Allison 00:00:01 I think what we have learned is the necessity of preparedness. And when you don't face a certain type of emergency disaster, a pandemic in quite some time, it's easy to relax a little bit and not think about it so much, not revisit the plans that you have put in place in the past. And so that is critical. And also I will have a long with being prepared, being flexible, because change is a big part of the response.
Michelle 00:00:47 Welcome to The Edge, a Skillsoft podcast for learners and leaders alike. In every episode, we engage in candid thought provoking conversations on the topic of learning and growth in the workplace. Now, on today's episode, we are going to be discussing something that has been top of mind for so many organizations, as they begin to think about life and work in a post pandemic world, and specifically how to safely return and reward employees back into the physical workplace. As data from the United States census shows before the pandemic, only 6% of people worked primarily from home and almost three quarters had never worked from home. But as we know, in 2020, this changed dramatically for companies and their employees. At the beginning of the pandemic, many organizations around the world were forced to adopt remote work models as they close their doors to physical workspaces and made the move to operating in a completely virtual environment earlier this year, research by Stanford showed us that in the United States alone and incredible 42% of the labor force was now working from home or remote full time.
Michelle 00:02:05 And while remote work has become commonplace for many employees these past 18 months, it has not been the case for all. What about those organizations that rely on people in physical workspaces to keep their operations up and running manufacturing, healthcare hospitality, or those industries that were deemed essential services during the pandemic food and agriculture transportation, residential facilities, water, and waste management for these industries and organizations. It meant stepping right into action to devise a plan that would allow them to continue to provide the critical services needed while at the same time ensuring the health and safety of their employees. And now, as we all contemplate a world post COVID organizations that went remote have started to think about the return to workplace roadmap. One that ensures work spaces and processes make employees feel safe upon their return. And we know that there are so many lessons that can be gleaned from those businesses that have already successfully done.
Michelle 00:03:17 So, and for our guests today, this has been very much the case Suez north America is a leader in water service management with nearly 3000 employees dedicated to providing safe, reliable, and environmentally sound water services to more than seven and a half million people across the United States and Canada treating millions of gallons of water and wastewater each day for industrial and municipal sites. Suez north America was identified as an essential service at the beginning of the pandemic. And so for the vast majority of their workforce, they remained in person as other organizations went entirely remote. So how did Suez north America maintain the necessary protocols and ensure the safety of their employees while still making certain they could keep their business up and running Martin Falkenberg chief human resources officer for Suez north America, while he's here to tell us just how Martin welcome and thank you for joining me on the edge.
Martin 00:04:21 Hi Michelle. It's such a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Michelle 00:04:25 First and foremost, to you and your entire team at Suez. Thank you. Thank you for being essential for providing clean drinking water and waste management to the millions of people you serve each day and for continuing to do so in the midst of a global pandemic, you know, to kick things off, I'd love for you to share a little bit more about Suez north America. I could never have done you justice, the work you do. Tell, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself, your role and your company.
Martin 00:04:54 So as north America, which is part of a global environmental services company, we operate on five different continents. We have over 80,000 employees. We've been in business for over 150 years. And the heart of what we do is to make sure that we're providing sustainable solutions to protect the environment and to provide essential services to customers in north America. The main areas that we operate in are water waste, water, and solid waste. So what we typically do is we contract with municipalities to either manage and operate and maintain their public water supply systems or their, whether it be the drinking water or their wastewater systems. We also manage a solid waste, particularly hazardous waste and recycling. And we also contract with private companies as well to manage their industrial companies, to manage their water at both in and out of their manufacturing processes. So it's definitely a service that is essential to the communities that we work in and the customers that we deal with. And we're very proud to be providing that service. I am the head of human resources for the north American business. So I support about 3000 employees and my team. The one thing about my team is we really support sort of from the back, the people that interact with customers and that actually make the water safe and clean. So our motto is that we take care of the people that take care of the business.
