On this episode of The RecruitingDaily Podcast, Alison DiFlorio joins William Tincup to discuss what the delta variant means for HR practices.
Alison is managing partner, human capital division at Exude, and an expert in talent development, team development and human resources.
Have a listen and let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Listening Time: 31 minutes
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As Managing Partner of the Human Capital Division of Exude, Inc., Alison works with leaders who are passionate about their people and workplace culture. With over 20 years in talent development, team development and human resources, she offers thought leadership and insight to support business leaders who seek to align workplace culture to their business strategy and to build human resources structures and practices to drive that culture.Follow Follow
This is RecruitingDaily’s Recruiting Live Podcast, where we look at the strategies behind the world’s best talent acquisition teams. We talk recruiting, sourcing, and talent acquisition. Each week, we take one overcomplicated topic, and break it down so that your three-year-old can understand it, make sense? Are you ready to take your game to the next level? You’re at the right spot. You’re now entering the mind of a hustler, here’s your host, William Tincup.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup, and you’re listening to the RecruitingDaily Podcast. Today, we have Alison on from Exude, and we’re going to be talking about what does the Delta variant mean for HR practices. And lately, I’ve been actually reading a lot about the Delta variant, so I’m excited to talk to Alison about it. So why don’t we just jump into introductions? Alison, would you do us a favor and introduce both yourself, and Exude?
Absolutely, and thanks so much for having me. I’m Alison Diflorio, I’m the managing partner of the human capital division of Exude. Exude is a Philadelphia-based consulting firm with expertise in the areas of employee benefits, human resources, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and learning and develop. We’re actually celebrating our 25th anniversary next week, and we’ve been working in this space with organizations from all sectors, in all industries. And as you might imagine, over the past 18 months, much of the work that we’ve been doing has been focused on addressing concerns around COVID, and now more recently, with the Delta variant.
So, again, it’s 2020, everyone has to go remote, and HR’s thrust right in the center of all of this, of having to make communication, and collaboration, and all this stuff that work, and not just work, but work well, meanwhile, the whole entire planet’s going through this pandemic. So now we’re, again, a year and a half later, we’re kind of accustomed, or I think we’ve learned some things, we’ve gotten better, but I want you to take us into kind of what your clients learned along that process. And then let’s move to the Delta variant, and what’s different about it as opposed to what COVID proper kind of taught us, and how do we respond to the Delta variant?
Sure. Last year, I think, was it March 13th, March 17th?
Yeah, yeah, I know, [inaudible 00:02:56] Friday the 13th.
It’s when the world kind of stopped for everybody. And I remember our phones just blew up, and there was no playbook back then-
Nobody had had to ever deal with this, and over 20 years of being in human resources, never had to deal with anything quite like this. And we were busily working, keeping up with the CDC guideline, kind of working in this world of uncertainty. And I think what happened with HR professionals, number one, their voice became extremely important in organizations, and they had to think about the people first, because this was really impacting everybody, it didn’t discriminate, it impacted everybody. And they had to think about the business.
So they were balancing the needs of the employees and the needs of the operation. As you might imagine, some of the employers that were essential workers never had the opportunity to work remotely, they were on the front lines doing the really difficult work. And then other organizations, overnight, had to revamp their processes. And when I say processes, their business processes, how they were going to communicate, how their managers were going to manage people in a remote environment. These were all new skill sets for everybody.
I think we all went from learning the technology hiccups, to becoming more accepting of dogs barking in the background, and all of these things that HR people kind of had to navigate. Certainly from a compliance perspective, they had to make sure that they were compliant with federal state, and local laws, and the CDC guidelines. As we moved through the year, some organizations started talking about returning to the workplace. And some actually did attempt to do that, and some successfully, but they were very careful about putting guidelines in place to ensure that when people did come to the office that they were appropriately masked, they were hand sanitized those kinds of things. We didn’t see too much of that last year, but we did see some sprinkling of that.
