2020 – A defining year for the HR practice

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Lorraine Bonello Ghio, Group head – Administration and Human Resources at MeDirect Bank

It would be an understatement to say that 2020 will be remembered as the year during which the world we live in changed dramatically as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and for its effects on the global and local economies.

Likewise, the world changed drastically and almost overnight, on a personal level in the way we work, play and consume – in order to cope with the health crisis. In a nutshell, 2020 is the year during which our world turned upside down in almost every aspect.

As a banker for nearly 30 years, of which a HR practitioner for the past 10 years, I have personally never witnessed so much change in such a short span of time, against a background of continued and unprecedented uncertainty about our present and future. However, like other challenges in life, I thought it was best to adopt the four steps of dealing with change on a personal level, as well as at my workplace namely: denial, anger, fight and resistance, as well as adaptation and acceptance.

I can surely say that at our workplace at MeDirect, we never ignored the existence of the pandemic problem, but earlier in the year people were still confused and unsure about how bad this Covid-19 was, and what it would mean to our lives. Our role in HR was, and is, to keep people calm, assured that we were monitoring what was going on and to keep our employees and clients informed, in line with official health authorities’ guidelines.

As everyone knows, by mid-March Malta went into a quasi-lockdown, with many organisations, including ours, invoking their contingency plans and offering our staff the option of remote working as the default mode of work, given the health crisis. If I were to apply the four stages of the cycle, I would say that, at that stage, everyone was probably in denial, coupled with feelings of anger and fear of change. I was asking whether we would manage to run the bank’s operations with people working from their homes, while dealing and coping with their own personal and familial issues.

One key factor in the success of getting more that 95% of our staff to effectively work from home in less than a week was the agility of our teams, especially our IT department and administration, who took on the huge undertaking with courage and determination, working round the clock to indeed make it happen. Our primary goal was always to protect and safeguard the health and safety of our colleagues and our clients, while maintaining the bank operations as normal as possible.

At that stage, our role in HR was central in taking on and addressing the questions and concerns of our colleagues. Empathy was the key word, especially with employees who were worried about the situation and had practical issues to deal with during the lockdown, such as home schooling for their children. I don’t believe that we were “fighting” or “resisting” the change, as people gradually moved into the last phase of the change; that of adapting and accepting.

It wasn’t easy. However, it is in human nature to survive in such situations and the HR’s role was to ensure that despite being physically distant, we still worked and communicated effectively as a team. Virtual one-to-one meetings with staff were the order of the day, especially at the start of the home-working phase. The concept of virtual meetings and check-ins has become the norm today, together with our virtual townhalls with regular updates from the CEO to all staff members, which helped create the feeling of one large organisation across Malta, Belgium and the UK – all connected with one another.

One key exercise we carried out at the beginning of the pandemic, was to obtain employee insight as to how they felt about the new reality, and what the bank could do to make their lives easier and better given the circumstances. We communicated the employee survey findings, as well as a plan of action, during one of our townhalls. Obviously, our HR roadmap for 2020 has changed and we have been agile enough to make sure we address the new needs that the pandemic has brought with it. This, however, does not mean addressing only challenges – but also opportunities.

My HR’s team deployed dedicated training sessions which were vital during such a rapidly-changing environment, such as training on effective communication during meetings (especially virtual ones), how to positively spread motivation into the organisation and on how to adapt to fast moving organisation in the new climate, conflict resolution and mental resilience, as well as public speaking and the art of storytelling. I believe that three particular programmes that were really effective dealt with keeping employees motivated in virtual/hybrid settings, parenting while remote working, as well as our leadership development programmes.

We even organised virtual fitness sessions, delivered by one of MeDirect’s employees, that helped our colleagues stay in shape and avoid the pitfall of sitting in one’s home office chair all day long!

Nowadays we still have many people working from home, and others working in a hybrid (home/office) setting. Flexibility is key in this rapidly changing world. It’s a key factor in retaining your talent and recruiting the best people out there. It is not about the strict office hours, but the important thing is to get the job done well and within the arrangements that best work for the individual, the teams and the company. Hence, I believe that empowerment and trust are key assets in this aspect of HR management.

Another key element is wellbeing and ensuring that as a team, as well as individually, we understand that a work-life balance is required. There is a time for switching off, either for a lunch break or at the end of the day to ensure that one recharges and is engaged in non-work related activities. We actively encourage this balance with our colleagues.

We have seen a lot of creativity in the way our teams socialise virtually over the past months: for instance our Belgian team organise their Spritz Fridays over Teams and this helps cement the moral and camaraderie in the teams.

All in all, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the future. However, with all the hardships this situation has brought with it, it has also taught us that this “new normal” of hybrid working also has its benefits. History teaches us that there are opportunities in every crisis. An effective HR strategy and plan will help seize such opportunities and make sure the organisation not only survives a crisis, but learns from it and thrives in a more sustainable way in the longer term.

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