Stephanie Neuvirth, global VP, people and organization, on how coronavirus changed HR at Mars Veterinary Health

4 minute read

In May 2020 The People Space and 10Eighty held a week-long series of webinars to discover the practical steps HR directors were taking to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. We catch up with Stephanie Neuvirth, global VP, people and organization at Mars Veterinary Health, to discover the lessons since learned and which of the changes will now be permanent

Stephanie Neuvirth, global VP, people and organization at Mars Veterinary Health, on the COVID-19 pandemic

Business strategy and trading

Our business is up substantially and way above what was anticipated for 2020, even before COVID. So we have had this massive V-shape recovery. We have come up so fast, so strong that honestly we are having our best year ever.

People are now home with their pets all the time realising that their pets probably need more care. And second of all, massive numbers of pets were adopted during this period of time. There are no pets in the shelters. I think it's the comfort, companionship, the human animal bond at its best, but we have more demand than we have the capacity of professionals to deliver the demand.

We dealt with the initial as a crisis, with crisis management team strategies and approaches, and we kicked the can on a lot of what I would call routine processes and events, thinking that it would be over. And so as we come up on a year soon, I think that the real challenge is you can't just defer forever. So I think in some ways we managed by just addressing the most current things and we deferred a bunch of stuff and now we're facing how we manage those things that we deferred. So do we a) either not do them or b) figure out how to do them differently?

New actions and approaches we will keep

1. Better support for work from home

Originally we were not as focused on work-from-home people because our hospitals have been open this whole time, so that was not our initial priority. The vast majority of our associates are in the hospitals but I think we're now really recognising that the work-from-home group needs more support. It was probably fine from an ergonomics perspective for the initial six months, but now we have to consider issues like people tripping over their power cord or not having a good chair, so getting neck problems. In the US we have worker’s compensation claims starting to take place. So we now need to solve some of that we initially did not solve for.

Childcare is also a huge issue. I never really appreciated the impact of schooling on our associates, but it's very real. So we have to be graceful about how people accommodate the fact that they have super small children, learning to really be more flexible. We've always talked about flexibility but now we're seeing flexibility and agility in action. For example, I had one mom who asked if she could use her work computer because all three of her children needed to do their school work on computers and they did not have four computers. It’s just different problems and issues we’d not planned for.

2. Leading and listening in a virtual world

And now new issues are emerging. We're taking engagement surveys without having met a whole bunch of people in person. So how do you onboard people and teach people culture via Zoom? We're really starting to talk about how we lead as leaders in this virtual world. Initially it was just make do and figure it out. Now people need more structure on what the expectation is. In terms of the survey, are we seeing people respond differently to the same questions? The answer is absolutely, yes.

Something that's improved are listening sessions. So before we would have breakfast with the boss or a town hall. And maybe half the people would show up. But now that it's a virtual town hall we have almost everybody showing up. Because it's virtual they can listen in maybe, even if it gets recorded. Around inclusion and diversity, we've had a number of listening sessions with various different diversity resource groups where a whole bunch of allies have joined the call to listen in. That would have never happened in the office because there are all these competing priorities. But I think that technology has allowed more people to listen in and to hear some of these messages and people are craving the connection. And so I think that with just an effort to try to keep up with what is happening, more people are dialling into some of these platforms that are being used differently, maybe three times the number that we previously had.

Sometimes we would have meetings and we would have some people dialling in and some people in the room. And I think what the challenge was that it was never a good experience for the people who were dialling in. And the people in the room felt like they were mutated by these other people that were talking in the chat. And it didn't work for anybody. I think what's working now is everybody's dialling in and so everybody can participate in a chat and is hearing the same thing. So in some regards, that could be a trend that maybe we could use even when they go back.

3. Boundary setting

In relation to home-working there's more we need to do, but mostly we are very clear people are having to make trade-offs and trade-offs are recognised. But I think what we're trying to do a better job of is boundary setting. Last time we talked, I think I said that instead of working from home, we're living at work. What we are really trying to say is we have to set some boundaries because people who are highly responsible can easily be sitting right there morning to night. It's dark when they start and it's dark when they end, because they're just focused and there are always things to do.

So we're trying to be more focused on boundary setting to include things such as meetings should only last 45 minutes so that they're not back to back. We used to be more disciplined about having 45 minute meetings in the office and then with COVID it just got back to back to back to back where you're not even getting up from your chair. I'm having to put in time boundaries as well as Friday to Monday boundaries. I know it seems very small and maybe other companies are doing novel things but boundary setting for us is a big conversation.

4. Focusing more on health and wellbeing

The single biggest thing is to stay focused on health and wellbeing. The mental health challenge continues to be a top priority for us. We’re thinking about what more we can do and how we can provide even more support on that.

Published 16 December 2020
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