Putting people first in times of crisis

Written by
Regine Buettner, global EVP of HR, DHL Express

07 May 2020

07 May 2020 • by Regine Buettner, global EVP of HR, DHL Express

How can a people-first strategy help you navigate uncertainty? Regine Buettner, global EVP of HR at DHL Express, explains their approach to leading a frontline workforce.

We are living and working through a time of unimaginable upheaval. For HR teams, the stakes are higher than ever; protecting the health and wellbeing of the workforce, supporting the business to manage the financial impact of the crisis, and looking to secure long term stability are just some of the challenges. But a people-first strategy can help businesses navigate these times.   

Communication and connection  

As a business operating a vital frontline service through the crisis, connection with our people is paramount. By staying engaged with every single person across our workforce, we can help keep them safe and provide the support and motivation they need to continue delivering essential goods and supporting our customers. 

Having an open leadership team and a frequent flow of communication helps ensure that operational teams work with a safety-first approach – arming them with the information they need to protect their wellbeing, while also letting them know you’re there for them. 

People across the world are suddenly working from home when they're used to sitting with colleagues. Perhaps they've never worked from home before, so it requires adjustment. Communication is key to keeping them engaged through the current situation and beyond. 

How your colleagues were made to feel during these difficult times will also have a significant impact on employee retention. Understanding the most effective ways to stay connected in the midst of a crisis is key. Maintaining company culture will be more important than ever so staying positive, offering security or support, and providing ongoing motivation to staff is paramount. 

It’s crucial to make leadership vocal and visible and minimise uncertainty. Though this is a global crisis, for many it’s a personal one too – employers are a vital support system for people.

The power of purpose 

Whether in crisis or not, purpose has the power to drive a strong connection to the company, as people increasingly look to find meaning in their work. In a commercial organisation, an understanding of the core business purpose has the potential to get lost among other tactical messages, but for a frontline organisation the business purpose will be more meaningful now than ever for employees.

Ours is ‘Connecting People and Improving Lives’ and – given that our people are ‘essential workers’ during this crisis – they’re truly seeing and feeling the impact of what they do. 

Internal communications should remind people of their ‘why’ in the workplace. This will help to maintain motivation through instilling a sense of lasting pride in what your people do. 

Staying true to your business mission 

As fresh challenges arise from the crisis, business priorities will continue to shift. This is something we must be prepared for and endeavour to react quickly and with clarity and intention. This doesn’t mean losing sight of core priorities or the longer-term mission – it means adjusting short-term in order to better support people and protect the business. 

There are some things that are fundamental to a business, regardless of the circumstance. One for us is business knowledge. We're a complex network organisation, covering 220 countries and territories, so we value knowledge and experience – it’s what keeps us going. What that also means is that despite being in the midst of a crisis, for us, employee retention is as important today as it has ever been. 

Recognise the value of your workforce 

Any business with a workforce on the frontline needs to ensure employees know their contribution is seen and valued. 

Now is not the time for business awards or accolades but for authentic and frequent acknowledgement of your employees’ everyday efforts. If, like us, you have a culture of recognition and development it’s important to maintain it, but adjust how it is executed. That means continuing to demonstrate company pride by celebrating your whole workforce as well as individuals and poignant success stories. If ever there was a moment to make your people the face of your business, it's now.

Organisations that consider employee motivation a key factor in their success will do their utmost to keep their people not only engaged during the crisis but prepared for the future too. Continue to build up your employees’ skills and provide them with learning opportunities

While no one knows what the future holds, as a people leader, set out to be proud when looking back at how your organisation handled the crisis, and be able to honestly say that you put your people first. 


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