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A New Lens: Rewards, Remote and Reskilling Through Disruption

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused plenty of disruption and turmoil for businesses, a common theme that has emerged during the past four months is that it has also presented organizations with an opportunity to evaluate and adapt some of their processes.


In this vein, several business leaders discussed how the pandemic has accelerated the future of work in a session at WorldatWork’s “Total Resilience Virtual Conference & Exhibition” on Aug. 12.

One of the panelists, Michael Johnson, division vice president of HR at Abbott Diabetes Care, explained that the health-care company has always emphasized in-person collaboration, because they believe it leads to better results. And while Johnson said he doesn’t foresee Abbott transitioning to a full-time remote work model, the pandemic has revealed that the company is able to produce quality outcomes while working apart from each other.

“What I think this time has done has accelerated our managers’ capabilities on how to lead in that environment and how to utilize these policies, these tools and other resources we have out there to maximize the contributions of our employees as well as address the go-to-market strategy,” Johnson said.

Tristan Orford, senior director of global compensation at video game giant Electronic Arts (EA), said despite the organization’s correlation with cutting edge technology, their work model prior to the pandemic was on-site centric with a few exceptions. The past several months, Orford said, has created momentum toward a more distributed workforce and demystified some perceptions that leadership had about remote work.

“Does time zone matter? Probably. Does being in the same office matter? Maybe not as much as we thought it did,” Orford said. “We’re still thinking through all of this and I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I can say pretty certainly our model post-COVID will be more distributed and flexible than it is today.” 

Todd Smasal, vice president of Northwestern Mutual, echoed his fellow panelists’ sentiments around remote work. Smasal said Northwestern Mutual had been very apprehensive about allowing employees to work from home and said it occurred in very limited and sporadic instances. Smasal said while he’s uncertain how much remote work the company will provide going forward, the last several months has illustrated that work flexibility needs to become a larger part of the employee value proposition.

“The pandemic has been a stimulus for accelerating the transition of our work in the advancement of our business strategy,” Smasal said. “The ability to deliver things digitally has never taken on the importance that it has in the past four months.”

Mergers and Acquisitions

The panel later shifted their attention to what impact COVID-19 would have on mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Johnson noted that Abbott acquired a smaller health-care solutions company amid the pandemic and said that their approach has been to generally allow the newly integrated employees to keep their regular schedules and existing HR platforms so as not to create too much disruption.

“We wanted to create some certainty for them so they weren’t learning new processes or new systems,” Johnson said. “Of course, we’ll align them on a comp and benefits platform eventually, as with the rest of the company, but we’re going to do that at a time that makes the most sense for them and us in the business.”

Orford said M&A isn’t so much a company imperative, but rather an opportunity, because EA is uniquely positioned in their space to acquire smaller companies that could be struggling because of the pandemic. Orford said that while EA usually provides an upgrade in compensation and benefits to employees of the newly acquired business, the M&A process can prove to be a learning experience on the rewards side.

“It’s an opportunity for us to get first-hand experience with programs other organizations are utilizing and think about how we might reflect that in our own offerings,” Orford said.

Reskilling and Beyond

When the panel conversation switched to how the companies are approaching hiring and reskilling in the coming years. As the pandemic has no doubt hurt the balance sheets of many organizations, reskilling and upskilling your existing workforce could not only enhance your employee value proposition, but it will also serve as a cost containment strategy. Based on the median salary in the United States, reskilling is about half the cost of recruiting someone from outside the business. Not only that, but research from the Wharton School of Business shows that, on average, external hires cost 18-20% more and perform worse for the first two years on the job.

Smasal said the context of the situation will determine how Northwestern Mutual proceeds for filling job roles.

“We have to approach it knowing what all of the levers are and I expect that we will use them at different stages,” he said. “Often times that comes down to speed or pace that we need to reskill or bring new talent into the organization. Where will our business be and what [are] the skills that we require from our employee population and how do we make sure that we’re equipping them to adjust?”

Johnson said that for Abbott, every initiative is aimed at sustainability and how they can reskill and support talent for today and the future. Thus, several programs the company has developed are angled at just that. They implemented the “Freedom 2 Save Program” in 2019, which allows employees to pay off student loans while still obtaining a typical 401(k) match. The program dictates that if an Abbott employee puts at least 2% of pay toward student loans, the company will put 5% of that worker’s pay into a 401(k) account.

The company also developed a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program in 2012 called “Shaping the Future of STEM,” which provides internships for high school and college students interested in the field, with an emphasis on women and minorities.

“We hope that some of the work we’ve done around our emerging STEM program will help improve the next generation of STEM leaders,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to figure out ways we can reskill thousands of workers if needed to compete and deliver on the next generation products of tomorrow.”

About the Author

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Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.

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