Back in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy demolished the Eastern seaboard, Sheri Bronstein, who headed global HR for global banking and markets at Bank of America, was trying to enter one of the bank’s offices in New Jersey to take advantage of its electricity since the storm had knocked out the power throughout her neighborhood.
But Bronstein says she left her bank ID at home, hadn’t showered for days and her clothes “were one step up from pajamas.” The financial adviser who spotted her trying to enter the building called security. It took some coaxing, but she finally convinced the guard that she was a senior member of the bank’s HR team.
Bronstein, who now serves as the bank’s CHRO, still laughs when she tells that story. But lately, she has been dealing with a different type of storm, namely COVID-19. While HR supports nearly 210,000 global employees (about 185,000 now work from home) in 30 different countries, she’s proud that the bank hasn’t laid off any workers and shares with HRE why her job, especially right now, is anything but boring.
HRE: What activities were you involved with before the pandemic?
Bronstein: Back in November, we had published our first-ever human capital management report. It focused on four main themes about why we were a great place to work. One was around recognizing and rewarding performance and how we manage [employee] performance. We did that as a way to bring together all aspects of how we support our employees and so people could see all our HR practices that make this a great place to work. I also went with the management team to the World Economic Forum in Davos [Switzerland].
HRE: Since then, how has COVID-19 changed how you manage employees?
Bronstein: We needed to work with our partners in business continuity and move from 100% of employees in the office to almost 90% working from home. We redeployed 10,000 people across the company within six weeks. We deliver lunch every day to frontline workers and give eligible teammates full pay, even if their hours are reduced, and special supplemental pay of $200 every two weeks. Those going into the office and working overtime receive double the hourly base pay rate for overtime worked. We increased our childcare or elder care benefits by reimbursing employees $100 a day to hire teachers or neighbors [as caregivers].
HRE: How are you handling the emotional consequences of COVID-19?
Bronstein: Over the last decade, we built a team Life Event Services. It’s a specialized group of people who case manage and support our employees in moments that matter. Team members are very empathetic, caring and deliver all resources of the bank to employees during difficult times. We took people who were not as busy in other parts of HR like talent acquisition and moved them to that team to support the healthcare crisis we’re dealing with. There’s about 80 in this group in normal times. Now we have almost 300.
HRE: What difficulties have you personally encountered?
Bronstein: The pace at which we needed to enhance our HR practices was quite unprecedented. The other challenge was I’m not a medical doctor. I needed to understand the core of this medical crisis. Even though we had done pandemic planning, there was a steep learning curve around the virus itself, what’s real and what’s not. I spent a lot of time talking to incredible doctors. The management team had to make judgements on which HR practices should be pushed through. We needed to get deep into that science.
HRE: How is the pandemic changing HR’s focus?
Bronstein: The most important thing now is being able to reskill people to do multiple jobs. We learned to challenge ourselves regarding accelerating our ability to deliver more virtual learning. We didn’t think we could do that and learned very quickly we could. I know everyone is fascinated with where people are working. But we’ve done a ton of work on career pathing and reskilling and it has served us really well.
Mental health and emotional wellness will continue to be a focus. We don’t know what the COVID implications will be. We may see different geographic patterns or less people in cities. It could be two to three years before we really are truly on the other side.
HRE: In the meantime, how are you keeping your sanity?
Bronstein: There’s going to be a lot of opportunities and challenges that come out of this. For me, it’s about growing, developing and learning new skills. I have already learned a lot in the last six weeks and will continue to apply this learning as we start to go through the different phases of this crisis. I also like to have a sense of humor during the chaos, to smile and have a good laugh. At the end of each day, I watch a TV comedy show with my 14-year-old daughter. Otherwise, it makes for a stressful life.