Michelle 00:06:23 I love that. I absolutely love that. And talk about being essential, not only to your own workforce, but to the millions of people who rely on you every day. Now, you know, today, we're talking about this notion of return to workplace, which is probably enough, but to you, you've been already in the workplace, but I think you have a lot to share with our audience. This is a topic that organizations around the globe have been grappling with as they consider when how, and, and frankly, even if they're going to return employees to physical workspaces, you've been forced to face this challenge head on since the beginning. So let's go back a little bit to the spring of 2020. I want to start there. You know, I acutely remember that Friday in March when we sent everyone home for good. And it feels like it was so long ago. But talk to me about that moment that you realized the pandemic was going to change the way we work and perhaps the way that you work well, what was your initial response and what actions did you have to take? It
Martin 00:07:29 Seems like so long ago, but it wasn't really, and I remember it was actually the same day, but a week prior to that, we actually had a very large management meeting scheduled. And I remember the day before the meeting, we had a huddle because we started to see the trends coming. And we had a huddle with the executive committee and we made it very difficult, but looking back the right decision, which was to cancel the meeting and we had people already in route almost, and we had everything prepared, but we knew it was the right thing to do because of the priority that we place on health and safety of our employees. And that's really what started it. So from there, then we started to say, okay, how do we prepare for this? And we put together our teams, we had good cross functional collaboration.
Martin 00:08:11 We put together some protocols. We we've tried to figure out what's the, uh, what are the things that we need to do. And it really, um, stemmed from the fact that our number one priority from the beginning and always, really has been, is the health and safety of our employees. And so that really made it easy for us to prioritize what we should do and how we should do it, because that was the first thing, the second priority, which we really needed to balance as well was how can we continue to provide the essential services to the customers and communities that rely on us, particularly during times like this,
Michelle 00:08:42 It makes perfect sense, but I imagine as well that there is a lot of complexity behind developing and implementing a plan that takes these things into where you are looking out for the health and safety of your employees, where you are looking and successfully continuing service. Even in the midst of this pandemic, when so much was shut down.
Martin 00:09:08 And for us shutting down was not an option. We're considered an essential service and we needed to continue to operate. And the majority 75 to 80% of our employees do not work in an office. They work out in a treatment plant or some other facility. We have over a hundred different sites, each one being a little bit different that we had to look at and say, okay, what are the standards that we have to put in place that allow us to protect our employees, but also allow them to continue working so that we can provide the service that we need. So we have a very strong health and safety team they're used to having pretty robust protocols in place. So that gave us a headstart, but it absolutely was a bit of work to put together the level of detail that we needed to consider the different businesses that we have, the different types of work that we do, the different employees and locations.
Martin 00:09:54 And what we ended up doing is we came up with a set of what we call threat levels, which is actually very similar to what the CDC center for disease control is using now, which would tell us what level of risk we were facing from the COVID statistics in the communities where we operate. And so we set those up with specific steps and precautions that we would take, which varied for each level. And then once we had those in place, which took us a few weeks to get in place and we continue to adapt them as we went, but it allowed us to escalate and deescalate as the trends, um, very throughout the last year.
Michelle 00:10:33 And that's remarkable when you think about the level of detail and the depth to which you had to think about and evaluate the protocols that you put in place. I got to ask this question, because right now we are acutely aware that COVID-19 has and continues to evolve. As we see more variants emerge, I have to ask, how do you deal with the shifting nature of a virus staying on top of new guidance and recommendations? I'm, I'm curious to hear how you've dealt with so much change. Having been at the fore front of implementing all of these protocols, having the threat
Martin 00:11:12 Levels has helped because it gives us a framework to operate in. But even within that, we've found that we've had to adapt those over time. And we've had to consider unique situations that that require us to even adapt or, or deviate slightly from those based on specific situations. But it helps when you have clear priorities, which again is health and safety of our employees and continuing to operate to provide the services. We also made sure that we had good cross-functional communication. We actually set up a task force that was made up of people from different parts of the business that we would meet regularly to assess where we were to look at different internal and external information to provide guidance, the teams that we're putting together, these policies and protocols at the operational level, we were having much more frequent operational meetings, where we would talk about exactly what was happening, what the risks levels were, what we had to do to adapt.
