‘It’s kind of like playing poker’: Confessions of a HR exec on managing staffing during a crisis

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As the coronavirus has spread across the U.S., businesses have had to quickly retool how they work: allowing employees to work from home, make meetings virtual and all the while continue to create work for clients. Managing staffers amid the pandemic is unprecedented. To get a sense of what it’s like to make decisions about employees’ well-being as well as take care of the business, Digiday spoke to an HR exec for an ad agency for the latest edition of our confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor. This interview has been edited and condensed.

How has the coronavirus impacted day-to-day operations?
When something like this happens you see people’s true nature. Some people are like, “Nothing to see here. I want to keep coming in.” Others are like, “I’m packing up and going to my mom’s.” You see both ends of the extreme. Both from an HR perspective and a business perspective, you have to make a lot of space for all of those feelings while keeping people working.

Did you have a hard time convincing people to take all of this seriously, encouraging isolation?
I didn’t want to be an alarmist. It’s like being a parent: You don’t want to scare the kids but you also know that this could be serious.
With clients delaying campaigns and cutting ad spending, what do you expect the effects to be?
Yeah, it’s really scary. We do have some bigger clients who are starting to pull back scopes and projects. We’ve had productions put on hold. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like. It’s kind of like playing poker right now. The [staffers] don’t know that yet. Right now, I have three open positions and we’ll have to put those on hold. Teams are going to wonder why and we’ll have to explain that. My biggest priority is preserving the bodies we have. We still have a lot of work.

Do you have plans to go back to the office yet?
We’re supposed to be back in the office on the 30th. Will that happen? It’s not looking like it. That said, if we get over the hump and the wheels start to come back all of our clients will want everything yesterday. But we are looking at a recession and we do have clients who are already recession planning. My biggest fear is layoffs. That would break my heart. I’m just trying to keep everyone calm. Everyone has enough anxiety over this freaking virus. The last thing I want people to worry about on top of that is job insecurity right now.

You manage the agency’s relationships with freelancers. It seems like they would be the first to be cut. 
Actually, we have some freelancers we’re still using. We may end up using some more freelancers so we don’t have to make direct hires. We might do the flip side and lean more on freelancers for the next six months rather than making a hiring and having to lay someone off. We’ll do that until we know what the workload will really be like. It’s been like shifting sands [in recent weeks]. Different buckets that we didn’t think would be busy are starting to get busy.

What’s starting to get busy?
We have a lot of clients wanting to work on projects that they’d shelved because they were fast-tracking bigger projects. So the smaller little projects they want to keep moving and push through.

Have clients tried to delay payment for pausing campaigns?
Not yet.

People are trying to ensure productivity but this isn’t a normal period of people working from home. How are you managing productivity expectations?
We reiterated work from home guidelines before we switched to that. Everyone is really grateful to be salaried workers — they’re seeing the impact this is having on service workers right now — so people want to keep their jobs and are trying to keep the wheels moving. But this all is so grey. It’s not like we’re sales and there are metrics to hit. It’s really just handling the workloads you have.

How do you weather the uncertainty of the business right now?
We just have to be comfortable sitting in that uncertainty right now. We’re cutting unnecessary expenses. We’re looking at everything financially. But it’s not just us. Every single business out there is dealing with the same thing. No one has any answers right now and no one knows what this is going to look like next week, in two weeks or six weeks. Acknowledging that and trying to stay connected, remembering your teammates are out there and checking in on each other. The hardest part is that uncertainty.


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