Lars Schmidt has been in HR for more than 20 years. He began his career in recruiting, spent some time at big-city agencies, and ran in-house global recruiting teams for brands like Ticketmaster and NPR before starting his own firm, Amplify, about six years ago.
At Amplify, he does strategic consulting in employer brand strategy, recruiting optimization, and talent management, along with executive search focused on next-generation HR practices. He is a contributor to Fast Company and Forbes and hosts a podcast called 21st Century HR on which he interviews CHROs, CPOs, and talent leaders. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to table the episodes he had recorded and instead talk to these leaders about how they're responding to this global situation.
Here, Lars chats with us about the changes HR is experiencing, offers tips on video conferencing and other practical matters, and gives his advice on how we can all help each other work more human in this unprecedented time of intense change.
Workhuman: The definition of ‘working human’ has shifted recently. How does the role of HR change during a time like this?
Lars: How doesn't it change? Now is the time for the ‘human’ in ‘human resources’ to shine. People are nervous, anxious, scared, and uncertain. They're stressed by these negative, difficult emotions they're dealing with. And now they're cooped up at home with their kids, and they're teachers in addition to being employees. There's a lot going on, and we have to respect the human experience in this situation. It's unlike anything anybody has faced, especially at this global scale.
Leading with empathy is so important. We need to try to understand the perspective of the employees we're supporting and be their representative at the executive level. A lot of businesses are going to have to make tough decisions over the next couple of months, and I’m hopeful we can guide leaders to be as humane and empathetic as possible.
Workhuman: What is your advice for putting people first and keeping employees engaged, productive, and focused?
Lars: I think first is understanding that you're not going to be able to keep them fully engaged. This has developed so quickly that, for a lot of people, it's all-consuming. As employers and leaders, we have to be understanding of the circumstances and do what’s right for employees. Whatever product or project roadmap you had last month, you need to redo that. You're just not going to get the same level of effort and output from everyone.
Workhuman: A lot of people feel lonely and disconnected because they haven't worked from home like this before. How can they maintain their connections to each other and to their leadership teams?
Lars: If you're in a position to do it, pick video conferencing over the phone whenever you can. It helps to maintain the human connection that a voice just doesn't do. Do fun things, too. One company hosted a get-together where everybody brought their dogs and cats, so it was a giant Zoom with dozens of people all around the world on their webcams with their pets. It was a nice moment of levity in the face of this crisis.
Obviously, it's harder when you're all remote and embedded in an environment of stress. So get people to come out of that and share, laugh, and get creative.
Workhuman: Personally, I never liked being on video. But now I've been on it for the last several workdays without even thinking about it. It is what it is.
Lars: It’s funny, a lot of people feel that way – you're not alone. But this is where we are, so those people have to get over that and get into their uncomfortable zone. This is our reality for the undetermined future.
Workhuman: Can you tell us about the Google doc you started, your #CoronavirusHR hashtag, and how people can contribute or otherwise get involved?
Lars: There's a ton of information, resources, and tools to support this new reality we’re in. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been getting content coming my way through my networks and strangers who say, ‘Hey, this might be helpful.’ So, I started an open-source Google doc. Anybody can contribute, edit, or add – that's by design because this thing is unfolding so quickly. I'm blown away by the amount of people who are willing to open their playbooks and share internal templates and toolkits to help their peers. The reality is, none of us have gone through something like this before, so we're all looking to each other for cues. The more we can share about how we're handling these things, the better it'll be. The traffic has been spiking, so I had to disable viewer edits to make the doc stable. If you have any, just email me on the address in the doc and I’ll add them.
If you're sharing resources or looking for kinship in the community – especially on Twitter, although you can use it on Facebook or LinkedIn too – use the hashtag #CoronavirusHR. There's a lot of people who are HR departments of one, so this is a way they can access an open forum and a community for sharing and conversation.
Workhuman: Can you share examples from any companies you work with that are handling this situation well?
Lars: A lot of companies have been handling this well, given the novelty of the situation – no pun intended. Recently, for the special COVID-19 coverage on my podcast, I had a conversation with Bryan Power, head of people at Nextdoor, which is kind of like Facebook for communities and neighborhoods. They had some interesting early warning signs from employees in Europe, and they started to track conversations around coronavirus. They had a sense of what was coming and were able to prepare ahead.
The emphasis is on overcommunication, empathy, and understanding around the psyche of your employees. Those are all common traits of companies that are doing a great job leading through this. Of course, I’m talking about corporate roles – remote work is a luxury, and there's a whole sector of nonexempt, retail, and service workers who don't have that option. That is the big thing companies really need to get their arms around. Some companies are shutting down through the end of the month and committing to continue to pay all their employees, which is a great thing to do.
Workhuman: How can we all help each other work more human in the weeks to come?
Lars: Talk to each other. Share. Work out loud. The more we can be open about how we're responding to this, the more data there will be for other practitioners to look to, learn from, and develop their own responses. In having a lack of a playbook, we're building the playbook together as we go.
This accelerates the ending of the silos, which is good for the field. I don't want to make light of anything, but this situation is a perfect case study as to why openness, collaboration, and sharing are vital. Folks that embrace that are going to be better for it.
Let’s be real – this is massive adversity. We're going to face global hardships as this develops and unfolds. I'm an optimist, and I'm certainly not an epidemiologist, so I'm not going to make any predictions about how this is going to go. But I read a lot of what those people write, and the worst-case scenarios are really bad. There's going to be a human element where there's the potential that we’ll lose employees, peers, and bosses. So having these support networks you can tap into, lean on, and open up to will be so important.
We’re not going to be that old-school stoic archetype of an HR leader who has all the answers. No. We're going to do the best we can with the information we have and try to remain in our humanity as we make hard decisions. But we're scared too, and we’re not immune to those feelings, so we're doing a disservice to everyone if we try to pretend we are.
To watch our interview with Lars for the "Keeping Work Human" video series, click here.
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