Global Perspectives on Employee Leadership From the Epicenters of COVID-19

Erik Schmidt
April 3 ․ 14 min read

There are 7.8 billion people in the world. Right now, for maybe the first time in modern history, all of them are having essentially the same shared experience.

By “them” I mean “us.” We.


COVID-19 is a challenge that we, the world, are facing together, all at once. It is truly (and unfortunately) global. It is truly universal. And we’re all looking for the same answers. I know that I am.

My search for guidance initially took me to Twitter. Let’s just say results were mixed. Fortunately, the answers I sought were literally right in front me, filling up my Zoom calls and Slack channels — our CEO Roopesh Nair delivering poignant messages about patience, family and togetherness in our all hands meetings; Executive Vice President in the UK Simon Phillips urging everyone to focus on personal safety and health during virtual team walks; People Success heads Emily Alvarez and Parul Arora keeping the team connected and energized from halfway around the globe by hosting company-wide Wellness Wednesdays.

Every day, shepherded by our leadership team, I see a global company making a global effort. They’ll be the first to tell you they don’t have all the answers. But I think their insights and experiences as leaders, motivators and — most importantly — humans, can add a sense of clarity and direction as we navigate these uncharted waters together.

 

Everything has changed drastically in the past month due to COVID-19. On a personal level, what’s been the most surprising thing you’ve observed in your part of the world?

Roopesh Nair, CEO — New York City, New York: It’s been amazing how quickly peoples’ focus shifted to collaboration and support: from neighbors to colleagues to health care workers to strangers. Our world moves so quickly, and while in one instance we’ve had to totally pause our normal lives, we’ve also rapidly shifted into action to create the best new normal we can find together.

Simon Phillips, Executive Vice President and Managing Director — London, England: The ever-growing sense of community. With enforced physical distancing between everyone, the sense of emotional connection — and community support — gets stronger every day. As distressing as the whole situation is, I don’t believe the sense of community has been this strong in decades. I also sense that we’re all reevaluating what’s important in our lives and, maybe, what’s not — the result of which I expect to be a renewed appreciation for the simple things in life and the amazing health and support infrastructure we have in the UK.

Emily Alvarez, Vice President of People Success — Rome, Italy: Empathy, kindness, solidarity, community — from Italians singing on their terraces to children drawing signs of rainbows with the inspiring message “#andratuttobene,” which means everything will be OK. In other cases, I’ve seen professionals and amateurs offering their services globally, virtually and at no-cost; yoga sessions, meditation apps, live cooking instructions — all with the intent to share positivity and wellbeing.

Parul Arora, Director of People Success — Bangalore, India: One of the most prominent changes is people going the extra mile to help others — mentally, emotionally, or just by helping them buy items of everyday need. Human values that withered away in fast-paced lives seem to have come forth now. Personally, for me, it has made me more grateful for what I have and for people who are working tirelessly to ensure we stay indoors and safe.

 

This all happened fairly quickly; how did you prioritize and then mobilize action across Symphony Talent?

Nair: Like almost everyone else, I had been monitoring the situation for a few weeks prior: first as a person and father, second as a leader of a global business. I felt pretty early on that it was going to get much worse before it was going to get better, especially as I connected with Emily in Italy. I remember the exact Monday morning in early March opening our leadership team call saying, “Let’s figure this out and get ahead of this.” Actually, mobilization was fairly easy given that our leadership team was 100% on the same page to act quickly and over-cautiously to protect our employees. Across domestic and global offices, we outlined our concerns, our fears, and our perspectives on how we’d approach individual regions. I think I sent an email and Slack message within 24 hours addressing the company’s priority (which was every single employee), followed by personal communication from each of our senior leaders. Within days, we had specific Slack channels set up for company wellness and work-from-home tips.

Alvarez: The COVID-19 crisis unraveled quickly in Italy. Before it began to accelerate and heavily impact our global Symphony Talent regions, I was one week ahead of the curve — and honestly, I was very distracted as I tried to focus on where to find basic resources due to the extreme stay-at-home mandate. Fortunately, I was able to find creative and new online resources for the basics — and creative outlets for my family. Secondly, I made it a priority to sleep more, exercise more and limit TV time. By making these adjustments, I was able to refocus on my health and wellbeing and channel my energy into ensuring our teams could stay connected and healthy during such a quick moment of change.

