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Leadership in Human Resources with Lisa Van Ess

Podcast published: May 15, 2020

Human resources departments have the difficult job of helping employees navigate through a lot of change right now: working from home, changing processes, potential furloughs, and more. Luckily, Lisa Van Ess, Vice President of People & Culture at Magic Hat Consulting is here to help.



How should HR departments and leaders be responding to COVID-19? 

  • HR should look at employees like clients, and they should look to be accessible to their clients. 
  • Now is a time to be “human, vulnerable, and authentic.”
  • “It’s a time to challenge the norms.”
  • HR also needs to stay informed to changes within the county and state.
    • What is shut down? What is an essential worker and an essential business?
    • Laws / policies are changing hourly.
  • Be decisive and strike a balance being an employee advocate with what’s best for the employer.
    • Know what you don’t know. 
  • Work from home environment
    • People get work done when you’re not looking at them. 
    • Easily understood, effective
    • Services haven’t changed – it’s the environment that has changed.
    • Manage performance based on the quality of work – not where it’s done.
    • Agile practices – Check-in / SCRUM
      • Check in at the end of day as well. Helps connection and focus. 

What key tasks need to be addressed in light of all the change that has been happening and is likely to continue happening?

  • BIG change: use of Zoom
    • Have has security issues
    • Orchestrating policy for video policy 
    • Human side: give some time to get ready 
  • “Can we have a video conference or meeting?”
  • Keeping Schedules / Meetings
    • Know your people and what they need. 
  • Suggestion: start with a text. Low commitment, you can add humor and gifs.
    • Ask permission before a call or video.
  • Text on phone = informal. Chat clients = more formal / work
  • “Ask how people are, really.” Have a pulse on how your people are doing.
    • Checking in with your people is super important. 
    • It can get lonely at the top. C-Suite generally get forgotten.

How are or how should HR change the way that they support their folks in a coronavirus world?

  • Now is a good time for a lot of benefit brokers to share information. Push it out to your employees.
    • E.g.: Is insurance covering telemedicine?
  • Do some development and training / coaching.
    • Help your employees grow while at home.
    • eLearning via Zoom, for example.
    • Day-to-day admin has changed.

How are or how should HR change the way that they communicate with their folks in a coronavirus world?

  • What if you have to furlough, reduce staff, etc.
    • Be honest and transparent.
    • These are hard things because these layoffs are due to outside forces, not some performance issue.
    • Be available.
  • “You wanna be in HR? Be a business person first.” – Lenny LaRosa
  • “The only surprise to give an employee is a bigger bonus.” 

Intro: Hey everybody. And welcome to another episode of Start Local, a podcast dedicated to helping small businesses in the Chester County, Pennsylvania and greater Philly area as we navigate the new Covid 19 economy.

Joe Casabona: My name is Joe Casabona. And I am here with my co-host, Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you today?

Liam Dempsey: Joe, Fantastic. It’s sunny outside for a nice change, and I’m delighted to be here.

Joe Casabona: Yes, absolutely. I am equally as happy about the nice weather. And our guest today is Lisa Van Ess. She is the Vice President of people and culture. Lisa, how are you today? 

Lisa Van Ess: Oh, Joe and Liam, I’m doing well, as well as we can be doing in these uncertain times. So, I’m really grateful to be sharing some time talking to you and helping out some of our audiences. 

Joe Casabona: We are equally as grateful to have you on the show today. And we’re going to be talking about kind of what HR departments can be doing in order to help with, you know, help navigate this economy. But why don’t we start off with who you are and what you do?

Lisa Van Ess: So I am…Thank you, Joe, for the kind introduction.  I am what I like to say, the fearless leader of work in employee engagement also known as talent, culture, people, really leading the HR functions and programs for Magic Hat Consulting, which is a regional consulting organization servicing what we call the health and wealth markets. So, a lot of life sciences, pharmaceuticals, banks, insurance companies. 

So, with that comes as you can imagine, bringing on new people, recruiting, being a source of information around policies, programs, benefits, training, and development, as well as we are big fans of Gallup StrengthsFinder, so doing assessments and coaching. Really I exist to support our employees who are our internal customers. 

Every once in a while they do let me out, and I do a little bit of work with our existing clients to help them as well when it’s change management or leadership development or HR oriented. But really, I exist to make work better for our employees.

