers the area thoroughly, the information technology giant wanted to address the issue in a more proactive way.

Mental health is a priority for many reasons, but it comes down to the fact “its in our cultural DNA,” says Alan May, Chief People Officer at HPE.

“Pre-COVID and certainly throughout this, it really comes down to culture. We are resting on the shoulders of giants with Bill and Dave and the legacy of Hewlett Packard and the HP way. Work isn’t the only thing — there’s community, there’s family, there are other elements of life that are interspersed. This came to greater emphasis as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.”

With team members in Wuhan, May and his team have been involved in active employee support from mid-January onward. Almost immediately, 98-99% of HPE’s employees were working from home for the foreseeable future and the company was resourcing a work-from-home model. Unlike other organizations that have announced specific reopening dates, May says his position has been “from the get-go” that no employee need come to the office until they feel it’s safe.

“Everybody has a different circumstance — we don’t want to dictate or create any pressure,” he notes. “In many countries outside the United States, where societal efforts to at least arrest the expansion of COVID have been more successful, we have offices open on a limited basis but there’s no mandate anywhere for employees to come to the office and we’re going to maintain that position until we see the wide-spread eradication of COVID-19.”

True to its roots, throughout the pandemic HPE has spent a lot of time “not just communicating programs and our intent and support, but listening to our team members world wide and doing pulse surveys to check in, recognizing employees are in very different circumstances.”

With employees facing longer days, more frequent meetings and productivity pressures around working from home, May says he quickly realized there was more they needed to do. HPE mobilized to prioritize employee mental health in actionable, realistic ways through a new host of benefits and programs called For Real Life. The initiative helps employees cultivate a work-life balance and is an extension of the company’s 2019 Work That Fits Your Life benefits.

Though HPE felt well prepared in terms of overall support, because COVID-19 was unique and sudden “we decided to frame up the For Real Life program which was much more around supporting the behavioural health of our 60,000 plus team members around the world,” May says. The team used pulse surveys to help guide the pacing and sequencing of new offerings “because everybody’s still overwhelmed by this and throwing more things at people through their computer terminal is not necessarily going to create absorption.”

For Real Life provides a hub for all topics related to mental health, including programs like Skills for Real Life Accelerating U Channel, which is a curation of resources to help employees curb stress and anxiety, stay connected, practice gratitude and prioritize fitness; live and on-demand webinars including company-wide conversations around topics such as self and family care, real-life challenges and coping with COVID-19; and complimentary access to Headspace, an app that offers meditation.

May says almost immediately there were over 10,000 downloads of Headspace and over a million minutes of use logged in a very short period of time, demonstrating there was a big need out there. Regardless of what happens over the coming months in regards to the virus, May says these extra supports are here to stay.

“This is an ongoing effort — it’s not something we’re going to pull on the blessed day when the whole world is vaccinated sometime down the road,” he adds.

Another of HPE’s first responses was to build virtual communities, using internal social media to pull together team members in similar situations — for example those home schooling children, caring for an elderly parent or people alone in a shelter-in-place condition.

“We tried to make connections to allow them to talk about how they’re coping — what are some practices they’re engaging in?” May says. “We let them create their own ‘buddy system’ across the world. These virtual communities have grown and expanded over the course of the pandemic.”

Another mandate is that first-line supervisors must check in with their direct reports at least once a week about something other than work. Although it’s a simple thing to pick up the phone and ask how it’s going, May says they’ve received strong feedback from the workforce that “the check-in calls are deeply appreciated.”

“We really want this to be a pull not a push, and we want it to be social and lateral as opposed to top-down,” he says of HPE’s efforts.

For decades, the company has been very employee centric and encourages people to bring their authentic and whole self to work — and that approach is working. Almost all — 91% — of HPE employees believe their health and wellbeing are priorities for the organization, but May says “we don’t rest on that data as being in and of itself a conclusion — this is a moving target, an evolving situation.”

Organizations can offer a hundred programs, create educational Power Point presentations and give multiple encouraging speeches but it comes down to leaders taking the time to check in with employees and just ask, “Are you OK?” That’s what’s most important as a people leader, May says.

“We make a difference in the world one employee at a time. I know that sounds old fashioned but what I think has been acutely demonstrated through COVID is the need for us to continue to connect with each employee — to listen to them, to support them — because ultimately that’s what drives culture, that’s what drives performance and that’s what drives satisfaction.”

One of the biggest blows has been the loss of social interaction afforded by working in a common location. The challenges of working from home have been well-documented, but the next phase for HPE and employers generally is addressing — and hopefully finding a way to mitigate — the loss of organic connection.

Many businesses went immediately “to a world of wall-to-wall Zoom calls” where there may be a few minutes of chit-chat but typically the business topic is immediately discussed and the meeting ends. Gone are the talks that only six months ago occurred naturally between colleagues walking into a conference room, or staying behind to discuss what went on during the meeting.

“Guess what — now those dynamics are very different and they’re very difficult to replicate in a virtual world,” May says, noting the early example of weekly virtual cocktail hours that faded quickly in part because of people’s fatigue with the video platforms.

“The question is — how do you continue to sustain culture, develop employees, advance their broader wellbeing and their interests in a world where they’re working almost very tactically and specifically, and then unplugging and they’re in a very different environment? We’re trying to think through that right now.”

May says there are a couple of ways HPE is addressing the issue. One example is a virtual buddy system that came into play very quickly as the company continues to hire over the course of the pandemic, meaning they are onboarding team members who have never physically met any of their new coworkers. In those cases, they’re being assigned buddies — somebody they can reach out to for a direct conversation about the dynamics going on behind the scenes of all those Zoom meetings, for instance.

“Not a boss relationship, not a relationship with the HR department, but a relationship with a buddy, a peer, that can really help with context and with the soft stuff,” May says.

There are other examples underfoot “more from a social media perspective in terms of our own utilization of social media platforms like Yammer, but we’ve got to continue to work this as we go forward.”

May is passionate about addressing gaps in the virtual working world and advises employers to reach out and share best practices “because nobody has this totally figured out.” He participates in a number of public forums where enterprises both large and small share what they’re working on, and says if nothing else COVID-19 has reinforced “we are truly an interdependent global community.”

“We need to have an ‘open source software’ here, human software, and there are several repositories out there for that. While COVID will go away, there is a new day coming forward — there are many dynamics here we will need to address on an ongoing basis.”

May believes COVID-19 is accelerating underlying trends, such as increased remote work and the rise of distributed workforces, and predicts even when there’s a wide-spread vaccine there will still be many more people working in this manner than before the pandemic. But that said, he doesn’t accept it as “the new normal.”

“I resent that phrase — I think that phrase is acquiescent in the face of a crisis,” he says. “We better figure it out. We’ve got to make sure we support employees not just from a productivity standpoint but also from an emotional standpoint.”

Whatever supports organizations have in place at the moment are about to be tested again as, irrespective of what happens with the virus such as the anticipated second wave and how that will be mitigated, for example, there are soon going to be other constraints on employees. At least in the Northern hemisphere of the world, the weather is changing — days will get shorter and colder — and in some countries like the United States there’s significant social and political unrest.

These new challenges are coming up over the next six to nine months — the amount of time most predict it will take to develop more effective antivirals or the beginnings of a vaccination program.

While HPE is satisfied with the data on its workforce’s wellbeing for the moment, May knows the dynamics will change because of the factors above “and also because of the sheer duration of the crisis.”

“I don’t mean to be negative about this but we need to anticipate cumulative fatigue and intervene in newer, more innovative ways.”

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