I think what HR people did, and what we were encouraging HR people to do, is to document processes that worked well. Document business processes that they had to change, because what we do know in this world of uncertainty, is that this will likely happen again. So to be prepared to, what I call toggle, back and forth between an in-person workplace, and a remote workplace, and then the hybrid workplace, HR people, it’s best practice to be documenting your processes, so you can easily shift if, when you have to.
It’s interesting because you brought up two, the most salient points that I think that we learned on TA, and in HR, is contingency planning.
Emergency planning, contingency planning, but also communication strategy. Because there was a left void that HR had to fill in between the nexus of their company, and employees, and vice versa, the employees with the company, and so I’m glad that you touched on that. Before we get to Delta variant, what is your clients, when they want to obviously return to the office, how are they dealing with vaccinations, and mandatory masks, and social distancing, and kind of all of these, I would say political, they shouldn’t be political, issues, but seemingly enough, they are, I guess, how are they navigating getting those waters?
So it’s really interesting. So the whole issue around vaccinations, okay, so for much of last year, we didn’t even have vaccinations.
So once we had the emergency approval for vaccinations, we had organizations encouraging, and then strongly encouraging. Recently, I’d say, I’ll give you a data point, back in May, I believe there were only 9% of employers that were mandating vaccines, I don’t know what the number is today, but I can assure you that in the last month, in my own orbit, my own world here, I have seen more employers mandating vaccines, and if you’ve seen in the papers, you’ve got some of the big hitters, Disney, Walmart-
Google, Facebook. And if you look into their policies, their policies vary quite a bit. So some of them are mandating for office staff, but not for other staff. It’s not across the board that mandating-
Oh, that’s interesting, so with Walmart for example, if you’re in-store, potentially vaccinated, but if you’re a truck driver for Walmart, maybe potentially not vaccinated.
Right. And I’m not sure of the exact positions, but that’s exactly right.
Now, they are still encouraging… And we have seen this, not a lot initially, but we’re seeing more of incentivizing vaccination. So a payment of $100, or [inaudible 00:08:37].
Right. Extra day off, something…
Yeah, [inaudible 00:08:41]. Many employers are offering time off to go get the vaccine.
Some are offering time off for side effects from the vaccine. They’re trying to make it as-
Easy as possible. Remove any obstacles to someone going to get the vaccine.
Right. Again, there’s going to be folks that just don’t want to get… Either they can’t, either that-
Or for religious reasons, or just personal reasons, and that’s okay as well. It’s just, again, when the company is trying to figure out how to navigate, kind of a return to the office… I did a webinar recently, and for the question that I got asked, I mean, probably 15 times, which I found fascinating was, how do you get people that work remote to not want to work remote?
That’s a million dollar question.
It is a million dollar question, right?
And of course I answered it, I’m like, “Well, listen, talent wins. So if you don’t want that talent, again, they’re going to find a place where they can work remote, [crosstalk 00:09:48] now that we’ve taught them how to work remotely and be successful.” As employers, I think we have to bend towards the talent, but then again, that probably opens up to a bunch of other discussions. Let’s-
Oh, go ahead.
It’s so interesting, because I always think about, if you call this a… This crisis, if you will, there were some upsides, there were some positive benefits to know the work environment. And one of them is that it accelerated remote work.
So that was happening, right?
It was happening. But I had some clients, candidly, whose had their heels dug in, and they were not going to offer remote work, and then this happened.
And now you’ve seen people ease there. But you’re absolutely right, 18 months of successfully working remotely, and not having to deal with the stress of commuting, or getting your kids to childcare, and making it there on time, all of these things were removed. Yeah, there were other stressors that were added, but I do think employers have to be focused on the people, and it’s not just flipping a switch and saying, “Guess what? Tomorrow you’re coming back to the office, and everything’s going to be great.” It’s just not going to work that way.