Martin 00:12:07 So we really adjusted our day-to-day operating procedures in that way. The other thing we did a lot was for broadly for our employees, we communicated a lot. Our CEO for north America put a video together every week to give people an update. We had written communications that went out. We had the team meetings, as I mentioned before, we did pulse surveys on a regular basis to get input from employees, to understand where their concerns were. And then we also tapped into global experts that we had internally in the company, and also externally to understand what other companies were doing, what the best practices were. Right. And we always based our, our decisions on science, on the best medical and, uh, safety science that we could get. It wasn't about emotion. It wasn't about opinions. It was about data and facts.
Michelle 00:12:57 I have to imagine that this meant a great deal to your employees, knowing that you prioritize their health and safety, knowing that you were very communicative with them, knowing that you were in fact, basing this on the science and also adapting and being agile to the needs of your employees, as things changed and shifted. What's the feedback. Then the feedback
Martin 00:13:22 Been generally very positive, particularly the, for the first six or so months where people were still adjusting to what happened. Um, and they were very appreciative of the communications that we provided. They were very appreciative of some of the flexibility that we put in place, giving them access to resources, not just in how to do their jobs, but how to adapt to the stress, how to adapt to the isolation, how to help deal with personal challenges like kids at home that couldn't go to school or other things like that we tried to, to anticipate and to provide a variety of different resources for them, as well as helping them be flexible. Even with that though, I mean, we had people that really struggled. It was a very difficult situation. We've done our best to support them as we can, and we're still doing it today.
Michelle 00:14:08 In addition to my conversation with Martin, I also had the opportunity to speak to an expert on the topic of employee health and safety here at Skillsoft
Allison 00:14:18 Returned to work post pandemic will vary for organizations who went fully remote, as opposed to those who remained open throughout the pandemic. You might have a building manager or maintenance personnel, but need to check the building. You may go through a cleaning and disinfection or sanitation process to ensure surfaces are clean and even changing the physical layout of maybe manufacturing lines, office spaces, conference rooms, and break. A determination will need to be made regarding a fall. Employees will return, or if it's just some groups you'll need to ensure that new trainings given retraining is up to date, check training records, check training, matrices, see if any additional courses need to be added, or if courses need to be removed. And it really goes beyond just, okay, we're going to resume operations. There is quite a bit more involved. And with COVID-19 still being a concern, it's going to allow us for minimizing and controlling new safety and health risk in the workplace.
Michelle 00:15:33 This is Alison Von. Glenigan a product manager of environmental health and safety at Skillsoft
Allison 00:15:40 And putting together a reboarding plan. There are certain considerations and also steps that organizations need to put in place. One of the most important pieces is getting the right people on the team, the group that is going to be developing that plan. I would recommend a cross functional team. So you touch on operations and maintenance, human resources, and other departments and divisions in your organization and ensure that you include both managers, supervisors, and employees. So it cuts through all of the organization. Communication is key, and I want to even add communication and community because a lot of people have been isolated and it fell postulated during the pandemic. And over-communicating is going to be a wonderful way to allay fears, to return to the workplace. And it's a great way to make sure that employees know these are some new policies that we have. There's going to be a change in our procedures, and you may have some additional training requirements.
Allison 00:16:57 Another piece that's important is completing a hazard analysis to identify what risk there are and what controls that you can put in place. And some of this may change as these waves of the pandemic spread, where you have less hazards, less controls, and then ramp back up when the COVID cases rise. If your organization does not have a safety committee, I would highly recommend creating one. There's so much you can do with your safety committee and you can set up a recurrent meeting maybe for a monthly basis, but then as needed, maybe you need to meet every two weeks or once a week during a critical time period. And that will help all levels of the organization to make change on the fly. And the great thing about a safety committee is that it's a tool that can be used even after the pandemic. A high functioning safety committee can provide immediate benefits and benefits even into the future.
