HR in a Time of Crisis and Change

Regan Cain has worked in some facet of Human Resources since before the discovery of fire. Well, at least that’s what she likes to tell her eight-year-old daughter.

Regan Cain

But seriously, she’s seen a lot in two decades of Human Resources experience. For instance, Cain worked in HR in the construction industry when it was hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008. But even that crisis pales in comparison to the global disruption caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“The scale of this absolutely is beyond anything we’ve dealt with in modern times,” said Cain, the Vice President of Human Resources at Dynamic Signal. “Employee concerns span across every part of their lives right now. Professional, personal, health, and economic questions are surfacing all at once. It’s important that as a leadership team, we embrace the whole employee and provide information about everything from local health guidelines and mental health benefits, to tips for working from home with kids and resources for creating balance when your kitchen is your office.”

The pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of HR. Employees are turning to HR leaders for answers. But the reality, Cain said, is that it takes a village.

“There’s no playbook for creating business continuity and a connected workforce during a global pandemic, in the face of an economic crisis, while shifting to a work from home model as people are calling for social justice,” she said. “Everyone has questions. Everyone is learning. Ensuring employees feel valued and empowered to do their best work requires executive team alignment, a clear set of values to shape your decisions, and elevating leadership at every level across the company. HR is navigating a new set of questions every day. Whether it’s returning to the office or what we’re doing for diversity and inclusion, there’s no top-down, one-size-fits-all response. Supporting our people well is a team effort across every functional business unit.”

We sat down with Cain – OK, via a Zoom conference call – to find out how one Silicon Valley technology HR leader is coping with the pandemic and what she’s thinking about as the business world begins the transition back to the workplace.

What is your guiding philosophy as an HR leader?

“HR is the champion of people, but we are not the culture. The people are the culture. HR is here to support the business. So, I always go back to what one of my leaders once said to me. I tell my team that HR needs to be fluid. We’re like water. We just flow around our organizations and assist everyone as best we can. Sometimes we’re the voice of reason. Sometimes we’re a therapist. And sometimes we push leaders to make tough decisions.”

What has your role become during the pandemic?

“The underlying focus of everything we do is ensuring the well-being of everyone in our organization. We’re a company where everyone is working remotely right now. So, it’s even more important to concentrate on the human element when we’re so physically disconnected. Each of our employees is different, and they each have a different set of concerns. You have pockets of people who are antsy at home and super excited to get back to the office. Others are worried about going back. There’s no decision about returning to the office that’s going to be perfect for everyone.

“The job of HR is to remain fluid and look for solutions that support various needs and concerns. It’s a balance, and we have to make the best decision based on the best available information, understanding that our ability to remain fluid as new information emerges is going to be our superpower.”

What’s keeping you up at night?

“I toggle between thinking about the changes we need to implement to re-open offices and what that’s going to look like, and how we take care of our people and their overall well-being. I often think about the way it was in February when we congregated in the kitchen or gave high-fives to each other in the hallways. It could be years before we ever get back to that. It could be years before we have a company picnic. And I know how much employees love moments of connection. That’s what keeps me up awake. I’m thinking about how we can get through the next few months to keep people healthy and connected, while ensuring the business continues to flourish. I’m thinking about what people need as they return or stay remote in the long term. I’m thinking about creating a sense of belonging when we’re all spread out. It’s an on-going process of innovation.”

How does working remotely change your job?

“I’ve never worked remotely in my entire career. My job is helping people, teaching how to manage, and providing training and guidance. Doing all of that remotely is a big change. Interviewing and on-boarding has also completely changed. How we bring people into the organization is totally different now. Even my day-to-day has changed. Before, whether I was in my office at HQ or spending time at one of our other offices, I would leave blocks of my schedule open because people would stop in and say hello. Where people used to be opportunistic about chatting with me, they now have to be very intentional about coming to talk to me, which is potentially problematic for more introverted personalities. They’re less likely to seek me out. I always want to avoid any situation where something is going on that needs my attention but I don’t have visibility.”

How does a company maintain its culture while social distancing?

“You have to make sure you’re aligning everyone around who you are as a company and what values shape your culture– starting with the executive team. Everyone needs to know exactly who we want to be, and how that impacts our decisions. Then it has to trickle down throughout the entire company to get everyone on board with those core values and a clear purpose you’re working to achieve. It is always important to give people a North Star and inspire them to head in that direction. But especially now, people crave purpose and they expect companies to live by that purpose internally and externally. That’s the foundation of company culture – decide who you are and what you’re going to do in the world as a team. Then build on top of that and incorporate those values into everything you do.

“It’s also very important to partner closely with the key leaders who can implement and disseminate those values so that employees see them in action and really internalize what they mean. I’m in constant communication with our CEO, Eric Brown, and our Head of Communications, Robyn Hannah. We’re always innovating, ideating, and aligning on how we’re working to inspire our team and nurture our culture.”

Why are diversity and inclusion critical during a crisis?

For us, celebrating the unique perspectives and backgrounds of our team is part of what makes us a stronger company. In a crisis, it’s that kind of strength that builds team resilience. Creating an environment of belonging by demonstrating respect and empathy for everyone means that when a crisis hits, empathy for each other creates a buffer. It reduces friction. It builds understanding and patience. Dynamic Signal’s purpose is to create a connected, inclusive, and engaged workforce where people feel valued and empowered to be their best. We honor equality as a core value, and we are committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity in all areas of our business because we know the benefits are significant for our culture, our creativity, our ability to innovate, and our bottom line.

“In times of trouble you have to double down on the things that work. Now, more than ever, people need to know that they’re a valued part of something important. When you build a sense of belonging and inclusion people do their best work, show their best selves, and bring out the best in each other.”

How do you adapt to such rapidly evolving circumstances?

“When things are changing quickly, communication is your lifeline. As new information comes in, it has to be quickly shared and synthesized into a plan of action that honors your core values. We have a decisive executive team that wants to execute and more forward. But because we care deeply about the well-being of our people, we cannot make hard-and-fast decisions about things that impact them when news is in flux. In a crisis I make sure to connect often with each functional business leader on the executive team to hear concerns and ideas about our next steps.

“Remaining agile is an imperative during a crisis. Which means that transparency must be equally prioritized even when that’s uncomfortable. Ambiguity is messy- it erodes trust and doesn’t promote psychological safety. In a crisis when you often have to adjust plans quickly, it’s important to share with the team the information you can, your decision criteria for the choices you’re making, and the thought process you’re using to shape your next steps. It’s the only way to continue building trust with the team and confidence in your leadership.”


Post Author

G.I. Sanders

G.I. Sanders is Senior Director, Creative Services at Dynamic Signal. He specializes in entrepreneurship, digital and social media, design, and marketing. G.I. is based in Dallas, TX with his wife and two sons. Passions include technology, startups, music, fitness and sports.