PwC's chief people officer Mike Fenlon discusses how leaders can best support their employees during COVID-19. With employees working from home while also tending to families and other obligations during this stressful time, Fenlon says leaders much emphasize transparency and wellness. (Photo: Rido/Shutterstock.com)

PwC’s Mike Fenlon Shares Insight on Supporting Teams Remotely During COVID-19

As businesses surpass the one-month mark of mandatory work-from-home orders due to the coronavirus, teams are adjusting to a new normal. But for many companies that don’t typically collaborate virtually, this adjustment is an ongoing challenge.

Mike Fenlon, U.S. chief people officer of professional services network PwC (DiversityInc Hall of Fame) spoke to DiversityInc’s Olivia Riggio about how the firm has been stretching its wellbeing-driven culture and technological capabilities to support and empower workers during these unsettling and uncertain times.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Olivia Riggio: Many businesses are about a month or more into mandatory work from home, and many of our partners are still interested in learning more about how they can best support their workers remotely. What are some of the things leaders need to keep in mind now, that may not have been issues just a few months ago?

Mike Fenlon is PwC’s chief people officer. (Photo courtesy of PwC)

Mike Fenlon: We’re all living in a version of the Twilight Zone. At least it feels a bit like that. And I think before you can even get to productivity … how do we support people being in the right frame of mind? And then what are the kinds of practices we can put in place to enable our people to be productive, engaged, maintain focus, maintain their energy and well-being at this time?

I think to support people to do their best work virtually — and that means collaborating in teams virtually at a scale most companies have never experienced … It’s represented a sea change in an extraordinarily short period of time. And you have to start, I think, with a recognition of where people are at — to meet people where they’re at. And you can start with one word, which is anxiety … And that anxiety is grounded in everything from, of course, concerns about the health and safety of ourselves, our families, loved ones … but then also financial uncertainty as we see the economic repercussions of the pandemic play out in an unprecedented fashion … You have to start with anxiety, and then understanding there are many different types of situations.

I was speaking with a colleague last night who lives by herself and has had absolutely no direct contact now with another person … longer than any other point in her life. And that can bring with it, obviously, a sense of isolation, loneliness and a unique set of challenges. Even depression … At the other end of the continuum, you may have people in small, crowded apartments … and trying to work productively in an environment that was never designed or intended to be a full-time workspace for multiple people. Others may be … at home with children now … [the children] are studying from home, they need parental supervision, there is no childcare available in many instances … So now many working parents are trying to juggle their responsibilities and concerns of a parent with the demands of the workplace … Others may have medical issues — either personal medical issues or maybe an elderly family member they’re caring for, or another family member who is ill, whether it’s related to COVID or not …

I think we have to start with two things: One is meeting people where they are and understanding that. And, how do we as leaders and managers, then, help our people navigate — whether it’s anxiety, depression, being unsettled, concerned — how do we help them navigate that and make it better, not worse? Projecting calm, confidence, instilling that. And recognizing that people’s environments have changed in a fundamental way.

I think that’s number one. And then, I think we have to lead from a place of principle. In other words, we want to react to the situation we’re in, but we don’t want to be reactive. We want to engage and communicate with our people in a way that reflects guiding principles here … I think it’s a time where leaders have to be acutely self-aware. That this is a moment where we have to bring our values to life … and be very explicit about how all of the decisions we’re making at this time are being guided by those values.

OR: What are some examples of actions PwC has taken to uphold these principles and values?

MF: First, the approach we’ve taken is you’ve got to support people’s wellbeing in order to support their productivity … That means, as leaders, being crystal clear that our first priority is people’s health and safety and wellbeing. And wellbeing means mental wellbeing, physical, emotional, spiritual in the sense of being anchored in that sense of purpose that can help us navigate in a time like this of tremendous uncertainty.

We’ve significantly increased overall our leadership communication, both at the firm level — we’re doing weekly town halls with all of our people, our partners — a lot of Q&A … and then that being mirrored or cascaded through the firm where our teams and practices are driving a higher level of connectivity than we might otherwise. And being very explicit, then, that teams need to have a plan, of course, for how to work productively in an all-virtual mode, but also a plan for wellbeing. And, being more explicit than we normally would, I think is an important point here

So, on wellbeing, having a team plan where we each share our personal goals … Sometimes on mental wellbeing, there’s a stigma that can be associated with that. People aren’t necessarily comfortable talking about anxiety, or maybe feeling down … So, we’ve had many of our leaders share how they’re navigating those feelings. I think it’s important for leaders to be very deliberate and mindful not to amplify anxiety but to convey calm, to project calm and to build confidence — not through superficial happy talk, but to the contrary, kind of a candid, honest recognition of the word we find ourselves in … but also to make it crystal clear that we have plans in place …

For us, on the wellbeing front, that has meant providing people with access to one-on-one wellbeing coaching in addition to mental health coaching. We are running, on a weekly basis, discussion groups. We’ve had them for parents of small children, where they can interact and share insights and ideas and frustrations and get support. We’ve had it for team leaders on how to lead virtually … We’ve run them for individuals living by themselves. We’re running webinars on financial planning … We’ve created a single one-stop shop website for information related to COVID-19, but also all of the resources we have as a firm.

