Man sitting down talking on the phone.
PHOTO: Anne Worner

During times of crisis, employee experience leaders need to be thinking about “flipping the paradigm” in their organizations. Look at how employees feel and work backward from traditional business approaches, starting with the employee, according to employee experience leader Colleen Schuller.

“What does that mean for senior leaders? What does it mean for HR processes?” asked Schuller, who was named this month vice president of U.S. head of inclusion and diversity at global pharmaceutical company GSK after spending a little over two years as vice president and head of employee experience. “What does it mean for making sure that people get access to the information they need when they need it? It’s a real opportunity to level-set, starting with the employee and working backward.”

That effort is top of mind for Schuller as the world — and her workforce of nearly 100,000 global employees — grapples with the spread of coronavirus and its impact on the workplace.

Times Have Changed

Employee experience is naturally front and center today. It’s not as if employee experience was an afterthought before coronavirus broke out last month and has now spread to nearly 1.5 million worldwide cases.

Nearly all (96%) human resources leaders say creating a great experience for their employees is paramount, not only for retention but for their bottom line, according to a LinkedIn study released in January. LinkedIn officials also found there has been a 2.4X increase in LinkedIn members whose job titles include "employee experience" since 2014. 

Employee experience officers like Schuller are now, however, tasked with perhaps their most important job function to date: caring for a workforce not only burdened by drastically changing ways of doing work but also immense health fears. “It’s that big shift — starting with the employee and then working backward,” Schuller said. “And I don’t know if (the working world) has always done a great job at that.”

Related Article: 11 Ways to Craft Personalized Employee Experiences

Responsive Managers

So how is an employee experience officer like Schuller trying to do just that these days? Supporting her employees is naturally number 1. As a global pharmaceutical company of around 100,000 employees, they’ve got a particularly important job to do during the current global health pandemic. They are supporting research and production of candidate COVID-19 vaccines, supporting screening and research into potential medicines for COVID-19 and supporting frontline health workers through initiatives like a $10 million donation to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

All the while, they’ve got their own employees to support, and that’s a big task for Schuller and other employee experience leaders in the organization. “This is about equipping our people managers to just be responsive to the human element here,” Schuller said. “There are people working from home that have kids running around in the background. And so it's about what's the human element of all of this?”

The main focus is equipping managers with the knowledge and tools to check in with their people and understand what they can do to help. “It’s a balance of working with individuals and understanding what the company can do to put out trainings or guidance,” she said.

Work With Senior Leaders on Communications

Schuller has also found it important to work with senior leadership on communications. As a company, she wants to ensure that company communications in times like these should be about the people in the company and ways the organization can be supportive. “Is it about you or is it about the people?” Schuller said employee experiences officers should ask. Look out for messages that may be too “head oriented, as opposed to heart oriented,” she said.

The more communication the merrier in times like these, according to Martin Hlavaty, chief employee experience officer at Avantia, a 60-employee management and digital consultancy. “We've increased employee communication,” Hlavaty said. “We're trying to do it on a little bit more than a weekly basis, maybe two or three times a week. We're just checking in with everybody, making sure people are staying sane. And I'm trying to focus on speaking with people individually.”

Related Article: Getting the C-Suite on Board With Employee Experience Efforts

Does My Company Get Me?

This is an opportunity to show employees you’re listening. Does my company get me? “There's a very human element here,” she said. “Do I believe my company has my back? I think the companies that get that right will say, ‘Look, we know this is a big change. We don't know what's happening, but we know you have to deliver X and so we're here to support you. So I think the companies that can get it right are really going to separate themselves from an EX perspective.”

Superficial leaders in a time like this will be obvious. “I see this as a movement of people that care about the purpose and leaders that are genuine, and really care about their people,” she said. “I think we're going to see a huge separation and great performance for people that can shine.” 

We're Here For You

Hlavaty feels there is not much more important during these times than letting employees know he’s there to support them in any fashion. “What I'm doing now, even remotely, is just making sure people are happy,” he said. “If they have anything on their mind they need to share with people, I'm there to support them.”