Allison 00:18:05 And the last piece I would include is health and safety training. And this ties in well with the communication in that employees may need new training because they're facing new risk. They may need retraining and maybe it's scheduled, it's a OSHA training it's required by law, or they just need refresher training. But because they have been out of that office space and out of performing their job responsibilities in that space for some time and with employment being what it is, where there, it seems to be, uh, shifts and a lot of open positions. Currently, you may do some cross training so that individuals know how not to do just one job role, but maybe two or three, and they can feel in as needed.
Michelle 00:19:09 I want to build on this because as we think about returning to physical workspaces, while the protocols and the procedures look, they are of utmost importance to ensuring employee health and safety. But you raised a good point. This is about the impact on employees themselves and not just in their professional lives, but we have to really recognize the personal toll that this pandemic has wrought. Right? And it adds another dimension as we think about how we support our employees. So can you talk a little bit more about how you've helped them navigate the pandemic? So far?
Martin 00:19:44 I'll add is, you know, we're talking about the pandemic, but last year there was more than just the pandemic that affected people. We had some very serious social racial issues that people had to deal with. There was the economic fallout from some of the pandemics. So you had, no, we didn't have as much impact on our employees in terms of their jobs, but their families may have, or their friends. And so they were facing other pressures besides just the pandemic, which by itself would have been more than most people can handle. So, so we try to understand all of that, the best that we could. And really it came down to providing a couple of things, one providing people opportunities to express themselves and to share kind of how they're feeling and to find support from each other. We did that through some focus groups, we set up community groups where we identified things that had nothing to do with work, that people might have common interest in so that they could get together and communicate with each other.
Martin 00:20:39 So things like we had a group on gardening, we had a group on watching Netflix. We had a group on what to do with children that nothing to do at all. We had a group on cooking and there were just very informal opportunities for people to get together and kind of let loose and have something light to spend time and discuss. We built in flexibility around our benefits so that people had better and easier access to some of the things that they needed. We added actually some resources related to child and elder care that they could have access to. We reinforced the availability of our employee assistance program. We brought in outside experts and we had a number of webinars around how to handle stress, dealing with mindfulness, how to manage in a remote environment. Then as well, ongoing communication within our teams, with managers in their teams just to stay connected. And that's one of the things that we realized is you really have to make a conscious effort to connect with people when they're not in your physically next to you at all day long.
Michelle 00:21:41 These are all great points. It's interesting that you talk about all of the other things that were happening last year. I talk often about these three seismic shifts, right? So we were in the midst of a global health crisis, social unrest, as well as economic uncertainty. And that does cause a lot of anxiety and stress. And I think that a lot of the things that you identified as ways in which we can help people and be there for them outside of just the professional work-related activities, it's huge. We did the same thing. We've got this idea of share your skills and those skills may have absolutely nothing to do with work. I think we're hearing too that across the board, flexibility, communication appealing to people and helping people where they are in the moment and recognizing that not everybody's going to be in the same place. These are really important components that go beyond just, I think the traditional role that we've played in the past, but it's a balancing act, right? Companies have to find the right balance between meeting the needs of people and the needs of the business, right?
Martin 00:22:50 Yes, absolutely. I mean our culture because so many of our employees normally work together physically, and it's not something that we can just stop doing on a moment's notice we have a culture that really relies on in-person collaboration and interaction, and that's something that we really, really want to preserve. So as much as we've been as flexible as we can be through this last year and a half, we also clearly sending the message and trying to reinforce that look, we want people to be together when they can, and then in a safest manner as possible, because that's really important part of our culture and some employees, it's interesting. Some employees, their, their natural makeup is they work fine alone. Others. They absolutely have to have that physical interaction. So we're trying to find the middle ground that works for everybody. And it's not that easy to do where some companies might be able to just shut down their office and have everybody work from home.
Martin 00:23:43 We can't do that. So we had to make significant physical and other adjustments to the work environment to allow people to work safely and to feel comfortable. And then of course, look, we run a business. So we have to make sure that financially and economically we can stay viable. We consciously made that the third of the three priorities with employee safety and then customer service being the first two. And we really believe that by focusing on the first two, the third sort of takes care of itself. One of the things when we were going through the earlier stages and thinking about what should we do, and what's the impact. What we kind of said was, look, go fast forward a year, year and a half. And then think about how you'll think about this decision at that time. And that really helped us with perspective so that we weren't making kind of short term knee-jerk kind of decisions. But we were thinking about what's the long-term impact that we want to have. What's the message that we want to make sure that our employees remember when this is all over about how we manage that.
