HR key to helping healthcare firms move at 'speed of light' during coronavirus crisis

5 minute read

HR has been at the heart of change during COVID-19 and nowhere more so than in healthcare, where those on the frontline have had no time for tests. US healthcare firms, Navicent Health and Mars Veterinary Health, share how HR has stepped up to take a lead during this time

Denise Kirwan and Robyn Tingley

Rehabilitation hospital Navicent Health

Over the last decade we’ve been watching subtle shifts in the way we work, connect with each other and learn – all based on the evolution of technology and a desire to pursue greater work/life balance for employees. Employers flirted with video conference tools and HR pushed pilot programs to offer more flexibility and freedom to a shifting workforce of millennials and Gen Z – but large-scale adoption still eluded us. Humans tend to be slow and change averse with such transformations, but enter coronavirus and a new reality surface around the world, in a matter of days. This was perhaps most true in the field of healthcare where those on the front lines didn’t have the luxury of time for tests or pilot programs, and HR was at the heart of it all.

Navicent Health: I cannot imagine an organization moving at the speed of light, like we had to, without the leadership of HR

Dr Ninfa M Saunders, president and CEO at Navicent Health in Georgia says the COVID-19 pandemic was a validation of HR’s role beyond being “all knowing” from a traditional policy and disciplinary perspective. “I cannot imagine an organization moving at the speed of light, like we had to, without the leadership of HR.”

She credits chief people officer Clint Jones for showing the way during what was arguably the toughest crisis the company has ever had to manage. “At Navicent, everything we do is centered around patient care, but we cannot do that well if we aren’t taking care of our teammates first, and Clint lived that philosophy every day demonstrating a new kind of people stewardship that has now become embedded in our culture and will shape our approach to people management well past COVID recovery.”

As many companies did, Navicent activated an incident command center with daily calls of more than sixty people, coordinating actions and responding to real-time issues. Typically, HR participates in the center when it’s activated, but from a policy perspective. This time around, they were in the eye of the storm, alongside the operations and strategy leaders.

Jones, a veteran in HR for his 25-year career says the shift was dramatic and intense. “Everyone wanted to pull HR into everything, all the time. There was a surge in demand for our team’s services that doesn’t compare to anything in recent memory, and it called for us to step up with a new level of organization, project management and ultimately, leadership on the people side of our business to show everyone what being ‘people centric’ means,” says Jones.

This was made even more complex by the fact that their clinical teammates could not just ‘work from home’, and may have hesitated to return home after shift for fear they could transmit the virus to their family, or may have potentially been exposed to the virus and needed to quarantine or simply needed a place to rest. Jones partnered with a local hotel and a temporarily closed Ronald McDonald House to offer rooms for teammates including doctors and nurses to rest as well as the ‘Just For Today’ unit of the hospital that was not in use. They worked with the hotel manager to coordinate meals and connected with a church group to ensure teammates received care bags filled with toiletries.

Non-clinical healthcare staff who don’t normally work from home, were quickly transitioned to a work-from-home status for which we had to ensure IT security, a way for them to record their time and devised ways to maintain their productivity.

" We also had concerns about putting a great number of new teammates in a room for new hire orientation but knew we could not stop our orientation process – we had to onboard teammates” Jones stated. We had previously tried to move a portion of our orientation process to a virtual space but hadn’t been able to overcome some obstacles.” With the urgency of social distancing and the benefit of new technology, Navicent HR was able to move to a virtual experience in a 24-hour time period.

“People were scared and there were a lot of unknowns. We vowed to do everything we could to give our people as much comfort as possible,” says Jones. That care extended to securing emergency licensing to convert our wellness center to a childcare facility for teammates and opening a 24/7 hotline for HR support. “If a teammate called at 3 am, we answered. We also expanded hours for our dedicated medical clinic for our people and worked with our pastoral office and EAP services for meditation and emotional support.”

Amid it all, Jones and his team wanted to maintain as much normalcy as possible for all of Navicent’s teammates, so on top of their COVID response efforts, they respected the regular Best People Review process and timelines, ensured everyone got regular merit increases, and implemented premium pay for those teammates who volunteered to work with COVID-19 positive patients. Premium pay is already provided for teammates who work night shifts, weekends, holidays and in specialty units. When asked about the key to making all of this work under tough circumstances, Jones points to the need to expedite decision making like never before. “We needed to identify the issue, propose a workable solution, and be organized enough to implement immediately. This crisis allowed us to build a muscle in HR – and within the entire organization – that we will keep flexing, well past COVID-19. Our people centric focus, and our agility and speed, will forever be part of our new normal.”

Mars Veterinary Health: our associates rallied together like never before

A new normal is something that Stephanie Neuvirth, global vice president, people and organization, at Mars Veterinary Health says has taken hold within their organization. Within days, they transitioned hundreds of associates to work from home, while modifying their clinics for curbside pickup and touchless transactions with pet owners.

“As an essential business that plays a critical role in supporting public health through veterinary care, we took steps across our 2,500 veterinary practices around the world to continue offering high-quality, compassionate care to pets in need while maintaining a safe and healthy work environment. Our associates rallied together like never before, delivering the essential care our communities rely on and reinforcing the critical role we play in public health and societal wellbeing.”

Neuvirth says their associates are at the heart of their practice, so when COVID-19 hit, the corporation prioritized associate wellbeing, communication and clarity. They quickly launched new safety protocols to protect associates and clients in their hospitals. They implemented a supplemental sick leave pay policy for full-time and part-time associates impacted by COVID-19, with ultimately 25% of their associates benefitting from this new program. In addition to existing practice-paid mental health and resource counseling, they also gave grants through an associate-led nonprofit, the Better Together Fund, to support associates’ financial wellbeing.

“Beyond the immediate response on safety for our front-line teams, financial and emotional wellness, we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of parents working from home without any kind of educational support. Banfield’s existing Pet Academy program was restructured to make presentations for kids accessible virtually, and members of our people & organization team stepped out of their regular roles to design online activities – doing everything from online yoga to math and reading with our associates’ children.”

The corporation paved the way for associates to create their own responses – and many did, launching the creation of the Caring Counts Challenge, a programme inspiring associates to share their stories and log 1,000 acts of kindness during the month of May. Examples of how our associates are giving back exploded on Instagram with photos of random acts, which Neuvirth said added a much-needed lift to everyone’s spirits and helped tie the team together despite the distance and trying circumstances.

“Our team’s response to this crisis from the outset was about respecting our associates and putting their needs first, so they can do what they do best – care for pets and the people who love them.”

Stephanie Neuvirth shares further insights and lessons from her HR COVID-19 journey in The People Space's Actionable Insights from HR Leaders webcast series. Watch all on demand now.

Published 27 May 2020

Everyone wanted to pull HR into everything, all the time. There was a surge in demand for our team’s services that doesn’t compare to anything in recent memory

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