HR on the Front Lines During the COVID-19 Pandemic

How our stores have handled safety, supplies, curfews, layoffs, communication and more this year

By Alison Brome, SHRM-CP November 19, 2020
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HR on the Front Lines During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Alison Brome, SHRM-CP

​The HR department is typically considered to play a supporting role in the organization, as are the inventory, IT, marketing, accounts and finance departments. This has not been the case for me and my company during the pandemic—HR has played a greater role.

I live in Barbados, the most easterly island in the Caribbean—166 square miles "and a smile wide." I work as the HR supervisor with one of the leading supermarket retailers in the region. Along with the rest of the world, we watched the news reports of confirmed cases of a novel coronavirus in China in December 2019.

Soon there would be COVID-19 even in paradise.

Preparation Is Important

As a response to the first signs of the pandemic, we formally developed a team in early January 2020 after Web-based collaboration among senior management. We ascertained and closely monitored inventory levels of antibacterial wipes, spray bottles, alcohol and masks. The COVID-19 response team continued ad hoc meetings all month to determine availability of resources. Changes in job functions were required to ensure the continued safety of employees and customers.

News of shortages of toilet paper and other necessities in other countries brought about panic-buying in our stores, with lines of customers snaking through each aisle. Our senior vice president led efforts to safeguard supplies and personal protective equipment, maintain supplier sources, and add staff to assist with long queues.

As early as February, all restrooms in communal areas were outfitted with signage showing pictorial guides on how to wash hands effectively.

Safety Is Our Priority

We monitored the spread of the virus across the globe and watched keenly as the first case was recorded in the neighboring island nation of Jamaica on March 10, 2020. Seven days later, our local officials from the Ministry of Health & Wellness hosted a press conference to deliver the news that Barbados had recorded its first two cases of COVID-19.

While the cases have been from travelers and no community spread has been confirmed, our priority is safety. Education freely flowed from our Health & Safety team.

Plans converted to actions. We sourced additional personal protective equipment. Reusable masks were distributed to each employee. Face shields were provided to those working at points of sale. Sanitizing materials, such as personal spray bottles of surgical alcohol to sanitize workspaces also were made readily available. Sanitizing stations were installed at high-touch areas. Cleaners' schedules were modified and expanded.

We established new protocols for queueing inside and outside the store. For the first time, we used bright tape to show customers where to stand. Acrylic barriers were erected at all customer-facing points as an additional safeguard.

Leadership Is Key

Each member of the HR team, from assistant vice president to HR assistant, can be seen in various store locations, doing what we would usually do only on the busiest last-minute shopping days (such as Christmas Eve and hurricane season). In addition to our functional HR duties, team members assist at points of sale, cashing groceries, fulfilling e-orders and more.

Working with all aspects of operations, our teams have adapted and pivoted as needs arose. While there was no established budget line item for COVID-19 response, any and all requirements were procured.

Employees adapted well to long lines and sometimes longer hours. As part of the company's "Project Thanks," all employees—over 1,000—have received shopping vouchers to assist with their own household needs.

Staffing Ebbs and Flows

After curfews were instituted in late March, sharp reductions in business led to reductions in staffing levels around the island, especially in May. By July, more than 50,000 unemployment claims were received by the National Insurance Scheme.

At our company, changes in recruitment requirements came in waves. Almost every week, layoffs and earlier-than-scheduled terminations sadly became a reality. During this sensitive period, communication with management teams and employees was key. We leaned on collaboration, one of our core values. It was a difficult time for all—those who were laid off and those who had to communicate the layoffs—but collaboration with stakeholders made it less so.

Temporary layoffs were planned and discussed in tandem with employee representatives and the trade union; a methodology for layoffs was established and agreed on, then executed. We communicated regularly with affected employees' financial institutions.

One welcome addition was an officer assigned to our portfolio of unemployment claims who managed queries and requests for information. This allowed for smoother claims processing for affected employees.

Customer Focus

To meet fluctuating consumer patterns, recruitment has had to be flexible. Security personnel receive continued training to ensure that government protocols are followed at all times. Internal COVID-19 policies are developed and communicated to ensure compliance with legal requirements. Corporate resources have been invaluable to ensure that announcements and reminders to customers are consistent and relevant.

Supermarkets are no longer places of recreation and leisure. Customers want to know that you have what they need, and that they can get supplies as quickly and easily as possible. High demand for online shopping due to the pandemic expedited the launch of our shopping app, as well as other innovations including QR-coded specials and a mobile checkout unit. If customers must visit, they want to do so safely and quickly.

While times have changed, the importance of each of our customers has not, and we continue to pivot as often as necessary. We remain hopeful that terms like "lockdown" and "curfew" become matters of history. Forward only.

Alison Brome, SHRM-CP, is HR supervisor for Massy Stores in Barbados. She has a master's degree in project management and is a Certified Green Project Manager.

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