johnny taylor management ncsl base camp

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO SHRM, talks with NCSL's Natalie Wood about the difficulty of managing employees during unprecedented times at NCSL Base Camp 2020.

NCSL Base Camp 2020: Advice for Managing in Challenging Times

By Lesley Kennedy | Sept. 16, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Much is being said about the unprecedented time we’re living in. COVID-19, ongoing racial unrest, wildfires in the West, an emotionally charged election season. And all of this is, Johnny C. Taylor Jr. reminds us, the backdrop for work.

“We’ve spent the last six months or so really responding to a rapidly—and rapidly is an understatement—changing workplace,” Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said during a session on managing in challenging times during the NCSL Base Camp 2020 online meeting. “… All of us are looking to an uncertain future, we’re wondering how to best serve our organizations going forward and the reality is we don’t know what forward looks like.”

Between lost jobs, furloughs and pay cuts, Taylor says the economic impact on workers due to the pandemic has been “brutal.” And, he adds, it hasn’t been easy for employers, either, noting:

  • 71% of employers are struggling to adjust to remote work.
  • 65% of employers say maintaining employee morale has been a challenge.
  • More than one-third of employers are facing difficulties with company culture.
  • Employee productivity, after an initial surge, has dropped.
  • Leave regulations, and who will pay for them, is often unknown.

However, Taylor says there are long-term transformations we can prepare for now:

Remote work will continue to persist. About 31% of employees globally say they’re more productive at home, while two-thirds say they are only as productive or less productive working remotely.

Every company culture is different. Resist jumping on the bandwagon to imitate other business practices when it comes to remote, in-person or hybrid models. Some organizations are better fueled by face-to-face contact, while others may operate smoothly without it.

Flexibility and leave will carry significantly more weight for employees. Flexibility is about what’s good for the employee from a very individualized perspective. Good policies will help keep you operating during disruptions such as the coronavirus.

It is more important than ever to attract and keep talent. “The way we look at talent is changing—acquiring it, retaining it and developing it,” Taylor says. The good news is the trend toward remote work will help people find talent easier—and globally. “The reality is now we can tap workers wherever they are in the world. … The bad news from the employer’s perspective is your superstars have a lot more opportunity to jump ship, so you have got to double down on your retention efforts.”

Training and developing talent have transformed. “Virtual learning will change the landscape,” according to Taylor, and employees must be able to learn quickly and as needed. Consider: Five to 10 years from now, 60% to 70% of the jobs we currently have won’t exist. “We have to focus on upskilling and reskilling our people.”

There’s a heightened responsibility for the health of the workforce. And not just physical health, but mental and emotional health, as well. Physical health includes new rules about social distancing, personal protective equipment and disciplinary policies for those who risk the health of others. Mental health is equally important. “What we know from our research is nearly 1 in 4 employees report feeling down, depressed or hopeless, and not just periodically, often,” he says. “Employers will be the primary solution providers. … We need to be proactive and identify people who are struggling.”

There’s a renewed investment in people managers. We often promote people into jobs as people managers when they are not properly equipped. “During these periods of heightened stress, it’s natural to forget the impact leaders and managers have on people’s lives and their attitudes,” Taylor says, adding that now is the time for managers to be “extra.” “Our employees need us. They are trapped, in many instances, at home and they don’t have the opportunity to step away and interact with other people and it’s tough.” And remember, most people don’t leave employers, but rather, they leave their managers. “So if we don’t get this people manager thing right, you’re just going to be churning your best talent.”

Racism is still a significant problem in our workplaces. SHRM research has found 35% of Black employees say discrimination based on race or ethnicity exists in their workplaces, while 14% of all workers agreed. When the group asked if workers feel disrespected and unvalued in the workplace, about 20% of all workers and white workers replied yes, while 33% of Black workers said yes. “Do you have the courage to engage your leaders and co-workers in conversations about bias and racism in the workplace?” he asks.

But, really no one knows what the new normal will evolve to be, Taylor says.

“We know we won’t hug and shake hands so much. … But otherwise, the future of work is a jump ball,” he says. “The challenges ahead are great. But I have a deep faith in our country’s resiliency and the ability of our leaders in state government and in business to navigate us through. But these are very serious times. Together, we will see the other side of this and our workplaces will be stronger and they’ll be better for it.

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publications and digital content.

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