Managing a Global Workforce During a Pandemic
The article below is from our BRIEFINGS newsletter of 28 April 2020
Goldman Sachs’ Bentley de Beyer had just started in his position as the firm’s Global Head of Human Capital Management when the coronavirus hit. In a recent conversation with Greg Wilson, Head of Institutional Client Businesses at the firm’s Ayco financial counseling business, de Beyer spoke about his transition to the firm, the future of work and how he communicates with a global workforce during the crisis. What follows is an edited excerpt from their conversation.
Greg Wilson: You’ve had more than 20 years of experience in the human resources industry, most recently at Johnson & Johnson, before joining Goldman Sachs in January. Can you talk about what it was like to join the firm at an unprecedented time.
Bentley de Beyer: I’ve lived and worked in five different countries, which gave me unbelievable exposure to how different markets—notably the Asia Pacific region—handled exogenous shocks. Joining the firm at the start of crisis, meant it was especially important to be as transparent as possible with our people about the health of the business, our clients and the communities we serve. We’re managing through an extremely dynamic environment—which changes on an hour-to-hour basis—where normal integration plans and playbooks are being thrown out.
Right now, we’re very focused on how we can help employees and their families navigate their unique circumstances and pressing personal demands. In some cases, it’s meant adjusting long-standing policies and practices, such as advancing 10 family care leave days, or recalibrating our learning and developing programs and offering wellness and resiliency programs to help our people stay physically and mentally robust. We learned a lot from our colleagues in Asia Pacific, who shared best practices on split teams, family accommodations and creating response plans.
Greg Wilson: How did your team adapt its approach to working and communicating with employees as the virus evolved from a regional issue to a global pandemic, and any lessons learned?
Bentley de Beyer: We sharply increased the intensity and frequency of our communications and, early on, made adjustments that may have been unpopular at the time but proved to be appropriate when the seriousness and intensity of the outbreak became more obvious.
Probably one of my biggest "Aha" moments was that for a large majority of our workforce this was their first large-scale crisis. Many haven’t lived through a financial crisis or they had just entered the workforce. It was an important learning that there was a high level of anxiety among our population. So we really had to meet that head on and focus on our wellness response in a much more substantive way.
Our CEO David Solomon and our management committee have been connecting with people in real time and in a highly authentic and accessible way. We’re really trying to share weekly insights from our leaders and a lot of storytelling. For example, each week David holds either a virtual meeting with the firm’s 400 partners or a virtual townhall open to everyone at the firm. Something I’ve learned from people at other great companies is that storytelling is incredibly powerful. We’ve shared a lot of the stories of how folks have gone the extra mile, people we’ve supported temporarily stepping out of their day jobs because they have a healthcare background to go work at hospitals on full pay from us. There are hundreds of examples of these things around the world that we’ve seen. We’re sharing them and it has built a strong spirit of togetherness and community amidst the challenges, particularly with 98% of our workforce working from home. From my perspective, that amplifies the need for connectivity, for elevating digital platforms, for looking at ways we can stay connected and create a sense of unity among our employees that we are all in this together.
Greg Wilson: Do you think the way we work will culturally evolve in the times ahead? Take, for example, work from home as a general practice versus a business continuity practice. Do you see less travel for meetings or more video conferencing?
Bentley de Beyer: I think the future of work is now. This is the largest global experiment on the future of work that I can ever imagine. Certainly not the way that any of us would have liked it to occur, but we can certainly learn a lot about flexible work, the capacity for folks to work in different locations, and be highly productive. I also think old adages such as, “If you’re not sitting next to me, you can’t be productive,” or a lower level of trust with people working remotely, are being blown away based on how well large corporations around the world are finding their way through this. It’s going to be a fascinating time to be an HR practitioner over the next few years. I also think that instead of being a competitive advantage, flexible work will ultimately just be a base expectation for talent. The need for connectivity is still very high, whether that’s virtual or physical connectivity.
Greg Wilson: As you think of balancing the need for business and the need for being human, any advice that you’d provide to client-facing teams?
Bentley de Beyer: The words—“How are you doing?”—are probably some of the best words to string together in a sentence on every phone call. It sounds so simple, yet we’ve all been working at an intensive rate for many years that I think there’s this 15-second pause that is very powerful right now. It’s amazing how people will reach out and connect on that basis, even before what you need to do together or what particular issue you need to solve for. The power of just asking goes a very long way. It’s a moment of connection and caring.