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Human Resources recently talked to Lee Murphy, who leads the people consultant team at Google Asia Pacific in Singapore, about the impact of COVID-19. He works closely with the global leadership team and HR community in shaping the future of Google people operations. He is dedicated to the transformation and growth of the frontline HR team to enhance Googlers’ experience worldwide with a local touch.

1. How does Google keep employees connected and safe, physically and psychologically?
Our first priority has been to safeguard the health and safety of our Googler community. We took action to reduce the need for people to come into our offices, either recommending or mandating our workforce to work from home depending on the local situation.

As Googlers work from home, we recognise the importance of keeping them connected and to continue building our community and culture across the organisation. During our usual office operations, employees can sign up for Googler-to-Googler (g2g) classes where Googlers teach fellow colleagues a skill or knowledge about a topic they are passionate about. We’re seeing even more of this happening online now, with Googlers conducting virtual baking classes, mindfulness sessions, fitness boot camps (and) craft making lessons. Embracing a culture of learning, both offline and online, has created an environment that encourages our employees to stay connected and have the openness to share knowledge with one another.

Google also initiated a ‘Virtual Coffee Ninja’ programme for Googlers to set up coffee chats via Hangouts to build connections with someone new in the company.

We also understand that this is an uncertain time for our Googlers. Blue Dot – our mental health awareness group, made up of employee volunteers – is available via Google Meet to provide much needed support for our peers across the company.

2. How can business leaders and employees be prepared for the change of work dynamics, e.g. mindset, guidelines, best practices?
For many employees who are not used to the concept of remote working for an extended period of time, this shift in work culture can be a difficult transition. In fact, research has shown that remote workers can struggle with unplugging from work, loneliness and communicating.

Each person experiences the effects of COVID-19 differently, so there’s no single approach to supporting employees. It’s important for business leaders and managers to not only acknowledge the challenges faced, but to empathise and take time to understand the best way they can support their teams during this time.

Beyond virtual meetings and work discussions, managers should think about checking-in with their team members regularly, and to have open conversations to find out how they are coping with the transition. Maintaining regular, clear communication with employees to help them stay informed and updated is also critical. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, employers were the most trusted institution, over media, businesses and government.

Employer communications is the most credible source of information about the coronavirus. This signals the importance for business leaders to keep employees regularly informed about what the company is doing to help and what are the policies in place should employees need additional support or guidance.

3. What should companies watch out for when transitioning to flexible work arrangements or virtual workspaces?
A common debate I’ve heard around virtual workplaces is whether teams are able to build good connections with one another due to the lack of face-to-face interactions, or if they are able to work well together while being apart. We recently conducted an internal study to better understand the impact of distributed work. What’s interesting is that we found that distributed work can be as effective as working in the same office, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as easy or enjoyable.

Placing more emphasis in forging relationships and setting clear team expectations are some of the ways outlined in our playbook to help our employees manage distributed teams.

 It’s also good to be aware that productivity strategies are even more important when working from home, since there isn’t an ordinary structure of a day at the office, like commuting to work, walking to meetings, or running into coworkers. Helping employees to be receptive and adapting to the change will be important. At Google, we’ve started an internal portal offering tips for different remote situations such as collaborating with teams, virtual team effectiveness, wellbeing and resilience, coding from home and conducting effective virtual meetings to help our employees find their new work routine.

4. What does this coronavirus outbreak mean for the future of work and future HR practices?
Navigating this unique crisis is a learning experience for many organisations and its workforce, including Google. From embracing remote work and virtual collaboration, to introducing new workplace policies and processes, we are collectively writing the playbook as we go through this unprecedented time together.

This experience will undoubtedly push organisations to rethink their policies and systems to ensure it provides a higher level of support to their employees such as mental health and well-being. At the same time, it’ll prompt more managers and employees to rethink the way we work, now that remote work and flexible work arrangements are viable possibilities.

5. What are your recommendations for companies to continue and sustain the digital transformation, in this fast-changing environment?
If there’s one thing we’ve seen from this unexpected outbreak, it’s the rapid adoption of digital tools as more agile organisations turn to technology to stay connected and productive. Knowing this, investing in digital solutions can help companies - big and small - be better prepared for future disruptions. This could be a pivotal turning point for companies that previously lacked the infrastructure or were not yet ready to make the transition to reimagine the workplace and realise the benefits of collaborative, cloud-based solutions for their workforce.