'Flexible & rich' benefits: The key to COVID-19 communications?

'We've absolutely intensified the offerings we deliver to employees'

'Flexible & rich' benefits: The key to COVID-19 communications?

It became clear quite quickly, as workforces across the world switched to working remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, that employees would require more support from their employer as they navigated a new and, at times, frightening reality.

“We’ve absolutely intensified the offerings we deliver to employees,” says Heike Neumann, head of HR for SAP Canada. “We looked into our policies and benefits in general — are there additional benefits we need to offer, expand or extend?”

The good news, she notes, is SAP was very well prepared in this regard for the pandemic.

“We always had flexible and rich benefits offerings that now perfectly meet the situation,” she says.

The tech company offers its employees a paid crisis leave policy if they need to take care of elders or children, a strong paid sick leave policy and also “lots of flexible working arrangements that allow people to adjust their working schedule to the circumstances they are in so they can continue to be productive while mastering additional personal challenges at home,” Neumann says.

With a diverse and inclusive workplace one of SAP’s main tenets, it’s crucial to ensure differently-abled colleagues are getting any extra support they may need as well.

A good example is SAP employees in its Autism at Work program, which launched in 2013. Canada was one of the pilot countries at SAP to move forward with the program and the company actively made the hiring process and workplace more inclusive for people on the spectrum. Changes include things like managers adjusting some practices to make an employee on the spectrum feel more comfortable in their work environment, or other team members becoming more thoughtful in the ways they communicate with one another. SAP now has over 160 employees with autism company-wide.

While during the pandemic the company has been communicatingvery intensively” with its workforce in general to see how theyre coping, those on the spectrum are a specific employee group where Neumann and colleagues try to “intensify their efforts” and check in more often now than in the past, knowing their situation might be a bit different than others.

“Like with the overall workforce, some people cope really well and others don’t cope so well — everyone is individual,” Neumann says, noting its not an easy time at the moment for anyone.

“But we recognize that particularly in these times it’s important to keep in touch and connect with these colleagues to understand where they are and see what obstacles they are facing.”

Another example is employees who have difficulty hearing. Accessible communications are an important factor in an inclusive workplace, and even more crucial now that the majority of the workforce is offsite. Microsoft Teams is a tool SAP uses internally that offers features to support users with hearing impairment.

“For instance, many individuals who experience hearing loss may lip read, so turning on the camera is a big help,” Neumann notes, adding there’s also an intuitive closed-captioning feature embedded in the system to help ensure everyone can understand the content of the meeting.

“Everyone in our organization has access to Microsoft Teams — its one of our main communications tools, especially in light of COVID-19.”

Neumann says SAP has developed a checklist for “Leading Inclusive Meetings.” The checklist offers reminders of “how to run meetings where everyone has the chance to contribute, regardless of whether or not they identify as a person with a disability.”

SAP also utilizes the resources available to it as a member of The Presidents Group, a British Columbia organization consisting of 25 companies "who really champion more accessible and inclusive workplaces,” Neumann says.

Most recently, The Presidents Group released a resource called Emerging Practices for Recalling Workers with Disabilities, which references the United Nations policy brief A Disability Inclusive Response to COVID-19. The brief emphasizes the importance of employers continuing to provide accessible environments and reasonable workplace accommodations. It calls for a sensitive approach coming out of lockdown that acknowledges “the particular situation of persons with disabilities,” as such employees and their family members may have different levels of vulnerability to the virus and therefore would benefit from continued flexibility such as extended remote work options and schedules.

Neumann says SAP plans to leverage the guide “as we build a plan for our eventual re-entry to the office.”

SAP is well prepared to welcome back employees of all abilities once they start reopening. In 2018, SAP’s Vancouver office building became the first business in Canada to receive the Accessibility Certified Gold rating under the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification program, the assessment for which also identified opportunities for improvement.

“We struck a cross-functional task force to build an action plan to implement some of the recommendations in the report,” Neumann says. “One of the outcomes of the task force has been a guidebook for accessible communications at SAP Canada — which has become especially important in the context of COVID-19.”

The value of diversity to organizations — especially tech companies — cannot be stated often enough, Neumann says, adding it really is a key prerequisite for innovation and the ultimate success of SAP. The company depends on that innovation to reach best solutions for its customers, who have also become more diverse over the last few years and expect to see that diversity represented. One of the best ways to drive outside-the-box thinking is to welcome different ideas, perspectives and strengths to the table.

Another bonus of an inclusive workplace is that it motivates, attracts and helps retain great employees. Neumann says it’s something new talent especially is looking for when deciding to apply to a company or not. She points out there are also many studies out there that show a highly inclusive organization has better financial results — so it is not something to neglect.

When supporting differently-abled employees, most circumstances — and therefore most accommodations — are different, Neumann says, but the tools mentioned are ones that SAP finds helpful.

“Ultimately, we offer a lot of flexibility to accommodate everyone in our workforce and of course also colleagues who might be differently-abled,” she says. “Flexibility and empathy are key at the moment to every employee — way more than in the past.”

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