Liam Dempsey: Work better for employees is an important part of any company. And especially as work and what that looks like has changed dramatically in the last six weeks or so. Can you tell us about some of the best practices or good ideas that HR departments should be thinking about, and implementing where appropriate within their own organizations as a response to COVID-19 and what that might be mean for companies?

Lisa Van Ess: Sure, sure. When I look at what has changed in HR since COVID-19 has changed the way we work, there’s really a couple of things. I’ve always been a fan of HR looking at employees like clients, and you want to be accessible to your clients when they need you. And I think one of the biggest changes in the manner in which HR is working is around accessibility and communication. 

Sometimes there’s a thought or even a stereotype that in HR you need to be very formal, very buttoned up. You never want to record communications. You don’t want to do video conferences. Anything, you know, record that could be recorded and come back to bite you. You don’t want to text, you want to email. And I think this is a time that we really need to rethink all of that, you know. I think it’s a time to be human, to be vulnerable, and to be authentic.

So, doing a Zoom meeting with an employee about, you know, should I take a StrengthsFinder assessment or, you know, do I want to go do Myers-Briggs in your, you know, in a sweatshirt, in a hoodie, in your kitchen? Probably okay. Employee relations or following up on something compliance related. Yep. That might be a phone call. That might be something a little bit different, but I think it’s a time to challenge the norms. And to, you know, it’s a little lather wrench repeat, but listen, communicate, communicate again, listen again, communicate again. Really, really, when you think you’ve done it enough or overkill, do it again. So I think that’s on the engaging employee side of it.

I think HR also needs to stay informed. So this is staying informed to changes within your county and state. So what are shutdowns? What is being recommended? What is an essential worker in an essential business? So you have to know that. Set up the alerts, watch the news every day, SHRM alerts that come through, understand what does the CARES Act mean? How does that impact your employees? What stability does that offer your employees? So I think, you know, a lot of times, once again in HR, you know, national laws pertaining to employment may not change that frequently, whereas in today’s environment, things are changing hourly. You’ve got to stay on top of it, and you’ve got to share that information.

Also, I think from an HR perspective, now is the time to be decisive, and more than ever, balance being an employee advocate with a what are the realities from an employer perspective? I’m always a fan of when you’re treating your employers and your clients the right way as the employer, you’re doing the right thing. We’re all human. We’re all dealing with this information as best we can. Things are moving quickly. So, you have to have a point of view. You have to know what you don’t know. And you have to share a lot of empathy. So maybe it’s what HR should always have been doing just on steroids. But that’s my current advice for anyone out there, that’s in this field and really for any leader in general, people are looking for and direction and how is it going to be okay? And, am I safe? And, am I stable? Stability is a huge thing for any employee right now. 

Joe Casabona: Gotcha. That is, that’s a lot of great information. And what you were saying about kind of being  human and authentic, kind of reminded me of some of the early policies that we were seeing with companies that were traditionally never work from home about you need to check in every hour and you need to always have your status up to date and things like that. Do you have, first of all, how much of that is kind of HR related those policies, and what kind of recommendations do you have for making sure employees feel comfortable in a work from home environment. 

Lisa Van Ess: Perfect. Yeah, yeah. I, you know, thank you because sometimes I’m just… Let’s skip over the obvious stuff of everyone’s working from home. Yeah. No. Let’s not do that. Okay. So, yes, here’s the funny thing. Shh, don’t tell anybody. I’m writing work remote policy now. I’m interested in consulting organizations. A lot of times you adopt your client’s policy. So, if a large pharmaceutical company who’s global says we’re about deliverables and results, so do it from wherever you want, in whatever time zone, whatever hours you want. 

Okay. We’re gonna mirror that. But we have all of our employees in one time zone and fairly traditional of what I would consider your brick and mortar. 8: 30 to 5, 9-5 everyday. And everyone’s looking at each other. So I think there’s an education that people get worked on when you’re not looking at them.

What we, so having a policy that’s nice and easy, once again, easily understood, welcoming and effective, that’s what you need. So, you know, what we need to deliver, the services we provide haven’t changed. Where we are doing it from has changed. And the way we talk to each other has changed. So, address those issues. You manage performance on the quality of work someone does. Where they do it from is that important, right? Maybe. Maybe not. If it isn’t, don’t make a very restrictive policy. And letting people know that this is new. So if we adjust it, we adjust it. 

