How To Support Employees Through A Crisis

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HR leaders must remember to ‘put on their own oxygen mask first,’ says Dave Carhart, VP of people at Lattice.

Major organizational change isn’t easy for anyone, including leaders, says Dave Carhart, vice president of people at Lattice, a people management platform company based in San Francisco.

That’s one of the lessons of the pandemic, he says. Carhart spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about others as well, from why much of what you believe is wrong to why enterprise values matter more than whether employees work remotely or in-office.

What are three lessons you have learned over the past year and how will these apply to the upcoming months and years?

Start with the people team. Early in my career during a major organizational change, one of my HR mentors would repeatedly remind me to “put on your own oxygen mask first.” I don’t think I could have been effective without that guidance and support. Whether it’s moving into remote work, being tight on resources or going through an acquisition, our HR teams are often going through the same changes as the rest of the company. We need to support them through the change curve and invest in them before we can expect them to be able to do the same for the company. This same logic applies to the head of HR too!

Healthy cultures are created by everyone. Something that struck me about Lattice over the last year was how broad-based the cultural influencers were. Lattice’s employee resource groups, for example, created many of the most powerful spaces for processing world events and sharing deeply personal connections. Another example is that when we realized that a reset of company communication norms was needed, that was driven and created by a broad cross-functional team that formed organically. The tone needs to be set at the top, but it only comes to life if people across the company are truly empowered to own it.

Much of what you believe is likely wrong. After the 2008 financial crisis, many companies acted as if we’d hit our quota of “once-in-a-century” events. Before Covid, many leaders “just knew” that people couldn’t be productive while working from home. During Covid, everyone had a prediction of what would happen next. We need to recognize that our environment is shaped by unpredictability. The most important part of a plan is knowing what to do when it doesn’t work.

How should HR leaders incorporate these lessons into their day-to-day roles?

The HR team’s employee experience matters—if we want engagement and retention in our company, let’s start there. We have less unilateral influence over culture than we think—go beyond words to truly resource and empower organizational leaders at all levels. We know less about the future than we want to—embrace experimentation, pre-mortems, data-driven iteration and optionality. These were lessons for me in humility and humanity. 

How do you see the return-to-office/hybrid models impacting company culture?

When the pandemic hit, Lattice and other companies that could be fully remote quickly made that transition. There was a lot for us to figure out on execution, but the models that we all implemented were really quite similar—fully remote, Zoom meetings, virtual happy hours.

The coming phase is fundamentally shaped by choice. Companies need to actually choose from entirely different models. For example, fully remote with quarterly in-person offsites and office-based with more work from home days might both get called “hybrid,” but they will shape your culture in radically different ways. Employees also have the choice, thanks both to the economic improvement and the different hybrid models companies are choosing. 

We still need to have conversations about execution, such as how to adjust office mask requirements as legal mandates and case rates change, but we need to be having deeper conversations with our companies about choices and values. What defines our culture and how do we enable that? What best supports meaningful work for our teams? What values guide us when the desires of different employees conflict? The decisions we’re making now will change each of our cultures far more deeply than the original move to remote work.

What is the best way for HR leaders to ensure all of their employees are happy with the current “back-to-office” plans? Retaining talent is so critical right now.

Everything we’ve been navigating is unprecedented so everyone—employees and leaders—are learning together. That means we can’t simply make all of the decisions and move on. We need to understand how decisions are working in practice, how employees are responding, and also how employees’ desires and feelings shift over time. Engagement and pulse surveys, as well as live listening tours, can each offer unique insights and then we just need to have the courage to make changes based on that.

We also need to remember that as unprecedented as this is, it’s not the only factor that will drive retention. Is your culture inclusive? Do employees have opportunities for growth and the support to get there? Are managers invested in enabling their teams? Are people paid fairly? If you get your office plans right but miss in other places there is no shortage of competitors where they can find it.

What do you think the future of analytics will be within the HR role?

Analytics has been transforming every field and it’s table stakes for what CEOs expect of HR teams. In some cases it’s progress when HR can cobble together basic descriptive data, manually pulling from multiple systems in a reactive response to questions. The future of HR analytics, however, lies not in data gathering, but in creation, construction and consultation. 

Creation is about opening new types of raw data as everything is digitized. What are the common themes in your employees’ development plans? What are the trends in cross-departmental recognition? What’s the usage rate of the new mental health app you rolled out?

Construction is building more advanced analytics, often drawing on tools developed first outside of HR. Cohort analysis from marketing is a different lens for understanding employee attrition. Sales pipeline analysis and forecasting tools are well developed ways of optimizing recruiting. Consultation is going beyond simply data presentation. We should be combining this with our understanding of our company values, our insights from actual relationships with employees and the strategic relationship to business strategy.

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