Michelle 00:24:40 One of the things that I'm hearing from you is that you've done a really good job of listening to your employee needs. And look, you may not be able to meet everyone's requirements or address everyone's concerns, but this notion of listening and responding of communicating frequently, especially when you're dealing with critical topics that impact people. That's incredible. And I think the first step in learning is listening is communicating, is helping seek to understand first and, and look, that's the premise of this podcast. And so we invite customers like you to share your stories, and then we listen so that our audiences can learn from your experiences. There's truly so much to learn from the, the plans, the protocols, but more importantly, the emphasis you've placed on safety on your customers. And so to continue on this theme of listening, communicating, and learning, I do have one final question for you. Something that I have asked each and every one of our guests, since we started the edge a year ago in the midst of this pandemic. And although we've updated it to reflect changing times, it really is one of my favorite three part questions. Number one, what have you learned about yourself throughout the pandemic? Number two, how are you applying what you've learned in the flow of work and life, and then number three, looking ahead, what advice might you share with others based on what you've personally been doing?
Martin 00:26:23 One thing I learned is that I actually like working remotely, which I w I've always been a supporter of flexible work arrangements, but for me personally, I've never really taken advantage of that or thought that it was productive for me, but I found that I can be quite productive that way more broadly, and maybe more significantly the importance of consciously connecting with people, because during this time it didn't just happen. You had to make it happen. And so the importance of remembering to do that and the impact that that can have if you do it, or if you don't do it is something that I learned. And then the other piece is around understanding truly what diversity means. And I say that because it's as part of a human resources leader, that's one of the things that I focus on. But in this context, the vast differences of how people were responding or being impacted by all of these things that were happening over the last year and how they responded and felt and reacted was really eyeopening for me because you can't assume how people are going to react or think about certain things in terms of applying what I've learned.
Martin 00:27:24 So one of the things that I'm doing is I'm trying to make sure that I make those conscious connections of the things that I started doing was for my team, this little blog, I've made a point to reach out to people individually, to check in and make sure both at work and not at work. I've always considered myself a pretty good listener, but it really is so important when you're making decisions that impact people like this during crisis situations that you really try to understand where people are coming from in terms of advice, just be appreciative. And open-minded for the differences that people have. And sometimes there's an initial reaction that you say that doesn't make any sense. It's not logical. It's not always logical. It doesn't matter recognizing that that's a real perspective and trying to incorporate that into whatever decisions you make or things that you do is in my view, one of the most important things, particularly if you're in a leadership position that a leader can do. I also learned to protect some time for myself. I started blocking out certain times of the day or the week. That is just for me to prepare myself for what's to come in, to try to prepare the things that I can control so that when the uncontrollable things come up or the unexpected things come up, I'm a little bit more agile and ready to react.
Michelle 00:28:37 Oh, Martin, that's great advice. And I I've taken notes furiously here because I think you've given me some things to think about and probably all of our listeners. And I, I want to thank you so much for joining me on the edge and for sharing how you've implemented a wonderful way in which people can feel safe and comfortable returning to a workplace or being in a workplace. And I think you've given us all a lot to think about as some of our listeners contemplate what that needs to look like for them as, as, as they begin to move people back into workspaces. And then on behalf of Skillsoft, I want to thank you so much for being a customer to our listeners. I want to thank you for tuning into this and to every episode as we unleash our edge together on behalf of the entire Skillsoft team, we encourage you to keep learning, keep growing and in light of my conversation with Martin today, as you contemplate, or perhaps not a return to a physical workspace, it's a good time to reflect on the needs of the while taking account the health and wellbeing of your people.
Michelle 00:29:46 I'm Michelle BB. This is the edge be well.