Today, companies are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in real time. The strategies and approaches leaders rely on during other times of uncertainty don’t apply to a rapidly expanding public health crisis and resulting economic fallout, so many are reaching for new toolkits and resources to navigate through the crisis. 

The immediate focus has been on employees’ safety and wellbeing, client service continuation, and online operations; now, many are shifting their focus to the later phases of crisis—recover and reshape. Experts know what we’re going through isn’t temporary; the world has changed and we need to be prepared for the challenges to come.

Lisa Stevens, Chief People Officer at Aon, recently shared her perspective on the shape of recovery and new ways of working.

Q: In your perspective as Chief People Officer, what do leaders need to focus on to help their companies navigate the crisis and build resilience?

8Emotional intelligence is critical. Leaders need to have insight, be authentic and curious, and continue to ask questions. When we have meetings, we are checking in with people to really understand how they’re doing. Listening, and understanding everyone’s journey—which are all a little different—is important. Through that communication, we can get a better sense of peoples’ mindsets and perspectives, and how we can help them as we make our way through disruption. It requires a lot of empathy.

As leaders, we want to solve everything. Right now, there’s a lot we can’t solve, so instead we have to rely on those skills to lead our people.

Q: What was it like transitioning Aon to a virtual workplace?

Our virtual capabilities were in a good place, so we were able to make that transition quickly, and people adapted to new ways of communicating and connecting. Our team did a great job. 

But the transition came with new challenges, including people ending up working long days. We needed to make sure people had protected time. We put more sick time in place, as well as more opportunities to help with childcare and other resources. We launched an app called Well One for all 50,000 colleagues. It’s designed to help with physical, emotional, social and financial health and includes health scores, virtual coaching and educational resources, such as mental wellness seminars. We had 3,000 colleagues sign up for a recent mental wellness seminar. 

We didn’t miss a beat in terms of interacting with clients. Teamwork has been really critical as we rally around clients’ needs, which are constantly changing and evolving. We are evolving alongside them. 

Some things have been difficult, but we’ve also seen some incredible resolve and collaboration from our people. So we like to think, can this be the “new better” for us? How do you make sure we go into this and find the good coming out of that?

Q: How are you approaching reentry and what work looks like in these later phases of the crisis?

This is where “the new better” comes in. We’ve realized we’re very good at working virtually and maintaining connections with people, and while we still need human interaction, we’re finding new efficiencies that help us work for our clients. As far as reopening, we’re reviewing the latest guidance by local health and government agencies and the current trends of new COVID-19 cases, keeping employee health and safety at the forefront. It’s important to make clear to our colleagues they can return when they’re comfortable and ready. We’re using pulse surveys to make sure their voices are heard. It’s not just returning to the office—their concerns include transit and childcare, among others.  

There’s a geographical element to this, and the crisis isn’t strictly linear. In some places, we have a couple offices open, and one that has opened and closed; we’re watching these cycles closely. 

We have an opportunity to reimagine the office and break down the traditional mindset, thinking through where we’re most efficient and effective. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and the safety of our colleagues and their families is paramount.

Q: How are you envisioning the office now?

We may have flexible schedules, or expect that in a given office, we will limit the number of colleagues who come back initially. Going to clients and interacting in their offices is a big part of our work, so that will change too depending on their protocols. The reality is there is so much we can do virtually, and the pandemic accelerated that. 

Aon United is really about one firm working for our clients and helping them to be successful. You’re either serving clients or you’re serving colleagues who serve clients. So we have to adapt and be flexible, find ways to be effective, and put choices in front of colleagues to make sure everyone is comfortable.

Q: What does the thriving workforce of the future look like to you?

Leaders will have to be more authentic and real, since we can’t completely separate our personal and professional lives. It doesn’t mean disclosing everything, but leading with empathy. 

As we think about the social justice issues our society has been confronting more recently, we all have an opportunity to just listen—listen to each other, better understand each other, and become better together.

Team building will be huge. In this environment, the ability to collaborate with others will become more critical than ever. When we think about building high-performing teams, that skill is important to me—how people develop teams that work well together and how they build teams around their goals. Setting goals in “the new better” will require a new way of thinking. 

As we plan for our own major integration in our own organization, we’re adapting to this new reality and doing a lot more virtually. This experience is helping us provide new perspectives and problem-solving approaches for our clients. We’re getting more creative, rethinking how we do things. A lot can come out of this that will be extremely powerful, as long as we stay flexible and creative.

Lisa Stevens, Chief People Officer at Aon