HR in a pandemic: How three companies dealt with a surge in demand


Employees at packaging company Mondi in Szczecin, Poland receive a temperature check before their shift

For organisations up and down the country, Covid-19 has put considerable strain on HR. Many in the profession are facing long, stressful days dealing with furlough arrangements and potential redundancies. But some businesses experienced a surge in demand, which created a different pandemic challenge for the HR teams involved.

Personnel Today spoke to three companies that stepped up to the plate on everything from virtual working to re-organising factory shifts. 

Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare

With 46 care homes dotted around the country, most of which provide highly personalised care, assisted living helpers, respite and dementia care to elderly people, Covid-19 heaped substantial pressure on HR – not least because the care sector suffers retention issues at the best of times.

However HR director Sharon Benson (below) says an entire battle plan has ensured as much continuity as possible, so that care could not only continue but meet additional demands.

She says: “We knew from the onset we probably needed to ramp-up our hiring process to find hundreds of new contractor roles. We planned on moving from 4,000 staff to 5,000, assuming a 20% self isolation rate. Because we couldn’t conduct face-to-face interviews though, we introduced initial phone screenings first, followed by holding all interviews over Zoom and Microsoft Teams.”

Because normal onboarding was also impacted, the company ran virtual classroom days.

These have been supplemented by e-learning modules, including specific pre-recorded videos which are used on-site to support the learning of new systems and processes, while Covid-19 health and safety training is part of the virtual induction.

According to Benson, the new telephone screening phase has already seen Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare achieve double its typical conversion rate from application through to offer stage – so this will stay after the pandemic has eased.

“I would say HR is making many more decisions based on data and insights from the application process,” she says. “Previously, we’d hire people just to stand still, as we have industry-standard attrition. But we probably knew we weren’t getting the ‘right’ people.

Now, we don’t hire unless they score a specific number, and given the high volumes of applications, we have been documenting and recording everything more formally. All our recruitment activity is logged, and we now have robust, sustainable and scalable information which will support us to reduce attrition levels.”

Already, attrition of new staff is down by double digit percentage points, she adds: “This has also helped us understand what the candidate journey really looks like. We now feel we are able to link a good employee journey to whether this leads to a greater customer journey too.”

Introducing video interviews has meant building new behavioural competencies into the recruitment process, which will be included in face-to-face interviews in the future. “It means we feel even more equipped to recruit the right people with the right values – especially as we have seen a rise in applications from people who have never worked in the care sector before.”

A unintended benefit of all this, she argues, is the enhanced visibility she feels HR has had: “The HR and recruitment teams here have been working much closer with our marketing and PR teams, and as part of this closer collaboration we now sync all of our internal and external recruitment content on social media, press and jobs boards.

“We believe this has helped strengthen and promote our brand overall, ensuring our customer brand connects with our brand as a prestigious care provider.”

“The HR and recruitment teams here have been working much closer with our marketing and PR teams, and as part of this closer collaboration we now sync all of our internal and external recruitment content on social media, press and jobs boards.”

Just one of the innovations from this partnership includes a jointly-produced digital recruitment brochure. She adds: “This closer relationship is something the team are now planning to maintain over the longer-term, especially as we start to move away from looking at recruitment as a transaction, to start selling Sunrise and Gracewell as real employers of choice.”

Because all care homes were under such scrutiny, Benson also decided to create a WhatsApp group with other HRDs in other care homes, to share best practice. “I decided we’re all in this together. We all need to work together, not against each other,” she says. Benson invested £2m in PPE, and to ensure staff that isolating staff didn’t rush to come back sooner than they should, everyone signed off was put on full pay.

Because most of Benson’s staff are onsite, and are unable to work from home, this hasn’t prevented ways of looking at how new models of working could be introduced. Says Benson: “Gone are the days of strict office working. We understand that long commutes and travel puts pressure on our productivity and the mental health of our colleagues. The concept of the normal working day has also changed, especially given that we work in a sector that is 24/7.

“So we do want to be able to offer more flexible hours, where team members can really fit work around their lives. To this end, we have set up an engagement forum from colleagues across all functions to discuss the future of how we work which will include a survey around how and when we return to the office. The best stat of all though is that currently, 42 of our 46 homes are now Covid-free.”


In April alone, Zoom – the then little-known US-based teleconferencing company – saw usage of its software grow 30% compared to March, as the firm was suddenly called upon to support 300 million virtual meetings every day.

And according to its head of international marketing, Derek Pando (pictured), this has meant the company has itself witnessed huge people changes. “We were already a fast-growing business,” he says. “Pre-Covid we were at 24,000 people globally, but in just a few months we’ve needed to push through a massive expansion in recruitment – taking us to 28,000+ people now – all of whom have joined us virtually.”

The demand for people has come in all areas – from marketing to more IT support, to even translators – as the company has extended the number of countries its product can be accessed from, requiring mass conversion of its policies and processes into new tongues.

