For this week's Big Interview, Rosie Jenkins spoke to Elizabeth Cowper about her role as an HR leader and what it was like setting up a consultancy during the pandemic.
Elizabeth was most recently VP HR Europe & Global Head of Wellbeing for Tapestry.
What role has the HR function played in enabling the company to face the pandemic?
The HR department has been thrown into one of their biggest challenges. In all my years in HR, this has been the biggest shake-up by far of the world of work. The HR team is the one managing all the change and having to move quickly on new procedures such as furlough.
HR has been the central hub and go to advice service for leaders.
They have partnered with departments such as IT to keep the company operating. With the employee all based at home, it required a new way to communicate and keep staff engaged.
For the industries where employees weren’t at home, HR departments helped keep people safe. Questions on safety, PPE, and managing risk for key workers was again a new requirement for the HR team who were in many cases learning as they went.
Factor in redundancies and mass consultation and HR are the ones taking the brunt of many of the challenging decisions.
What have been the major challenges you’ve navigated during the pandemic?
I have set up my own consultancy in the middle of a pandemic. You couldn’t make it up!
I resigned in November before Covid was even a word in our world, and finished my notice in April this year.
Personally, the challenge has been building a company and homeschooling three kids, which has been far from easy.
The demands on my time felt like they were coming from everything and everyone, and I missed my ‘normal’; Coffee with a colleague at work, popping to the gym, dinner with my friends.
From a client perspective, clients have wanted support with redundancy processes, furlough advice and wellbeing advice.
I have supported on D&I training too which has risen to the surface for many businesses, and is critical for all employees to ensure a company is fully inclusive.
How has the business changed since lockdown?
I was the VP HR Europe and Global Head of Wellbeing for Tapestry before I left to set up on my own. Tapestry is a retailer which owns Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman.
As a retailer, the impact was enormous.
Stores were closed across all 12 countries in Europe where the brands operated, all store staff were furloughed and re-opening the stores has been a huge task.
Retail isn’t as it was, the numbers are still down and consumers are still feeling nervous.
For the HQ, as is the case in many other companies, redundancies have meant a change in responsibilities, a reorganisation of how the company operates and potentially the need to pivot the strategy.
Through this kind of seismic change, you cannot underestimate the impact on the people.
Yes, the company is navigating change, and so is every employee in their own way.
What worked well and what would you do differently if you could?
While still in my role, I managed the closedown of our head offices and stores across Europe and it was highly stressful.
We had a core ‘crisis team’ on a daily call, and a recurrent agenda and daily communication.
Putting in structure in chaos is one of the biggest things I have learned in my career when managing a crisis.
Everyone would get on the call, we would do things in the same order, and the comms followed the same format. People know what to expect, know where to look in the comms for the info they want and it keeps people on track.
What would I do differently? I would do more pre-recorded videos. One of my clients had a leader who recorded a daily video.
This way employees could watch it when it worked for them, rather than needing to dial in at a certain time.
Genius, especially when your workforce might be homeschooling at the same time.
The CEO is still doing it, just bi-weekly now!
From your experiences, what advice would you give other HR professionals in sectors that are beginning to reopen as lockdown eases?
Ask for help when you need it.
Talk to your peers or networking group if you have one. Find out what other people are doing, and bring in an expert in an area if you feel out of your depth.
Talking to other companies in your sector and keeping on top of the news will help you make informed decisions.
It is about finding the balance between adhering to the government guidelines and navigating your business and employees to the best outcome. It’s like a daily juggling act!
Sharing your pain is important too.
Always have that friend on speed-dial that you can call for a rant when you need to let off steam.
Prioritise your mental health as you navigate this challenging time.
If the HR team is broken, it will be much harder to be there for everyone else.
Notice when you need a break and take it.
It’s remembering the simple, yet so hard, advice of ‘put on your oxygen mask first’. It’s critical when flying through a global pandemic.