Arora: It wasn't easy, given we all were in this for the first time. Having said that, keeping our people at the core of all our decisions made it simple to act quickly — we were amongst the first few companies who mandated work-from-home for employees in India. At a global level, we created different avenues for employees to stay connected with each other, increased focus on their wellbeing, and provided them with the necessary resources needed during this difficult time. Personally, for me, I was able to learn from my friends, cousins and [Emily Alvarez] as their countries got impacted from the COVID-19 situation a few weeks before India, which helped me maintain calm while I proactively worked on figuring out basic essentials for home.

 

Within one company, how have you seen different regions come together, and how have you approached nuances given localization?

Phillips: As an organization, we are constantly looking at all aspects of our employees’ lives and the positive impact we can have in helping them navigate this unexpected crisis. I think the one key nuance we’ve had to consider in the UK is the shift to remote working, entirely. Our US employees, historically, have worked remotely and therefore ways of working haven’t had to be completely reinvented. Whereas in the UK, this isn’t the case. We’ve had to not only ensure our employees are fully set up to work remotely, but also how we connect virtually, maintain high levels of collaboration and more than anything, remain connected on an emotional level, as people and colleagues.

Alvarez: We have seen different global regions connect in their own way — from walking, fresh air meetings in London, afternoon tea in Belfast, happy hour and karaoke in New York to planned bingo sessions in Bangalore. On a personal level, Italy has been on a country-wide stay-at-home mandate since March 10. To overcome these extreme quarantine measures, my family and I have creatively adopted online kids yoga sessions, fresh air breaks and preparing wholesome meals (some for the first time) to maintain a spirit of connection and health.

 

Being part of a company that provides tech and solutions for employer brand and talent acquisition, how are you addressing brand and hiring right now?

Arora: Focusing on our people and living our core values every day is something we have always practiced as an organization; this focus on employees and candidates reflects all our actions and decisions. We recently celebrated our employee promotions globally — a testament to our focus on our employees' growth. On the hiring front, we have a few offers out in the market, and we were amongst the first few companies in India to have started exploring the options of virtual onboarding. Our interview process is now all virtual and on video.

Nair: Working with talent acquisition practitioners across industries, we see firsthand what a critical function and responsibility it is to hire the right people to fuel a business. And on top of that, I’ve been so unbelievably proud to see how some of the organizations we work with have responded to this unprecedented crisis. From a business standpoint, it’s not time to think about us. It’s time to think about how we can better support the industries drastically ramping up hiring at no cost, as well as sharing as many stories as possible of the companies expertly addressing this situation with employees, potential talent and customers.

Phillips: In all honesty, at this stage we’ve implemented a temporary recruitment freeze in the UK — for obvious reasons, now isn’t really the time to be hiring. That said, our own employer brand efforts don’t stop just because we’re not hiring right now (and neither should our clients’). More than ever, we want (and need) to be present in the minds of potential candidates and employees. The way we care for our employees, the way we communicate and the expectations we place on them and how they feel will absolutely impact our reputation as an employer and a provider of brand transformation and recruitment marketing technology. Therefore, we’re constantly challenging ourselves to create the best experiences possible, and in turn we encourage our teams to be present and active across social — sharing their experiences and an insight into what it’s like to work at Symphony Talent, not just every day but also in these more challenging times of COVID-19.

 

What strategies, tools, platforms, philosophies, etc. have you leaned on to make sure employees are happy, healthy, and being fully utilized during the shift to remote work?

Phillips: Making sure employees are being fully utilized isn’t a focus right now. Being fully reassured and engaged to get the balance right to look after themselves, our clients and the Symphony Talent brand, is. Now isn’t a time to focus on performance metrics, it’s time for me as a leader (and as a leadership team) to create a secure virtual environment, nurture our overall culture, and help our employees navigate this difficult time. All whilst protecting our business and sustaining the commercial foundations we’ve worked so hard to build.

Alvarez: Online chat community (Slack) has been an amazing resource during our global, company-wide change to working virtually. It’s allowed us to continue genuine and collaborative exchanges. Separately we continue to leverage our conferencing tool (Zoom) that allows for shared experiences like virtual all hands meetings and Wellness Wednesday meetups, right down to virtual happy hours and karaoke — all in an effort to make connections while sharing key business updates and celebrate our teams.

 

If you had to summarize what you’ve learned about your employees — and the world as a whole — down to one word or phrase, what would it be?

Alvarez: Unity. This is the first global crisis I’ve personally experienced, and it's humbling to see the power of unity and togetherness.

Phillips: We’re in the middle of one of the most important moments in history — personally, professionally, nationally and globally. We’re going to come out of this stronger and more connected than ever.

Nair: Humans are resilient. And out of that resilience births creativity, compassion and empathy. I hope this fuels us in 2020 and beyond.