An Urgent Pivot: Human Resources and COVID-19

By Graciela M. Chanfrau, MA, JD, SPHR

What does a company do when a global pandemic requires an almost immediate about-face for its HR staff? How do these professionals continue to focus on the monthly hiring requirements of fifty essential staff while also guaranteeing the successful biweekly processing of payroll for more than two thousand team members? At Boundless, the urgent pivot was not without bumps, but through communication, accountability, and flexibility, our HR team was able to continue to support its internal and external customers. 

Below, Vice President of People and Culture Grace Chanfrau provides insight into strategy and what the future holds for remote work. 

Were you prepared for the changes?

No one can be prepared because it was so quick and unexpected. However, we were in the midst of discussion and planning for more of our HR team to work from home. We had thought about how we needed to be able to lift people out of the office and continue doing our work as seamlessly as possible at home. Additionally, we had been working on a remote-work program because it’s something we hear, especially from millennials, that they want flexibility, so the base of a plan was in draft form.

Did Boundless previously have a robust telecommuting work culture?

Pre-COVID, we had a few employees working from home or while out of town already on an as-needed basis. However, it was nothing formal. 

Did you hit any roadblocks in those early weeks?

We decided early on that we were not going to get hung up on perfection. It would be a fluid learning process that would be retooled as we learned. It would take way too long to be “perfect.” Our first challenge was that some systems didn’t work when employees got home, or they did not have the right technology. Our IT department moved quickly to get new solutions (hardware or software) delivered. Luckily, our IT team was already moving to a remote platform system and already had a lot in place, so we were covered.

Have you decided to make this change to your operations a permanent one?

At the end of the day, I think we will make some parts permanent and some not. We get a lot of energy being near our programs and each other. While interfacing in real-time through our applications and being on the telephone is good, we are in a people business of caring for others. That “people” focus is in our blood, and we don’t want to lose it.

Honestly, we believe we’ll end up in a hybrid model where some employees will have access to a “hoteling space” in the office where they can come in and collaborate, maybe a day or two a week, and then other days they’ll work from home. I believe a hybrid system that allows for some flexibility and people contact is our ideal for HR. 

Some supervisors get extremely nervous when they can’t physically see their employees. How do you avoid that?

We hire for attitude and commitment. We have built a culture in HR where we can trust employees, and we have some pretty defined outcomes. They are using the same technology now that they had in the office. We rely on performance outcome indicators, and employees can monitor their own work day to day along with their supervisors. We don’t hold people accountable using the amount of time they’re putting in or when, but rather how well they are meeting their outcomes.

How has your overall business changed during this crisis?

Because our business is about caring for others to help them live a boundless life, much of what we do day to day at Boundless did not change. What did change for many is how we do it, and that is very true in HR. 

What has happened the longer we stay home is that applications have decreased as people have hunkered down, but because we still have essential workers to hire, we have to pick up on those passive job seekers. There has been a bit more push to get people to understand what we do and why we do it, and once they get into that mindset, they will be interested.

The talent acquisition staff have made the interview process of video interviews less scary for candidates and managers by providing coaching on the process and facilitating the flow of the process. When job seekers are coming in person to complete paperwork that is needed for our positions, we have a process that allows for appropriate social distancing and safety. Once they are hired, the training is mostly online, but when they do have to do portions in person, we have created a process that allows for social distancing. 

We walked through each part of our work, talked to all involved, and created those processes that would allow us to get the job done while being safe. It was an intense week to get that all done, but as a team, it happened much quicker than I thought it would.

As we look ahead though, we are thinking about all these processes that developed during a crisis and how behavior will change. We think that in most instances, our candidates are going to continue to expect the ease of the process we have. I do not believe that going back to our past is going to be realistic. 

Are you working from home and will you continue?

I have been working from home, but in the future, I will bounce between the two. I have to communicate more consciously working remotely because you just don’t pick up information from the environment. One thing that is a plus that I love to see is the “HR Chat” that runs on my screen all day long. I love seeing the team encourage and hold each other up when someone is feeling shaky. It is great to see family popping into the screen to say “hi” during a meeting and see what mom or dad is doing. It has really humanized how we see each other, and I personally found that I have more empathy and a better understanding of the challenges that my employees are facing. It has been a great positive for me.

Graciela (Grace) Chanfrau MA, JD, SPHR, is the vice president for people and culture at Boundless. She has worked in multiple industries – higher education, multi-housing, construction, government, and publishing – providing her with a diverse background focused on enhancing and advancing the organization’s strategy through its people.

Make a gift

Boundless is a private nonprofit. Your generosity fuels our mission and propels us toward our vision of a world which realizes the full potential of all people.