Prepare and Plan: In conversation with Claudia St. John
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Ahead of her presentation at our Virtual Label Summit 2020, we caught up with Claudia St. John, president, Affinity HR. Based in the US, she explains some of the best ways companies can respond to a crisis, particularly during these unprecedented COVID times, and tips for overcoming them.
TELL US WHY YOU DECIDED TO PRESENT AT OUR VIRTUAL LABEL SUMMIT 2020…
I was delighted to be asked to present at the Virtual Label Summit 2020. I was very excited to participate in person, but given the current situation, the Virtual Summit is the next best thing. I always love the opportunity to visit with converters and suppliers to hear how they are doing and what their priorities are. It helps us plan ways and programs to help support the industry. And understanding how they are managing through this pandemic is especially important.
CAN YOU GIVE US A SNEAK PREVIEW OF WHAT YOU WILL BE SPEAKING ABOUT IN YOUR CONFERENCE SESSION?
As an HR professional here in the US, it’s hard to speak about 2020 without addressing the current pandemic. The COVID crisis has affected so many aspects of how we do business – from supply chain disruptions to workplace infections. But one aspect that I’m hoping to focus on is leading a team, given the emotional and physical stresses that this pandemic creates. Regardless of what country or place on earth one operates, people handle stress and uncertainty differently. It can definitely affect productivity and effective team collaboration. So I’ll be talking about effective communication, emotional intelligence, how to build resiliency, and tips for team management.
WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST HR CHALLENGES YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED DURING THESE LAST SIX MONTHS?
Oh my gosh! I don’t even know where to start. Certainly from the US perspective, one thing that COVID created is a clear appreciation among businesses for the importance of human resources. Here, from shutting down businesses, to establishing work from home policies, to complying with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), to dealing with sick and exposed employees, to helping employees balance child care, to social unrest and protests, to a resurging virus, to a particularly divisive election cycle…the challenges over the past six months have been extraordinarily hard and, unfortunately, there seems to be no end in sight. These challenges are surely familiar to companies elsewhere around the world.
CAN YOU GIVE ANY EXAMPLES OF HOW YOU/YOUR TEAM OVERCAME THEM?
At Affinity HR Group, we realized early on that our main purpose during all of the changes related to COVID was to provide the most helpful, up-to-date information to help businesses maintain a safe workplace in the US. We have focused on monitoring the evolving advice from the CDC, EEOC, OSHA and US state and local authorities, developing videos and white papers and participating in conferences like the Virtual Label Summit. All of these have the intention of getting the most helpful information out to our clients. We changed our focus from being consultants to being educators and advisors. Really, what we experienced in 2020 was unprecedented – all around the world, with very little notice, companies had to change everything about their business operations. This included physical operations, working virtually, evolving practices as the medical community learned more about the virus and its transmission, and managing business and economic needs with the safety concerns of employees, customers and the public.
What we learned was there was no perfect answer, no perfect response. The best we could do was provide our label and packaging clients with the latest information and best practices and then help them to develop their own strategy. In many instances, those clients had to develop multiple strategies for different employee concerns. This is not a typical HR practice. Instead of focusing on conformity and process/procedure, we started recommending flexibility, customization and temporary solutions to address each employee’s unique situation wherever possible – solutions that could change as the pandemic changed. It’s been a learning curve for us all.
HOW DO YOU THINK THE HR LANDSCAPE IS CHANGING?
Certainly, businesses view HR as a more critical business partner than they did in the past. Again, I think this is something true not only here in the US but internationally. Being able to navigate all the guidance and laws and keeping workplaces compliant with federal, state and even local laws while also keeping employees engaged and their families safe, the entire role of HR has changed. Just dealing with the plight of parents whose children are not in school is both critical and strategic. And operating in a virtual environment is a brand new challenge that affects everything that an HR professional does. As mentioned in the question above, our focus is shifting to one that’s about learning and education, and with that comes a responsibility.
Even though it’s overwhelming, it is an exciting and challenging time to be an HR professional.
HOW MIGHT IT LOOK OVER THE NEXT 12 MONTHS?
I always struggle with the crystal ball question. There was no way I could have anticipated the past 6 months, so predicting the next 12 months is even more daunting. At Affinity HR Group, we are spending a lot of time advising businesses who are eager to return their staff to full onsite strength and helping them to do that safely. We’re also dealing with many serious situations of COVID infections across the US. So I think it’s going to be a continued push and pull – on the one hand to open up to business as usual ASAP, while on the other having to closing back down to deal with hot spot infections as they arise. I do expect we will be dealing with all of this through Q2 2021. I think our evolving business critical role as HR educators will only take on greater significance.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF ADVICE TO COMPANIES IN THE CURRENT CLIMATE, PARTICULARLY WHEN IT COMES TO FUTUREPROOFING THEIR BUSINESS?
Be kind. Show grace. Be empathetic. Don’t stop learning and showing a willingness to learn. Do so for your employees, your clients, your family and most importantly, for yourself. These are frustrating, uncertain times. Even though we’re all in the same storm, we’re all in different boats, boats that we have minimal control over. The more patience and kindness we can show others and ourselves, the easier it will be to ride out the storm.
I also recommend that our converter and supplier partners lean in to flexible solutions for their employees as the situation evolves. This is not a normal business practice for most companies, but tapping into creative solutions, tapping into peer experiences, tapping into your own employee knowledge base is critical for weathering this storm.
Leading a team through a season of crisis takes place on Wednesday 30 September, between 10.00-11.00 US Central Time.