No. And you’re right, there’s some silver linings that are really interesting. The empathy, demystifying, or de-stigmatizing mental health and burnout, and talking openly about those things, and putting programs, and process, and technology around those things. And in, I don’t know if it’s a negative side effect of COVID, but on the talent acquisition side, when you’re selling a job, or you’re talking to a candidate about a job, and you mention the word commute, you’re almost DOA at that point. Unless the person really wants to go in an office, which is, again, some talent does. I mean, again, that’s the crazy part, is that it’s not one size fits all, which I know that, you’re dealing with all your clients, so you know this, that it’s person by person, role by role, job by job, company by company. If they want to come into the office, great. If they don’t want to come into the office, great.
And I think that’s going to be where HR people can focus-
As we move into this next iteration, this next normal, if you will, is if you want the most out of somebody, if you want the best performance out of someone, understand what their needs are, and do your best to accommodate it so that they can thrive. And you’re right, there are some people who actually love going into the office-
And getting away from everything that they have to deal with at home-
And so that’s fantastic. What we are seeing, mostly, William, is a hybrid-
[crosstalk 00:12:45] return to work. Two, three days in the office, and the remainder at home. I can say that we’re probably seeing close to 70% of our-
And again, just as you survey the market, who’s deciding that? I don’t think two companies are going to be… When we talk about hybrid model, I think of it as fingerprints, every company’s going to be a little bit different in some ways.
But who makes the decision? Okay, so let’s say it’s three days in the office, who makes that decision? Is it the [crosstalk 00:13:15] employee or the employer?
Well, I think a lot of our employers are serving employees [crosstalk 00:13:23] to kind of understand where they sit, and what their feelings are, which is a fantastic data point-
To consider. This has to be a joint decision. You have to consider operations, because they’re the ones responsible for making things happen. HR certainly has a voice, leadership has a voice. So I think everybody’s voice has to be heard, and the organization has to collectively come up with a decision that’s going to support all parties. I think if they start to have difficulty attracting and retaining talent as a result, well, then, I think the weight of the inputs is going to change, because it’s a very tough market right now to find talent, as you know.
And employers are going to have to consider flexibility if they’re going to continue to attract and retain top talent.
100%, 100%. So let’s talk about the Delta variant. So one of the things in my research, and again, I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but it presents differently, which was astounding to me as I read more about it. For most people, it presents like sinuses. So runny nose, postnasal drip, maybe a cough, bit sneezing, things you’d think are allergies-
And it’s highly contagious, different from COVID proper. COVID proper, at least for a while it seemed like you got it, you were on a ventilator. It was just a [inaudible 00:15:07] path. Whereas the Delta variant, more contagious, but maybe less lethal. And again, not a doctor, nor do I play one on TVs, so what are you seeing, both in the research, but also with your clients, and how they’re dealing with the Delta variant maybe differently than they dealt with COVID?
Well, one thing to add to your list of how it presents differently, we also know that there have been breakthrough infections.
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. Good call.
So we didn’t have that, because we didn’t have a vaccine for COVID, but with the Delta, we’re seeing vaccinated people become symptomatic [crosstalk 00:15:46].
So it is problematic, for sure. And it does give employers pause, and we’ve seen a number of our employers postpone the post Labor Day return to the workplace, whatever hybrid environment they have planned.
I’ve seen groups push it off to the end of the year, I’ve seen groups push it off until February. Everybody is waiting and watching. People are also being very safety-focused, and making sure that if they are going to go back to work, that they’re… Like I mentioned earlier, we are seeing more mandating of vaccines.
Because we do know with the Delta variant that the vaccine is effective in minimizing the impact of the virus.
So employers are making that tough decision right now, and more and more are doing so. Requiring masks, now, you have to follow your federal state and local ordinances with regards to what the mask mandates are. And to your point earlier, that’s controversial in and of itself.
Employers are preparing for even more uncertainty and more potential pushback from employees who are concerned about returning to workplace, because the Delta variant is so unpredictable.
Yeah. I think another factor is, we’re coming in the fall here in America at least, we’re coming in the fall, and normal flu season, plus COVID, plus the Lambda variant, the Delta variant, which we’re talking about today, I can see why companies would hit the brakes, and especially if they feel like they’ve gotten remote down, or at least feel like they’ve been successful in remote to date. I can see where companies would then say, “Okay, we’re going to hit the pause button. We are going to try to do a remote, a hybrid model when we feel it’s safe. And the fall we know, just cold and flu season, and so we’re just going to wait and see what the spring brings, or January 1st.” So I can kind of see that.
