Empathy and human connection: how businesses can respond to COVID-19 

People practice social distancing inside an elevator prior to arriving to their work places at World Trade Center, after the government announced that private and state companies will reopen their offices after almost two months of lockdown amidst concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 11, 2020. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC29MG9B5S3U

What lessons can be learned from managing a workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic? Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Scott Frisch
Chief Operating Officer, AARP
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  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses to adapt quickly to ensure operational continuity and employee safety;
  • Employers must take the personal impact of the pandemic on employees into consideration as they support their staff through this uncertain time and prepare for the post-COVID-19 world;
  • Internal and external collaboration will be vital to this work and recovery from the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have a permanent impact on the way we approach work. With continued physical distancing to prevent the spread of the disease, businesses are adapting quickly to ensure continuity of operations.

Have you read?

In April, the World Economic Forum, OECD and AARP held Living, Learning, and Earning Longer (LLEL), a collaborative, peer-learning conference call with more than 30 global executives from six countries to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on business operations. We heard compelling examples of how organizations are finding new sources of resilience and innovation in these very difficult times through collaboration.

At AARP, managing our workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced and broadened some crucial lessons.

We have fresh evidence of how vital it is to build a foundation for business continuity well in advance of the circumstances that would require such a capacity.

We have been reminded that it is critically important to have far-sighted leadership in HR and IT and to have those two departments work harmoniously together.

Workplace closures during the COVID-19 pandemic
Workplace closures during the COVID-19 pandemic Image: Our World in Data

In adapting our operations through remote connections, we have focused on the human connection, taking into account the personal lives of all the individuals who comprise our multigenerational workforce. Regardless of age and life stage, we all want to continue to make a meaningful contribution and technology is helping light the way.

Close coordination between our human resources, IT and broader business continuity teams has enabled us to move quickly to ensure business continuity during the pandemic. Flexible workplace policies and many online training and development opportunities for our employees had already prepared us to a certain extent; now we have gone further and faster to make universal telework work.

HR reframed its onboarding and offboarding workflows to the virtual model used for our state office employees. This is critical for keeping enterprise operations intact.

We have successfully delivered virtual training and professional development programmes and are providing 13 virtual learning workshops.

The way IT has carried out its indispensable role in making sure employees have the right business technology for use at home has been tremendously beneficial.

The value of a multigenerational workforce

Business leaders, in this period of great uncertainty, must consider new ways to ensure business continuity and organizational resilience. A multigenerational workforce, with four or five generations working alongside each other — if not physically, then virtually — helps to meet these challenges.

Adapting policies and practices to meet employees’ needs across a spectrum of age and life-stages builds the workforce of the future. Age-diverse teams contribute to greater innovation. They can help address vital questions in dramatically new environments: how teams work together, how a supply chain is managed and how other essential operations are prioritized.

The stereotype of older workers as technophobes is wrong and counterproductive. Workers across the age span have proven to be adept at teleworking. This realization will have lasting consequences. At the same time, younger workers are more likely to be mentors in tech solutions, just as many older workers can share their institutional knowledge and experience.

Part of our foundation for adaptation at AARP is the policies we have established to help our employees achieve a work-life balance.

We already had a policy of 80 hours a year of caregiving leave for our employees, as well as robust vacation and sick leave policies, and flexible work arrangements. HR has adjusted these to accommodate working parents whose children’s schools are shut down and who are carrying out childcare responsibilities during mandated stay-at-home orders.

We are continuing to educate employees on the use of administrative leave and caregiving leave for telemedicine visits, essential runs for medication, caregiving for family members and self-care.

One of our existing benefits takes on even greater importance during this pandemic. We offer 48 hours a year for what we call “community builders hours”. Employees can use these hours to donate blood, participate in meal deliveries to seniors or help out in other ways during this very difficult time.

We have also amplified the use of many benefit programmes that can be delivered virtually such as telemedicine services from our health care providers and prescription drug mail delivery.

Our positive experience with virtual training and learning points us in the direction of further use of such programmes, even when we are not operating under these conditions.

Lessons from others

I am deeply proud of the preparations we have made and the resilience our workforce has shown. I am also convinced there is much we can learn from other organizations. Here are six guiding principles discussed by my fellow executives from around the globe during the peer learning call:

1. There is no playbook on how to respond to COVID-19 as the future of work changes before our eyes. The pandemic has, for example, hastened the adoption of remote working and other initiatives to engage and sustain the workforce.

2. Now more than ever, collaboration internally and externally will be vital to recovery.

3. Businesses need to develop continuity plans that respond to the unique nature of this crisis, as well as a strategy for re-entry to the workforce that takes the personal lives of employees and their families into consideration, for the long-term benefit of the enterprise.

4. Leaders within their organizations have the responsibility to provide clear, concise and timely communication to their employees and other stakeholders.

5. Start thinking through the long-term impact of how your business and workforce will and should operate as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

6. Have empathy for your employees who may be taking on new responsibilities and roles while at home. Listen to employees and co-develop creative solutions that allow employers to continue to contribute as we transition into a new normal.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

AARP is actively engaged in the response to COVID-19 and we are working hard to help our members, their families and the broader community. Here are resources you might find helpful to share with your employees, friends, and family:

  • Information and tips daily, in both English and Spanish, on our website;
  • Weekly tele-town halls with top COVID-19 experts;
  • To see and share innovations taking place around the globe, go to AARP International.

In these difficult times, we should commit to and build a stronger and more inclusive future for workers of all ages. New ideas and bold solutions can surface from this disaster. Let’s continue to share promising practices that will work well in the current environment and beyond.

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Related topics:
COVID-19Future of WorkFuture of Work
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