People + Strategy Journal

Spring 2021

The Chief of Well-Being

Walmart expanded its focus on people beyond just physical, emotional and financial well-being to include rapid hiring, upskilling opportunities and actions to address racial injustice.

By Donna Morris, Walmart
The Chief of Well-Being

After more than two decades in the tech industry, primarily in the Bay Area, I relocated to Bentonville, Arkansas, in February 2020 to start working at the world’s largest retailer and Fortune 1 company, Walmart. I was aligned to the purpose and values of the company, excited about the opportunity to impact the experiences for over 2.2 million associates and to help lead digital transformation. It was time for a major change, and I was ready to contribute. 

Within weeks of my start, my early thoughts changed significantly on how I would integrate into the business and lead the global people team. I was still navigating a new community and trying to meet the lists of people that I should get to know in the first 30/60/90 days, when it struck me that I was the Chief People Officer for the largest employer during a global pandemic. The blueprint for integrating in a crisis was not available. I was going to have to lean on my own experiences in driving change, communicating and leading to navigate a crisis across all the countries in which we operated.

Our top priorities were delivering what our associates needed, solving unimaginable problems with urgency, and a laser focus on doing everything we could to keep our associates and customers safe and healthy. Really, these were our only priorities. 

This past year underscored that we must all focus on the well-being and inclusion of our people. As a global people team, we focused on providing the resources to support the physical, emotional and financial well-being of our 2 million associates, equip them to best care for customers, invest in their long-term success and create a workplace where all belong. This will continue as a foundation of our strategic priorities in 2021 and beyond.

Putting Associate Well-Being First

Walmart is a multifaceted organization and our associates include personal shoppers and pharmacists, truck drivers, merchants, marketers, technologists and more. Given the size and scope of roles within our workforce, we needed to vary our approaches to supporting our associates on the job and off. We acted quickly to create a COVID-19 emergency leave policy to support associates when they were unable or uncomfortable coming to work due to the virus. This meant, among other things, that associates were paid for up to 26 weeks if they couldn’t work because they had contracted the virus. We implemented numerous safety measures, including providing masks to associates before it was recommended by the CDC, adding sneeze guards at registers and implementing temperature checks and health screening questions upon arrival at all facilities. In addition, we were committed to rewarding our associates—we paid out more than $2.8 billion in bonuses to associates in the United States between March 19 and December 24, 2020. 

The thousands of associates who work in our campus offices shifted to a remote work environment, which is continuing for the majority of associates. The People team needed to focus on increasing managerial capabilities and overall communications to keep associates engaged and connected while remote. Our Global Tech team planned a more permanent shift to remote work as they sought to reimagine the role of the workspace in the future of technology. Personally, as someone who enjoys being with people, and so new in the company, it was an adjustment. See Figure 1.

In our focus on well-being, we worked to prioritize resources for physical and emotional well-being. We waived fees for virtual doctor appointments, including for behavioral health specialists. We provided resources from Thrive Global to help strengthen their physical and mental resilience. 

Creating Future-Focused Jobs

As the pandemic emerged, consumer shopping habits immediately moved to digital, with Walmart U.S. eCommerce sales increasing 74 percent in February, March and April of 2020. We rapidly evolved our business and delivery models. We aligned our teams and created roles to serve our customers’ needs—in person, online pickup, online delivery or a combination of all three. As an example, we had just a few hundred personal shoppers fulfilling online orders as recently as six years ago. This past holiday season, we had more than 157,000 personal shoppers handling pickup and delivery orders for customers. We also revamped our store operating model to shift our managers’ focus more to building and developing teams. While we had started to pilot team-based ways of working before the pandemic, the crisis served as a catalyst to expedite their implementation. 

The ways of working for our office associates have also changed to better deliver on increased speed, innovation and productivity. We have focused on accelerating digital solutions by moving to a “four in the box” model of working that aligns the business, customer, product and technology. One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of is how a team of people partners, product managers and technologists worked together to revamp our hiring process so applicants could become associates in as little as 24 hours. This helped us fulfill and rapidly exceed hiring commitments for our front line. 

While our initial goal was to hire 150,000 front-line associates to meet the demands, we ended up hiring more than 500,000 new U.S. associates last year. To put information in our front-line associates’ fingertips, we rolled out a voice-assistant app called “Ask Sam,” which answered associates’ questions and provided them with emergency alerts. 