For me, I can see why they’d make that decision because of how contagious it is. And again, it’s hitting people that have been vaccinated, it’s hitting kids, it shows no mercy in terms of who it actually impacts. So I can see where companies would hit pause, especially the pause after Labor Day, just to kind of weather whatever this storm is going to be with the Delta variant. What advice, again, with the range of people that you deal with, how do you help them navigate, the C-suite, really wanting, desiring, and maybe they think there’s a loss in productivity, but they really want people in-person, but they also recognize that the Delta variant is different, how does HR get them over that hump, and get them to understand safety comes first, et cetera?
Yeah. Well, and safety does come first, and HR has to make the point that the business is extremely important, but if the people don’t show up physically and psychologically prepared to do their job, then you’re not going to be successful. So I think they have to think about people first, and think about what is going to be the best environment for our people to be able to do their best work. And again, it’s always a balance.
It’s always a balance between the business needs and the people needs. But what I recommend that people do, number one, remain flexible.
This is not the time to just say, “We’re going to do it, we said we were going to do it.” And not show that degree of, “Okay, we thought we were going to do it, but now we’re going to push it out.” Communicate effectively with staff, because here’s what we are finding, that living in this world of uncertainty for such a long period of time has really created fatigue-
For some people. In fact, somebody in the New York Times quoted this term, languishing. People have lived in uncertainty for so long that they’re feeling like they’re languishing. They’re looking at their computers and not being able to accomplish their work. So the way that an employer can address that is, create certainty around uncertainty. So if that’s, “We do know we’re still planning to do a return to work in a hybrid format, however, due to the recent data, we are going to move that return date back to X. And we’ll make sure that we update you so that you have plenty of time to make arrangements before you return to work.” That gives a degree of certainty, even though we don’t know exactly when that return date’s going to be. And I think that that’s really, really important to people.
A lot of the stress that we see from employees is particularly those who have to make arrangements to care for, either elder people, or children, and they’re afraid that the employer’s going to flip the switch and say, “You need to be back to work next week.” So we do recommend that you give lead time, and let them know they’re going to have 30 days or 60 days to make arrangements to get back to work. The fact that schools are opening now, and you mentioned that this Delta variant really has a bigger impact on the younger people. That’s an unknown, and we don’t know how that’s going to impact people. So I think being very sensitive to that is important. And I would also suggest that they talk to their friendly competitors about what their competitors are doing and get ideas.
I think this is not the time to kind of hold all your cards and not share best practices, this is the time to say, “Hey, what did you do? How did it work?” And be willing to share best practices with people. We’re kind of all in this unknown together. And the last piece I would say is, when we do get to that place where you are returning to work, and some may already be there, constantly reevaluate, have a process to gather feedback, whether that’s surveys, whether that’s just one-on-one conversations with people, but see how things are going, and be willing to make adjustments, because we really have to listen, and take action in order to make sure that this return to the workplace is successful.
I really love the way that you position the, create certainty around uncertainty, and it’s really dealing with ambiguity, and which leads to burnout for a lot of folks that aren’t used to dealing with uncertainty. But you hit on one practice that I really like, and it’s the practice of communicating when there’s going to be change, when we’re going to either do hybrid, or go remote forever, or whatever the change is, is giving people advanced notice. So that they can then make whatever necessary arrangements that they have to. I love that. Are there any other things that your customers, tips, tricks, anything else that, practice-wise, that you just kind of see from client-to-client, like, “Okay, here’s the 10 things that you should be doing. If you’re not already doing these, and doing these well, let’s make sure that you are doing these things.”?
