When COVID-19 descended last year, Missy Sparks and her talent management team at Ochsner Health mobilized to support more than 32,000 health care workers across Louisiana and Mississippi whose jobs were changing overnight. Like health care organizations across the country, they upgraded employee health and safety protocols, hired additional staff, and quickly redeployed in-person 9-to-5 clinic workers, retraining them to become telehealth providers or sending them as frontline reinforcements to fill 24/7 jobs at inundated hospitals.

People were getting sick, and their patients were dying. Everyone was in crisis mode.

Then came the hurricanes — the worst season on record, with 30 storms battering the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. And suddenly, many of Ochsner’s exhausted and stressed employees also were homeless.

“There were so many unknowns,” Sparks said during a recent webinar hosted by the Aspen Institute’s UpSkill America initiative. “And there was fatigue, and there was fear in our team members.”

Sparks and several other employers who shared their 2020 experiences in the webinar said the pandemic and a nationwide reckoning on racial inequities, while devastating, also expedited significant improvements in the workplace. Changes in recruiting, hiring, and training employees, efforts to upskill existing workers, and improvements in coaching executives are building a more diverse, inclusive, supportive workplace, they said, and most of those changes will be permanent.

The employers were among more than 300 in health care, food service, manufacturing, and retail surveyed by UpSkill America to understand how businesses were learning and adapting. The research was funded by Strada Education Network and Walmart.org.

Close to half of the survey’s respondents said the pandemic forced immediate changes in the way they recruit, hire, and train staff, and 58 percent said it changed the way they conduct interviews. More than one-third reported that heightened attention to employment inequities for workers of color led them to change in the same areas.

Here’s what they learned:

  • Put people first. The gravity of the pandemic itself, along with increased childcare responsibilities for working parents and the isolation, disconnection, and virtual meeting fatigue many workers experienced working remotely, put employees’ physical and mental well-being front and center, Sparks said. Leaders were forced to be more flexible, rely on their teams, communicate and collaborate better, and move past silos, she said. And in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, everyone received coaching in cultural literacy and diversity and inclusion.

    “It gave us an opportunity to recognize the human element of work in a way that resonated, and we’ve actually recognized that’s a skill set that we needed to have developed in our leadership way before COVID, to live and lead with empathy, lead by trust,” Sparks said.

    She and other employers said listening to employees — not only about their personal needs during the pandemic, but about their professional ideas — built employees’ confidence, improved teamwork and communication, and surfaced innovations from workers at all levels. Several used internal pulse surveys to check in with employees in real time and to make quick course corrections where needed. The result, they said, was greater respect and collaboration and a marked improvement in employee satisfaction and retention.

  • Recruit and hire quickly. Patti Constantakis of Walmart.org said the retailer, deemed an essential business early in the pandemic, saw demand skyrocket. The increase affected not only in-store purchases, but pickup services and online shopping, which strained distribution centers and created a need for backup workers to relieve those who were getting sick or no longer felt comfortable putting themselves at risk. “We announced in the midsummer that we were going to hire 500,000 new associates, and we did that,” she said. “And then we added 250,000 more, which has been crazy.”

    Reaching out first to laid-off hospitality and restaurant workers in their communities, Walmart put their skills to use in retail jobs. It then opened its doors wider, welcoming applicants from all backgrounds and streamlining the application process to allow prospective employees to fill out one application to indicate interest in multiple jobs at a particular location. That change alone resulted in larger, more racially diverse candidate pools, Constantakis said, and improved diversity efforts. “We don’t intend to go back,” she said.

    Ochsner waived bans on hiring people with minor criminal records and delayed background checks until later in the process, giving qualified candidates a chance to compete for jobs while they were being screened, Sparks said. And it leveraged recruiters to conduct first-round interviews, providing hiring managers with “ready-now” applicants and cutting the hiring process from two weeks to 24 hours.

    Other employers also moved to same-day hiring and removed other barriers, including eliminating degree requirements if a degree wasn’t truly required to do the job and expediting training and certification to fill critical roles more quickly.

  • Determine what your community offers and what it needs. Like Walmart and Ochsner, many employers who needed additional staff looked to their communities to recruit recently laid-off restaurant and hospitality workers, quickly retraining them to put their skills to work in health care, retail, and manufacturing roles. Others partnered with community colleges and vocational schools to quickly train and certify new employees. Still others found that the pandemic presented a great opportunity to step up community service initiatives, filling a community need while keeping existing workers employed.

