Wave CHRO: 'HR can't predict the future – but we can prepare for it'

It's the end of the world as we know it – R.E.M had 2020 in mind when they wrote their seminal hit

Wave CHRO: 'HR can't predict the future – but we can prepare for it'

It’s the end of the world as we know it – R.E.M had 2020 in mind when they wrote their seminal hit.

No one could have predicted COVID-19 or the immense, sweeping changes it would instigate. Our lives, our reality, as we once knew them are gone forever – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The future is still unsure – but that means that we have the scope to mould it into something better than before.

Returning to work is one of the main areas of concern for CHROs – not only in terms of timescale but also health and safety preparedness. The buck stops with HR in maintaining new workplace safety standards, to ensure that offices are not only functional but medically okay for re-entry.

READ MORE: Amazon fires three more employees who criticised working conditions

HRD spoke to Ashira Gobrin, CHRO at technology giant Wave Financial Inc, who revealed how she’s coping with possible return to work plans.

“There was a lot of fear at the start of the global pandemic, with most of it stemming from the vast amount of unknowns,” she told HRD.

“In this time, the HR leaders had to quickly become experts in public health and safety - as well as take on decisions that could impact lives not just in an emotional and professional way, but in a literal physical way. This isn’t something we thought we’d be doing, unless of course we worked in healthcare or public safety organizations.

“Keeping our workforces going is about making our employees feel safe in a world that actually, largely, is not safe at the moment. This isn’t easy. Every decision we made at Wave when shutting the office down, and as we planned to reopen, was made with the best interests of our employees in mind.”

Gobrin told HRD that she’s looked at this from two perspectives;

  1. Physical and logistical health and safety
  2. Mental and emotional health and safety

“On the first topic, our number one concern is the health and safety of our employees,” added Gobrin. “We will not put that in jeopardy. Our decisions continue to be guided by directions given by public health officials, science and data – with that information we create updated frameworks and protocols.

“We made the decision to gradually reopen the office and we only act when we feel safe do so. I believe that employers have ultimate responsibility to do everything in their power to protect their employees while on the job, and to ensure their wellness, health and safety is protected.”

READ MORE: Amazon struggles to cope amid COVID-19

Health and safety training is a core component of HR – but it’s never been as prominent in organizational strategy than it is right now. Workplace safety pre-2020 meant watching out for bullying, creating an inclusive culture, and checking on machinery. Now, in today’s coronavirus-riddled world, the stakes are much higher.

Make a mistake, overlook a certain issue, and it’s a case of life or death. Surely then, remote working should take some precedent?

“For the foreseeable future, working from home will carry on being an option for our employees, which is why in addition to opening the office, we must continue to work to support those who choose to stay home,” continued Gobrin.

“For many, the reality of coming into the office presents risks that are too high. Whether that be taking public transportation, commuting into a more populated area, having a high-risk family member, or having children without school or day care support.

“As we thought about the reopening, we had already been through months of training from public health and the media, that leaving our homes was not safe, and so there was reluctance to talk about reopening. There are indeed a percentage of our employee population as with most companies, that are enjoying their work from home options. There is a large group in the middle who are fine doing it although it may not be their preference to work from home always, and would most appreciate flexibility in working in combination from the home and the office two to three days per week.”

The second element of this comes in the form of safeguarding mental and emotional wellbeing. The return to work takes just as much mental as it does physical effort – moving from lockdown and isolation to mingling with colleagues. For some, going back into work may be too much of a struggle emotionally – and the decision to remain in remote work might be easier. Conversely, there’s a sub-section of workers who’re craving that human interaction again.

“There are some people who’ve been completely on their own, isolated from other human contact for months,” added Gobrin. “There’s some employees for whom the isolation has caused depression, anxiety, or even the resurgence of past traumas. They have no one to help balance their thoughts or talk them through their fears.

“We decided that for this group, opening the office was important enough and so we spent about three months working through it. First the research, how other offices in Canada and in other countries were going about it. Then came the practical parts to make it work, and then the cultural parts: it was vital to me that we kept everyone as safe as possible but, at the same time, we did not give a sense of fear in the office.

“HR can’t predict what the new world expects of us, but we have time to prepare as best we can.

“All of the skills we’ve focused on developing in ourselves and within our teams are now more valuable than ever: empathy, flexibility, adaptability, effective communication, critical thinking and problem-solving. These skills will help us be ready for something that may be very different from what we once knew, and we must reprioritize to focus on what is truly important. We need to keep asking each other how we can help and support one another. I am ready to do my part.”

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