We’re doing in practice with Magic Hat, which is probably why I didn’t need to write the policy yet, is we’ve adopted some actual agile practices, some business agility. So we check in every morning before we, everything gets underway, so first thing. And it’s quickly, hey, here’s our focus for today. And then we catch in, catch back up at the end of the day to say, here’s what we’ve got. Here’s what we accomplished. Here’s where I need some help tomorrow. And it’s a very nice way to kind of bookend the work that everyone’s doing in a quick way, We stay connected. We’re on Zoom. You know, you get to see everyone with their baseball caps on in the morning and looking all pretty at the end of the day. But I think, it helps the connection and it helps the focus without being overbearing. 

So, absolutely as an HR person, hopefully all of you out there are way ahead of me and you had a really nice little work remote policy done six weeks ago, but you know what you, I think it’s about connection. It’s about engagement and it’s about getting the work done more so than a manifesto of, you know, that shall not do this in this way. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. I imagine a lot of businesses, especially smaller ones are not going to have policies that they’ve never needed before. It’s not like an insurance where I’ve never flooded, I still have flood insurance, I’ve never, you know, that kind of stuff. But why should I have a work remote? Everybody comes in every day, we’ve been doing it this way for 32 years. And then all of a sudden you can.

So your idea about adapting as you go and implementing as you go and really updating as you go makes a lot of sense. Let me ask you this. You’ve talked a lot about changing the way that HR departments are communicating and you had shared that historically it’s been a don’t do it in a recordable way, don’t do it always with a lawyer on the line, coat and tie suit kind of thing. And you’ve shared that, that needs to change and it needs to change really because our entire world is completely different than it was eight weeks ago. How, what kind of acceptance or pushback are you seeing in the marketplace with that revised approach as you’ve been rolling it out?

Lisa Van Ess: You know, the biggest one, and this is where it’s neat to follow people like Eric Gudmundson and Austin Morris, believe it or not, has been Zoom. So, at really the largest pushback I’ve seen from both employees, colleagues and clients is the use of specifically Zoom because the security, the data privacy, those measures are not there. So while it’s easy, it’s like, oh, wait a minute, we’re a bank, right? Or hang on a second, you know, this is a pharmaceutical company. 

So it’s been a little bit about orchestrating which platforms for video conferencing are secure. And then, well, oops, you know, can we use XYZ Pharma’s platform because we’re not really their employees. So, we’re not in their network. So, there’s been a little bit there, but by far, the largest pushback has been that. And then there’s always a, oh, forget a video conference, just give me a half hour to get ready. Right. So, a little bit on the human side, but really it’s been about the security of can we have a really good video conference or video meeting. And know that it’s not going to be posted on YouTube or we’re not going to get, you know, whatever the equivalent of a photo bomb is on Zoom. 

Joe Casabona: Again, that makes just a lot of sense. And I actually have been hearing from a lot of  my own friends who are moving to remote that instead of their schedules being less packed, it’s more packed because those little drive by meetings that you might have somebody stops by your office or your cubicle, now need to be scheduled. What are your thoughts around that and kind of making sure that people have time to do their work, but they’re also getting the appropriate amount of engagement that they wouldn’t get from a normal office?

Lisa Van Ess: Yeah. No, you know what, for that, and I think you know it’s very interesting. You have to kind of know your people well enough to know what’s best for them. Some people, I’ve got some people that all of a sudden FaceTime shows up and I’m looking at them, and then with others it’s like, let’s do a quick text message, right? 

So in HR, I think, it’s your, it’s in your job description to know your people and know how to do that informal, what would have been the drive by or the hall conversation. Know who a quick iMessage or text works, know who to FaceTime with, you know, and when do you just call, right? So what’s interesting is, and there’s generational components to this, I could be a real geek right now with all this. It’s fun. Know who to text, know who to call, know who to set up an appointment with. 

Honestly, what I’m doing personally with a lot of my colleagues and team members is I start with a text message. Because it is quick, it’s instant. You don’t have to read a whole screen full of stuff.  You can use emojis and bitmojis and GIFs and you can add a little, once again, human and or humor into it, grab people’s attention. 