    At Pennsylvania-based Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, where the specter of layoffs haunted, Manager of Talent Development Julius Ridgley and his team partnered with United Way to redeploy its food service workers to prepare and deliver millions of meals to students who no longer could depend on school lunches. Hao Dinh of Electrolux also recommends that larger companies look beyond their own employees to also address the needs of the contractors, vendors, and suppliers who are critical to their business. Small companies with fewer resources may need your help to secure training, share meeting spaces and other resources, or to identify additional mentors for their employees. “If you’re one of our vendors, we want you to be successful, too,” he said. “We need you to be successful in order for us to be successful.”

  • Upskill and promote existing workers. Offering educational benefits and on-the-job upskilling, cross-training, and mentoring opportunities encourages continuous learning among loyal employees, and places them on more lucrative career paths as they improve their skills. When Lake Charles, Louisiana, hurricane refugees were forced to shelter in New Orleans hotels, career services staff from Ochsner were deployed to meet them, transferring them to jobs locally so they could continue to support their families. When New Orleans then faced a hurricane threat, driving workers inland to Baton Rouge, they did the same thing.

    At Walmart, career pathways are clear — and proven — with even the CEO having started as a retail associate. At Electrolux, upskilling is a given as smart factories deploying robots, automated machinery, and artificial intelligence require humans with increasingly sophisticated digital skills to keep everything running smoothly. Personal coaching and microtraining via 10-minute videos keep workers engaged and learning as they work.

  • Take care of people you must lay off. If you must cut staff, consider an exit package that includes benefits extensions and funds for upskilling or reskilling for their next job. Leverage your network to help them land well. And wherever possible, leave the door open to re-entry when business improves or they upskill for a new role.

    At Eat’n Park, layoffs could not be avoided as the pandemic dragged on.  “We’ve been in business since 1949, and we’ve never had to do something like that. It was painful for us,” Ridgley said. “But we were happy that we were able to bring the vast majority of them back.”

    In between, Eat’n Park extended health insurance coverage and provided meals to its former teammates and their families. “As much as it was difficult, there were a lot of positives as well that we were able to pull out of the situation,” Ridgley said, “because we have some of the best people in the business.”

  • Set expectations for employees to collaborate, not compete. To increase teamwork, several employers said they established a collaborative culture with daily team huddles and channels to escalate concerns across silos or up to leadership. A team mindset is critical in food service, Ridgley said, and nothing motivates teamwork like running out of clean dishes when the dining room is full. “You don’t say, ‘I’m a waiter; I don’t wash dishes.’ We all wash dishes during rush hour,” he said.

    At Electrolux, employees also are encouraged to share their on-the-job learnings in real time by recording two minute “here’s my problem, and how I solved it” videos on their cell phones and posting them to an internal channel. And Dinh said he is a big fan of cross-generational training to build relationships and signal that all employees are valued: Digital natives teach senior workers to use the latest technology, while longer-serving employees teach newbies about the business and its products and mentor them to polish their human and professional skills.

    Don’t assume a digital skill set minimum. The transition to working virtually laid bare any gaps in technology skills not only among frontline employees, but also among managers and executives, who need stronger digital skills to make the best use of all the data Electrolux’s smart factories are producing, Dinh said. And he cautioned against assuming everyone is fluent in common tools like Zoom, Slack, or even email. Some people say yes, they know how to send an email, but they don’t feel confident or comfortable communicating over email and they’re intimidated by internal messaging channels or haven’t mastered the technology to lead a virtual meeting, he said.

  • Stop putting off innovation. “It’s amazing how quickly you can figure out delivery and takeout when your dining room gets closed,” Ridgley said. Takeout was 15 percent of Eat’n Park’s business prepandemic but moved to 100 percent overnight. “It’s something we had argued about for years, but we were able to turn it around in about a week or two once the pandemic hit,” he said.

    Dinh said the pandemic mobilization was a great confidence builder, encouraging his company to innovate and learn by trying new ideas, failing fast, and improving. “When we put our efforts together as an organization, we can pretty much move mountains,” he said. “We’re taking that learning and that feeling to go tackle some other big things that maybe in the past we didn’t think we could do.”