As more offices close and workers are asked not to come to work because of physical distancing and quarantine measures, talk of “essential” and “non-essential” employees has become more common. The use of these terms to distinguish between employees that are continuously required to be physically present to perform their job functions and those who do not need to be present is unfortunate.
Birches Group contends that each organization is a community, and all staff – regardless of their level in the hierarchy or their function – who are part of this community work to realize the organization’s mission. Designating some staff as “non-essential” is to admit that only some staff really work towards the mission, when in fact, all staff are essential.
The experience of COVID-19 has shown us how critical workers are, even at the lowest levels of organizational hierarchies. Cleaners work to disinfect office premises and handle potentially hazardous waste. Messengers and delivery drivers ensure that supplies and equipment can be moved to where they are needed. Ride sharing drivers allow key medical personnel to avoid increasingly risky public transit. The list goes on.
Devaluing the work of clerical and transactional staff can be a critical misstep: the work they do still has to be done, and if they do not do it, somebody else has to (you, perhaps?). This creates an upward spiral of inefficiency and ineffectiveness as staff in the higher levels struggle with work that they were not trained to do or have not done in ages or simply overwhelmed by the distraction of multiplying tasks. The bottom line is that the organization ends up overpaying for what are essentially underperforming staff.
So, let us be clear – while businesses and organizations can be designated essential or non-essential during a crisis, the people who work for a business are all essential.
Unfortunately, some organizations designate only “core” business staff as essential. Again, we think this misses the point. Even in the context of a hospital where medical personnel – nurses, doctors, EMTs – form the core workforce and are expected to come to work amidst disasters and epidemics, functions such as Human Resources, IT, or Finance still deliver essential services. Doctors still have to get paid, access to medical records and other digitized information still needs to be maintained, and medical supplies still need to be purchased and paid for. With increasingly online systems and cloud computing, we would argue that all staff in these business support functions can continue to contribute to the work of the organization. It is often just a matter of preparation, good job and team design, and a change in mindset to effectively support virtual work. The only limit to deploying the whole workforce – again even in emergency situations – is infrastructure and creativity.
Others would argue that when organizations are confronted by declining business activity and slowing inflows of revenue, the sensible course of action is towards fiscal conservatism and austerity – and this unfortunately means cutting non-essential personnel whether by level or by function. Birches Group would counter that this is a failure of imagination. Aside from reductions to non-essential expenditure (e.g. forgoing travel in lieu of virtual meetings) there are also many ways to reduce overhead without cutting staff. Managers and leaders so often refer to their organizations as communities and families. In this community-family context, is it unreasonable to expect managers and executives to take pay cuts or forgo bonuses? In more extreme circumstances, is it difficult to imagine all workers agreeing to temporarily take less money (e.g. 10% or 20% less salary) so that everyone in the organization can continue to have a job for the duration? As organizational capacity is kept intact, the organization can continue to work at full capacity and mitigate declining revenues by having all hands-on deck.
In Birches Group, we have shifted all our staff to virtual work and equipped everyone to be effective as we are all asked to shelter in place. We have not made any cuts to staff pay or headcount, at most we have slowed hiring but continue to recruit and onboard new staff. Instead, we reiterate through constant communication efforts that all our staff contribute to getting Birches Group out of this crisis – that all are essential. This has kept up both morale and productivity, and our staff continue to collaborate across all functions and carry on with productive work.
This is not simply a short-term tactic; it is a sound investment in the future. Staff see that Birches Group values everyone’s work and will try, as best as we can, to keep everyone whole. Paying it forward, it is of little doubt that staff will opt to take temporary pay cuts to sustain all of everyone’s jobs. This cohesion is what we are investing in – that when we emerge from these unfortunate days, we will do so together.
We, managers, and Human Resources professionals, must reiterate that all jobs, all staff are essential. Especially in these most critical and dangerous times – and not only in hospitals or other frontline businesses and organizations – even as staff crave job security, they, more essentially, want to know that what they do is contributing to the organization’s sustained success. Our job is not only to find solutions to keep our organizations working but to affirm to each staff member: You matter.
PJ has been working with Birches Group since 2006. He currently leads Birches Group’s Manila-based Design & Strategy team which is responsible for developing Birches Group’s Community™ integrated HR platform, delivering consulting projects, conducting client training workshops/events, and developing strategic communications and marketing initiatives. PJ goes where the work and clients are, and to date, he has traveled to 33 countries for Birches Group.