And then, big fan of asking permission. Hey, do you want to jump on a call? This is coming up, should we prep for the meeting before the end of the day? Do you want a videoconference? Oh, didn’t wash your hair this morning. No problem. We can do this voice only. it’s almost hyper communicating, but I’ve been relying. And when I look at Magic Hat and what we’re falling into, that text message on the phone, like just quick, hey, look at this. That’s becoming the informal. The text chatting teams is, oh, okay, that’s going to stay here for the whole team to look at and collaborate. That’s what I’m finding we’re just kind of gravitating and feeling our way to.’

And then, I’ve got a couple of crazy people that just show up and I’m looking at their face on my airbook. That, you know, those are the extroverts, which thankfully I’m one too. So, I’m like, okay. We can do this. Let’s go.

Liam Dempsey: Lisa, you shared a great piece there and I just wanted to go back to it because I think it’s so important. Just ask, just ask, just ask how people want to be communicated with and, you know, kind of in the, from the office environment, it’s just, we can kind of pop our head in and if they’re neck, knee down on something, we, you know, just keep quiet and go back to our own office so we knock on the door, but that that kind of ask permission is really powerful. Thank you for sharing that.

Lisa Van Ess:  No, you’re welcome. and you know in addition to asking permission, just ask how people are really, right? This is not that “Hey, happy monday. How’s the weekend?” No. Not so much.  As HR, right? We have to have a pulse on really how our people are doing. And this is different, and this is new. And, yeah. You know, not the ducky and peachy and fine and living the dream. Cool. How’s your family? You know, how’s it going if people are homeschooling or you know, if you’re living in Philadelphia on the 23rd floor not taking elevators, how are you doing? So I think asking permission and genuinely checking in with your people, very, very importantly. And importantly, it can get lonely at the top.

So, a lot of times we look at our peers and we look at our direct reports and we forget about our fearless leaders and or the C suite because they’re people too. So, I think up, down, and sideways, ask permission and take a genuine interest and be supportive. 

Liam Dempsey: That’s fantastic. I love that looking up and down the street, up and down the river, up and down the 23 floors. Well, someone’s going to have great calf muscles by the time this is all done. 

Lisa Van Ess: Yes, exactly. Exactly. 

Liam Dempsey: You’ve talked a lot about communicating and you’ve talked a lot about workflows and changing from on site to remote and the like. What are some different ways, other ways that HR departments, HR professionals should start to think about supporting their people. You know, you’ve talked about being vulnerable. You’ve talked about being genuine. You’ve talked about really asking, how are you? But what other advice might you share that other folks might not have thought of just yet? 

Lisa Van Ess: Sure. Benefits, right? Benefits, just like the example of flood insurance. Hey, it’s not raining, so I don’t even know what my policy is. Now, is a good time and a lot of benefit brokers, right? So a lot of businesses work with a partner on their benefit coverage are sharing information. So, push that information out to your employees. Is your policy now covering telemedicine? Is that now free? You know, I think this is a public health crisis. So proactively sharing that as opposed to most times and employees calling, saying, Oh, I have a question about my benefits. I think pushing that out is one of the things that’s important in an HR operations best practice that should be done even more frequently right now. 

Another thing, and it’s A: it’s fun, and B:, what better time? Any. Although we can argue productivity and the amount of meetings hasn’t gone up or down. but let’s go with the theory that people have time to invest right now Because you’re not driving an hour each way to work. what a good time to do some development and training and coaching, right?

So, you know, really think about whether or not you’ve ever done e-learning before. how can you do it with Zoom, right? Or how can you do it on Teams, or let’s be secure. What assessments are out there, you know, let’s do some coaching. I think, you know, these are the things that a lot of times HR practitioners love but don’t get the chance to do because, you know, you’re hiring or you’re recruiting or you’re, you know, you’re doing a lot of that day to day administration. That’s changed a little bit. So what a good time to work on mentoring and coaching and training. Right? and deliver it in a new way like let’s really, really look at the best ways to do some e learning Because we can’t do it in a classroom right now. And I think people can come out of this stronger and more knowledgeable. So I would look at over, you know, once again, just really, really proactive communication on benefits and changes. And did you know, and then investing more time on the development and the coaching it…

Joe Casabona: Gotcha. I love that last part. I mean, like I’m a teacher. I do a lot of stuff online, but I also love going to conferences. And, one thing that both of my former employers really supported was sending me to conferences. I think now, that could be a really cost effective way to help your employees grow because most conferences have gone virtual. You don’t have to pay for a plane ticket or a hotel room or you just need to set aside time during the day.