I would say communicate, communicate, communicate. And that’s not just one way, that’s not just sending out a daily, weekly email, that is, have a strategy, and make sure that communication is coming on a regular basis, in multiple ways. So it might be the leader of the organization, a quick short video that is sent out, it might be an email explaining the phased approach that the organization is taking, and it may be something on safety. I think the more that you can communicate, the more that you can train your managers to be asking for feedback, and to checking in on staff during this unpredictable time, is really important as well. And I think some organizations may take for granted that managers have those skills to communicate with empathy, but I would strongly, strongly recommend that they offer them some tips and tricks on how they can effectively stay in touch with their remote employees, and then the onsite employees. I’d also say that the feedback is incredibly important. And listening to feedback, whether you’re doing regular surveys, and I don’t want to over survey people, so it’s not-
Survey every week. But whether you’re sending out one question… Some organizations will do, and I think this is so fun, and they have systems in place that do this, but you could simply do it with an email too, three questions a week, one on a Monday, one on a Wednesday, one on a Friday. Two of them might be fun questions to keep people engaged, just random trivial questions, and then one might be something a little bit more relevant to the workplace and how they’re feeling.
The other very important point I would say is really critical for employers to do now is to increase communication around mental health benefits that are available to employees, resources, access to resources, whether there’s a site that they can go to, and you’re regularly sending out some updates. And these could be resources for themselves, or resources for their family members. Because as you mentioned, uncertainty takes a big toll on mental health, and given that we have been in this for 18 months or so, and there really isn’t an end date in the near future, we know that we’re going to have to do what we can to make those resources available.
Two questions is before we roll out, Alison, we’ve talked about employees suffering, potentially from burnout, to Zoom exhaustion, et cetera. What about HR? What about the folks in the profession? TA and HR, they might have thought they had this kind of licked, and gotten it to a certain place that earlier in the spring, and “Hey, we’re going to get back to some type of form of normalcy-ish.” And then comes the Delta variant. [crosstalk 00:27:37] So what’s your take on their level of tiredness?
HR people are really getting burned out. And in fact, I was on a call last week, and the HR person said to me, “I’m actually going to be leaving.” I said, “Oh, where are you going?”
“I’m not going anywhere. This year has just been too difficult, and it’s time for me to just step away.” And this is very real.
Of course in my world, I talk to HR people on a regular basis, and they’re overwhelmed, the pace of the work has not let up since March 13th of last year. And-
Yeah, not let up, gotten life and death. We can’t make it even more.
It is, it really is. And it’s mentally heavy-
And it’s emotionally heavy work. So I think HR people really need to take care of themselves. And employers need to make sure their HR people have the resources and the tools to do their job, that they have the support to do their job if they’re not still working 80, 90 hours a week. As everything always has a silver lining, I will say that this past year really elevated the voice of the HR person-
In an organization.
And I think that is something that’s here to stay, which-
Thank God, yeah.
If we can find that, I think that’s a really good of thing.
So everyone’s hyped up the great resignation, right?
So you can’t go anywhere without seeing it, you throw a rock, you’ll find it. How does the Delta variant throw kind of a monkey wrench in the great resignation, in the sense of, when COVID hit, most employees hunkered down, those that didn’t get furloughed, or didn’t laid off, all of those types of things, a lot of people just hunkered down, stayed in their jobs, tried to figure it all out, and then stayed still. And then once it started to kind of open up, then started looking around. Fair enough, no issues with that. Delta variant now is an X factor. What’s your take on how that either impacts the rate? Either speeds it up, slows it down, stops it, how do you think it interacts with the great resignation?
I think what it does is it forces employers to rethink their employee value prop. Because if they’re going to be competitive in this market where employees are really calling… Candidates are calling shots right now.
Employers that are going to create an environment of workplace flexibility are going to fare better in this great resignation than those who don’t. Employees want to know that an employer cares about their safety first, and with so many organizations who do have the ability to work for remotely, making the decision to do that, that is going to give them an edge into recruiting candidates.
Right. [inaudible 00:30:53] that’s all three, so it’s the recruiting, and engagement, and retention, right?
Alison, this has been great. Thank you so much for coming on the RecruitingDaily Podcast.
William, thank you so much, such a pleasure.
And thanks for everyone listening to the RecruitingDaily Podcast, until next time.
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William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.