Increased Importance in Upskilling Associates

In addition to adapting our roles and ways of working, making learning opportunities easily accessible for associates is vital to preparing associates and the organization for the future. At Walmart, Live Better U gives our front-line associates access to affordable education programs such as high school completion, debt-free college degrees and skills certificates that can be completed in less than a year. Since the program launched in 2018, more than 5,000 associates have completed a program. Today, we have more than 25,000 associates who are active Live Better U participants. 

Despite the pandemic, we continued to invest in the more than 200 training academies across the U.S., including three supply chain academies that opened in 2020 and a new store training academy in Florida that opened in February 2021. More than 2 million associate trainings have been completed through Walmart Academies, including soft-skill trainings on topics such as empathy and leadership, as well as hands-on training to help associates learn how to progress in a specific area or move into a new role. During the pandemic, our Academies temporarily pivoted to virtual learning, innovating new ways of teaching and reaching more associates than ever before. 

Building a Better Walmart 

As the nation’s largest private employer and with 90 percent of the country’s population within 10 miles of a Walmart, the United States’ issues are our issues. I believe the tragic murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, created a catalyst for change. His death along with so many others were incredibly tragic snapshots of the racism, inequality and oppression that Black and African American members of this country face. 

As in most organizations, Walmart’s associates expressed their frustration, sadness and anger at the harsh reality of racism and discrimination within our communities. With about 300,000 Black and African American associates, we recognized we must do better to create racial equity within our own walls, while using our business capabilities and scale to influence systems and institutions.

We started by listening and learning to guide the actions we took as a company. Hearing our associates’ feelings and ideas, and educating ourselves on the history of racism and the effects it’s had on our nation, helped guide our actions. We committed to bi-annual reporting of our representation and progress, and we revamped our hiring practices, but there is a lot of work ahead on this journey of change. 

Since June 2020, we’ve held frequent listening sessions and started a series called RACE Ahead (Raising Authentic Conversations on Equity) to create a safe space for transparent, relevant and solutions-oriented conversations. We launched race and inclusion learning paths to meet associates wherever they are in their personal journey, with associates accessing more than 700,000 training modules so far. Our president and chief executive officer, Doug McMillon, has been hosting a video series with our leaders to discuss their experiences related to diversity, equity and inclusion. We collaborated with McKinsey & Company to fund and support the production of Race in the Workplace: The Black Experience, which details the challenges facing Black Americans specific to employment across the private sector. Each of our officers is required to participate in a two-day Racial Equity Institute workshop. And we have established shared value networks to identify and deploy strategies to address systemic racism in education, finance, healthcare and criminal justice in the U.S.

In our focus on building a better, more inclusive organization, we are looking to amplify the voices of our associates. We want to work toward building both a workplace and communities where all feel included and celebrated. It’s not enough to be heartbroken by a video when it surfaces or a lost life when we find out about it. If we really care for our associates and our customers, we must strive to make every aspect of their lives better. 

Focus on People to Better Our Organizations

2020 was challenging for everyone. It challenged how individuals lived personally and professionally. It challenged whether people were able to continue working and where and how they could afford to live. It broadened the divide between those who were fortunate and those who were less fortunate. We all needed to adjust how we lived our lives, including how our children and loved ones studied, played and socialized. We dealt with losses, illnesses, racial injustice and civil division. We all adapted to living with a focus on how to best protect our well-being: socially distanced, hands washed and masks on. 

Collectively, we can use these challenges to increase strength and unify our companies. The opportunity to truly ensure we are creating an environment and experiences that underscore that people are our most important asset is greater than it has ever been. As people leaders, we have an incredible opportunity—to better the lives of our people, organizations and the communities in which we operate. 

At Walmart, we believe our people will continue to make the difference and be our competitive advantage, even in an increasingly digital and technology-driven world. That belief drives our People team. It’s why we focus on our associates’ well-being. It’s why we build future-focused roles and train and develop our associates for them. It’s why we’re focused on building a better Walmart where everyone feels included. HR, or the People function, was created for this time. In fact, some may call us the Chief Care Officers, because as we focus on our people, ensuring their success, we are securing the success of their overall lives, our companies, communities and countries. 

Donna Morris is Chief People Officer for Walmart. She can be reached through LinkedIn.