Lisa Van Ess: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah, absolutely. Sorry. I cut you off on that one. Good point about educating yourself. Let me ask you one kind of last question as we come to our end. Inevitably, it’s likely to be a difficult business environment. It certainly is already. It’s gonna get worse before it gets better. We don’t really have time to talk about all the things that are going to come in the coming weeks and months. But, I wonder if you could touch on a kind of a higher level, what should a company, what should HR departments be communicating to give their employees a sense, a realistic assessment of where the business is? Not scaring or saying, you know, it’s all doom and gloom, but also letting folks know so that those folks can plan their own lives as well. How does it, how does an HR department find that balance? 

Lisa Van Ess: Yeah. No. So this is a good one. And, you know, we’re fortunate at Magic Hat that, well, certainly this is impacting our business. It hasn’t impacted our workforce other than the work is being done someplace else. And there’s a lot of unknowns, right? Regardless of industry and business. I haven’t hit on the, what if you have to furlough? What if you have to do a reduction in staff? What if you’re in retail? You’re in food preparation. You’re in the restaurant business, right? Now, in HR, it’s a given..we understand regulations and the do’s and don’ts of what to say, what not to say.

And, be as honest and as transparent. And, just do it. There have been times previously in my career where we, I’ve done layoffs and reductions in force. And, it’s okay to say here’s what the market has, here’s the market’s impact on the business. You know, these are hard things because it’s not terminating someone for a reason. It’s something outside of anything they’ve done, any employee’s done. So it’s the ability to say, here’s where we all are. Here’s what’s happening today. Oh, by the way, my phone number’s the same tomorrow. And be helpful. Help people who you have to transition. Land as softly as you can and do those introductions into companies and areas and avenues that still need help and workers and employees.

I think there’s something about karma. There’s something about doing the right thing. Employees are smart. People are smart. They get it. They get it. So you want to be authentic. You want to be sincere. You want to be transparent in what you’re communicating. And no one knows what the future holds quite yet. I can tell you where we’ll be on Friday. I can’t tell you where we’re going to be on August 17th. You can’t do it right now, right? So you do the best you can. You do the best work for your employees, for your clients that you can in the short term basis. So it’s a little bit of an agile way of doing it. Be honest, be open, and genuinely be caring, right, with what you do. If it is a reality that your workforce could change or transition or furlough, you be direct with what’s happening, with why it’s happening. And if it turns back around, you know, here’s what we can do to re engage. 

But, Yeah. You do have to know and you do have to keep an eye on, you know, that one of the very first things that we talked about was staying aware. You need to be aware not only of HR changes, but you have to be aware of your business. One of my favorite mentors ever,i’ll give him the the footnote here, Lenny LaRosa told me, you know, at least you want to be an HR person. That’s great. Be a business person first. so know what this is doing to your business and share that with your employees. Share that with your employees.

Joe Casabona: Lisa, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for your time. Where can people find you if they want to learn more?

Lisa Van Ess: Sure. Absolutely. You can find me on LinkedIn. So, Lisa Van Ess,  and you’ll see me greater Philadelphia area. I’m in there. Definitely feel free to link in Magic Hat Consulting. So you can check out our Magic Hat Consulting website and find me on the About Leadership page. So definitely check me out there. 

And, no. This has been a pleasure and another way that HR should change the way they do what they do,  do some podcasts with good people. So happy to be here and, pleasure. Pleasure speaking with both of you. 

Joe Casabona: Thank you very much. I will link to those and more at our show notes page over on [startlocal.co]. Lisa, thank you so much. 

Lisa Van Ess: So welcome. 

Joe Casabona: Thanks again to Lisa for joining us today. Like I said, you can find all of the show notes and things that we talked about over at [startlocal.co]. 

Now, if you are enjoying this podcast, Liam and I would really appreciate it if you gave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts, because it really helps people discover the show. And we want to help as many people in Chester County and the greater Philadelphia area as possible.

So thanks so much for listening. And until next time. Stay safe out there.

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