As CHRO at Verizon, Christy Pambianchi is accustomed to triaging disasters of all sorts; she points to cyber attacks, epidemics like the Ebola virus and the annual occurrence of tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes.
But one skill she developed years ago is currently being tested to the max: her ability to quickly and effectively respond to global emergencies and network disruptions, such as the coronavirus. Pambianchi serves as the liaison between the senior crisis leadership team and the business continuity and event management team at the telecommunications company that employs 135,000 global workers (including 120,000 in the U.S.).
“We have a well-established business continuity and event management set of protocols,” she says, adding that she has more than a decade worth of experience building crisis response infrastructure and protocols. “I oversee what the business continuity and event management team is doing, what we need to pull into the senior team and [ensure] we have the right people involved and right cadence for resolving the issue.”
Coronavirus ranks among the most difficult challenges Pambianchi has faced, forcing her and her HR team to wear multiple hats. Unlike most natural or manmade disasters that are localized, the coronavirus is affecting the entire company at the same time and poses a critical health threat to employees and stakeholders around the world.
At the end of February, the company activated its corporate crisis response level. Since then, Pambianchi has met daily with C-suite executives to ground them in facts and address the unknown—how to prepare for and respond in real time to an event they can’t control. Likewise, she checks in multiple times each day with the company’s operations and business continuity and event management teams to stay on top of new decisions, changes or additional societal restrictions and regulations made by various governments, municipalities and cities around the world.
Under her guidance, employees receive daily news broadcasts about the pandemic and the company’s responses, can email questions to an HR inbox and log onto a webpage that describes the company’s policies and provides coronavirus updates.
Within a 10-day span, she says, the number of remote workers at the company soared from 4,000 to more than 115,000. To add to the chaos, very few, if any, leaders have experience with managing virtual or distributed teams. So, HR is in the midst of developing an entire curriculum about how to effectively lead virtual employees.
Around mid-March, HR created a new caregiver-leave program where employees can apply to receive up to eight weeks at full pay, which then drops to 60% of pay for up to six more months.
Meanwhile, she says, more than 25,000 employees have participated in one-hour webinars Verizon put together on a broad range of timely issues: how to ensure teams have the right tools, distribute work assignments, stay in touch with team members and effectively run virtual meetings. HR has also implemented counseling and support programs for leaders, who can then pass on what they’ve learned to direct reports.
Based on everything she has learned through this work, Pambianchi says, employees are simply afraid.
“We’re talking a lot to our supervisors about being patient with people,” she says, explaining that, besides contracting the virus, many are worried about loved ones becoming sick and not being able to care for them. “We’re teaching our leaders how to run good virtual teams, stay connected to people, lead in an agile way and know that people are pretty stressed out right now.”
Pambianchi is currently experiencing her own brand of stress. While working 12-hour days from home, she oversees the needs of her four children, who are also home-bound and require attention, even the two oldest who attend college. As a self-admitted extrovert, Pambianchi says, staying physically isolated from her peers and learning new ways to be virtually effective is a huge adjustment.
“Just like everybody else, I’m going through this transition,” she says. “It’s like taking your own medicine—[but] that’s good.”
Pambianchi has managed to keep her sanity intact by pausing and self-reflecting, something she recommends to all HR professionals. Ask yourself the following questions: Where are you personally? What are the values of the firm? What’s the mission of the company? What are your values and mission? She says that can help guide you and your leaders in terms of how you think about and respond to this crisis.
If you’re feeling professionally isolated, reach out to HR communities, online or in person, she says. Work together to help deal with the myriad challenges presented by the coronavirus.
“Life happens,” says Pambianchi. “Stay connected to people. Lead in an agile way … when you’re presented with new kinds of forks in the road, it’s always good to let your values and the purpose of your company guide the way. That will help any CHRO.”