Says Pando: “What’s happened is that HR sign-off to managers to hire new people has transitioned from a weekly process to a daily one, with HR expected to step up and support its line manager population.”

But while HR’s decision-making processes have been faster, Pando says HR has resisted the temptation to just hire anyone: “The hiring message is the same – that we want people who fit – in fact fit is even more important now than ever.”

He adds: “But what has changed is that the message to joiners has had to be different. I was recently hiring a European field marketing role, but had to tell the applicant that I don’t know if this job would exist in a month’s time.

“The message we’re giving to jobseekers is that they have to be prepared to be adaptable, and that their job might flex into something completely different. Joiners need to be entirely comfortable with that.”

Compared to most US businesses, Zoom locked-down early – in early March – and Pando says HR is now learning that jobs it didn’t think could be virtual – such as running events demonstrating the technology – can be, and there are no imminent plans to stage any returns to the office.

This need for our service, in a time of crisis, has had a real galvanising effect on staff”

“Working remotely has actually been great in terms of our own teams getting to know our product better,” he says. “Our at-work culture was always one of high trust and transparency, and if anything, this has been bolstered, with each person’s input being democratised more.

“We’ve not had to implement any performance monitoring, and once we saw the global spread of coronavirus, we implemented daily or afternoon leadership meetings – depending on time zone – to see what could be done to better help staff. We’ve since launched working at home help videos and online group get-togethers.”

But perhaps the biggest change Pando says has happened is employees’ sense of engagement – enhanced he argues, by a sense of real duty.

“We’ve grown from supporting 10 million meetings a day in December 2019, to 300 million plus now. That’s shown staff that businesses the world over have come to depend on us to continue, to even avoid going under. This need for our service, in a time of crisis, has had a real galvanising effect on staff,” he says.

“People feel they are, in some part, ‘doing their bit’ to help get people through this crisis. We’ve had people working around the clock because of this – we’ve almost had to ensure we make sure people don’t overwork – so we’ve also launched virtual exercise classes, walking meetings, and mental health awareness toolkits. We start every meeting now with a real ‘how are you’, and managers are extremely alert to staying in touch with staff.”


The closure of physical shops has meant online purchases have rocketed during lock-down, with Amazon alone forced to add 175,000 workers globally to cope with demand that now sees it rake in $33 million per hour.

FTSE 100 firm, Mondi – the world’s largest paper bag manufacturer, and supplier of packaging solutions to Amazon – was by default also party to this increased demand – and by virtue of it being given essential supplier status, was allowed to keep its production processes open.

But this was only, explains group HR director, Michael Hakes (right), thanks to a root and branch review of all its people practices.

“We have operations globally, and so when Asia was impacted first, we immediately – in February – established a response team comprising members from HR, IT, health and safety and facilities – to plan what we thought we needed to do to keep our equipment running.”

He adds: “Because machinery can’t be physically moved, and a human presence alongside equipment can’t always be changed, Immediately, everyone was required to wear safety masks.

“Processes were then put in place so workers had no contact at all with delivery drivers bringing in raw materials, and workspace dividers were added where possible, as well as floor markings delineating social distancing. Rules were rewritten for every job function, including how equipment could be used safely, and rules for rigorous cleaning between shifts.”

Because the same numbers of people were needed per machine due to health and safety rules, one of the most effective changes was introducing fewer handovers between shifts.

A team committed to actually sleeping in the factory overnight just in case they were needed”

According to Hakes, this involved changing shifts from three shifts of eight hours each to two shifts of 12 hours to lessen the risk of infection. Staff – given that they were most impacted by the changes – were also asked to submit ideas they might have to further reduce transfer of the virus.

“To my surprise,” says Hakes, “one suggestion from our Czech plant, was to have a third team ready to take over, in case minimum numbers to operate machines were impacted by staff falling ill or being forced to self-isolate.

“To do this, a team committed to actually sleeping in the factory overnight just in case they were needed.”

According to Hakes, anytime anyone showed Covid symptoms they were immediately sent home, and anyone else they worked with was sent home too, with HR following up by making contact with these people over the next two weeks to see how they were. There have been employees that contracted the virus, but Hakes says the moves the HR team have implemented have “absolutely” helped save lives, with the infection rate of staff at less than 0.5%.

He adds: “What’s been a feature of this pandemic, is how different nations in general have varied their approach to lockdown. While we now hold weekly HR meetings to see how we’re doing compared to the different country-specific rules, what we decided to do as an HR department, was introduce the same policies universally throughout our plants globally.

“To our credit I think, one of our workers in Sweden said he wasn’t feeling well, and saw his local doctor. The physician actually said that being in one of our plants was probably the safest place he could be right now! [Sweden has been heavily criticised for not having a formal lockdown policy, which has led to an elevated death rate].”

Hakes concludes: “One of the things HR has really learned from this is just how adaptable a workforce really can be when required. We changed processes almost overnight, but through good communication we’ve found we can do things faster than we thought. We also plan to maintain our shift patterns after the pandemic, as staff prefer them, and there is no drop in output.”


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