OR: In the HR and diversity and inclusion worlds, we talk a lot about making reasonable accommodations. For those with families and other household responsibilities, a typical 9–5 schedule may not be feasible. How can leaders help employees balance work and life needs when the personal and professional are all happening in the same space at the same time?

MF: Many people have shared that they feel like boundaries are erased. You sort of wake up and the day keeps going and it’s hard to step away. Or, the opposite, which is, maybe I have young children I’ve got to deal with and I’m on a conference call and my kids run into the room, or my dog, or there’s noise in the background and I feel kind of embarrassed about that.

So, one point we’ve really gone to great lengths to emphasize is that we understand. That all of our lives have been disrupted in ways that none of us anticipated, and nobody is expected to have that perfect environment …

We did this with the leaders in our firm, but we opened it up: We asked all of our people to start to share images, pictures of their home work environments, and that’s been a lot of fun, too. It’s sort of humanized the situation … Not all of us have nice home offices. Some of us have got to simply do the best we can in an environment that was never designed for multiple people to be working full-time from …

We’ve worked for years on flexibility being a core point of our culture. To your point, now, we’ve had to stretch that even further. We’ve asked teams to be very explicit about this. To share, with your team leader if you have a particular need or challenge that you need to manage … So, we’ve asked all of our teams to practice maximum flexibility to try to accommodate. And what we have learned over time is that the best way to do that is if members of a team come together and share what their personal goals are, what their concerns are, what their needs are. And that builds trust … What we’ve learned in the past is I might hold back because you’re my supervisor and I’m afraid you’ll think negatively of me if I share this with you. Consequently, I’m living now with a tremendous amount of stress and strain and anxiety … We also know from research that’s been done for a long time now, from a diversity and gender standpoint, that women disproportionately bear responsibilities related to, for example, childcare.

So, it really takes on an added urgency around creating an environment that’s flexible. Where people don’t feel like perceptions of their performance will be adversely impacted. And we’ve explicitly said that to our people, that no one will be adversely impacted, for example, if their productivity’s gone down during this COVID-19 crisis. So, I think what we’ve learned is A) We’re in the fortunate position of having done work on flexibility for many years and having done work on digital upskilling and collaboration tools for years, and now we’re stretching both of those muscles, for sure. And it starts with very clear and explicit dialogue within our teams and having clear game plans.

OR: It’s difficult enough to talk about mental health in a professional environment. Now, these conversations, if they need to happen, are happening over the phone and not face-to-face, which might add another level of hesitance. How can leaders connect with their teams meaningfully and let them know that they’re supporting them when that connection can’t be made face-to-face?

MF: We provide resources, for example, a text-based service, where 24/7, you can text a mental health professional and have an exchange, or you can get some questions answered, or you can just engage someone that way. And then, if it makes sense, you can progress that to a video consultation or, outside of this crisis, an in-person referral. That said, we’re now in a world where everything has gone virtual, and we have found that those services work very effectively … Those are tools and resources — we’ve actually had all of those things in place.

We do a lot of executive coaching in our firm. Before the crisis, 99% of that was already done virtually … So, what we did was we created an online sign-up and get what we call a wellbeing consultation and spend an hour being coached, to share concerns, to talk about their situation, to get input or advice, or to talk about how they may access other resources if they need them.

I think we’ve really tried to de-stigmatize the situation. So, we’ve had leaders share how they’re managing and coping with feelings of anxiety or fear or depression. And I think when you do that in an authentic way, and when it comes from a place of caring, it actually builds confidence because, again, these basic feelings are pervasive, and our just normal reactions to a very stressful environment … So, we’ve really through storytelling and sharing personal experiences have tried to remove the stigma and just normalize the conversations in our team. Before this, what we found, was teams that have these conversations, that have this dialogue, have wellbeing plans actually tell us they do better as a team. Their performance is better when we compare it to teams that don’t engage in these practices. Their communication is stronger … They tell us they have better relationships with clients. It really creates a foundation for more effective teamwork, and that foundation is based on trust, openness, and a deeper level of engagement and support.

OR: Broadly, what do you believe has been allowing PwC to stay afloat in a time when a lot of businesses are not?

MF: We have invested for years in digital upskilling and in virtual collaboration skills and tools. We made a $3 billion commitment in 2019 that was based on several years of work in this area, number one. Number two, we’ve been working at wellbeing and creating team environments that include virtual collaboration that include virtual collaboration that can really, at least, support people in doing their greatest work. And obviously, this environment was nothing we envisioned, and it’s challenging us to stretch and apply those skills, but I think that foundation has served us well.

I also think this is a time for agility. In other words, what can I do to best support my clients who are looking to us for support or insight? And, being agile in responding, then, to the needs of our clients as they’re changing and involving — that’s been something that we’ve been intensively focused on … It’s been a people-first agenda …

The last thing I’ll say, since this is a DiversityInc conversation: I mentioned earlier some of the diversity dimensions, but I do think this is a time when we have got to have heightened awareness on inclusion … Not everyone has a beautiful home office where it’s going to be quiet like a library — So, creating an environment of absolute acceptance, regardless of the environment people find themselves in, it’s OK … making sure that all voices around the table or within a team are empowered to contribute fully in this virtual scenario.

Latest Best Practices

Info Sheet: Juneteenth

Download our Juneteenth info sheet to share with your leaders, colleagues and teams HERE. What is Juneteenth? On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas and put into effect the Emancipation…