Business Review proudly presents the latest installment of the HR Spotlight Interview Series. For this new episode, BR sat down with Ewa Pachocka, HR Director at Mars Multisales Central Europe, the leader of the Human Resources department of an organization with over 540 employees, or associates as the company refers to its people, spread across 4 Central European countries: Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenges for your company in this new future of work?
We are a people-based company, for which day to day networking among Associates (how we call our employees) is essential. Thus, working remotely (for office Associates) and not being able to meet in person across geographies affects us maybe more than other companies, as we love settling work over small mundane interaction and chats. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges is to keep our Associates engaged in the long run. That means finding new ways to maintain our well-established practices and further improve our strategy to enable Associates to connect to each other easily and on various channels, offering them the optimal internal and external resources. Furthermore, we strive to increase penetration of the digital solutions we have in place and adapt our working strategies to maximize market opportunities. Another important challenge we are learning to cope with is working in this uncertain environment and showing agility to constant change.
Can you share with us which of your pre-pandemic practices have helped your company to get through the last 7 months more easily?
Times like these highlight that values cannot be affected by a pandemic or anything else. We, at Mars, are guided by our five Principles – Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom, which connect Associates, offering them a clear direction, a common set of values, grounding them. Also, our Mars Associate Concept, focusing on offering people all the resources they need to be at their best and asking them to contribute as partners to the business, has nurtured the reflex to act responsibly and learn new abilities to easily adapt to change. And part of the company’s promise is offering great line managers to everybody. The strongest connection in our work environment, I believe, is between Associates and their line managers. I must mention that having this relationship build properly, in time, was very important.
Equally important is our long-term practice of transparent communication between all levels of the organization and all aspects of our work – from business performance to challenges, concerns or celebrations. This has built trust and a strong foundation for decision making and implementation.
Our Associates are at the core of all our decisions, so it came naturally to focus on their health and wellbeing as the pandemic started. Simple practices addressed to everyone, as offering flexible working hours, were extended during this period, helping to better accommodate the changing needs of our Associates.
How did you manage to keep a good level of engagement among your teams/departments/employees?
As I mentioned, we believe communication is key in a thriving working environment and even more so during such times. We wanted to let our Associates know that their safety matters the most and we are taking every decision after analyzing all options every step of the way.
We extended our use of internal platforms, where we constantly communicate. For example, organizing regular online meetings with the whole team in Romania to explain the new measures, check up on them and provide support. We created a COVID-19 pandemic page on the Mars intranet, providing resources to help Associates cope – articles, seminars or e-learnings, but also up to date news and recommendations. The leadership team has weekly or, when needed, daily meetings discussing the important business decisions and next steps, making sure they provide direction and clarity to their teams in order to smoothly overcome this difficult period.
We increased the frequency of our learning sessions for line managers and provided them with guidance for the new context so they could navigate their teams – how to lead in uncertain times, how to manage people remotely – and also created a space where they can share specific challenges they faced and seek together the best solutions. And this brought a remarkable contribution from all managers in the market. Informal connections and celebrations became usual and people learnt to be close to each other while at a distance though virtual coffee or wine sessions. These added to our regular town halls or digital meetings and have created a sense of belongness. The high level of participation, engagement and enthusiasm we have seen stand proof of it.
How did you replicate recruiting and onboarding from the traditional office to hybrid working arrangements?
To some extent, for some positions, our recruiting procedures already included online interactions with interviews and online assessments, as we are organized in a cluster, with Associates reporting across countries. We also had a robust onboarding system, with online content and e-learnings for a good start at Mars or in a new position, even before the pandemic. We are currently broadly applying these hybrid practices and 90% of the interactions are now happening digitally. Yet, newcomers are not being able to experience the office and meet with colleagues in this format and we are working to develop the best practices, so they don’t miss out. And I want to recognize how well they are doing in the given context, trying to understand the company culture and their jobs. I really appreciated the hard work and effort they are putting in.
As the months have passed since the beginning of the outbreak, have you seen an improvement in employee morale, team cohesion, etc. even as many of them might still be working remotely?
Sure enough, Associates morale during these months has fluctuated, but overall is on a positive trend as we are trying to be one step ahead, with leaders playing an important role: with empathy and compassion, they always point out all the reasons to feel proud of everyday achievements, small or big and they are always there to listen and guide the teams. Digital interactions created more space for both introverts and extroverts, forcing active listening and therefore improved communication as everybody gets to be heard. Even with 540 employees in Central Europe, of which 220 located in Romania, team cohesion strongly consolidated at different levels of the business. For example, sales force split across the country switched to online work for a period and used all communication channels to stay in touch, get to know each other better and even managed to reach set objectives. Some teams met more often than before actually, others went through challenges together and this brought them closer.
At the regional level, teams across Central Europe increased their interaction and communication online, improving collaborations.
Did you make use of professional counseling for employees who reported issues of stress/anxiety?
As I said before, our Associates health and wellbeing was a priority and we knew that mental health will have an important role to play, so we took on a proactive approach right from the start. We acknowledged that restrictions like working from home or the closing of schools put a lot of pressure on employees and therefore we offered a series of wellbeing workshops, seminars and other digital resources in order to help Associates adjust to the new working conditions. But we went beyond these and provided a counseling hotline for Associates, where they can ask for specialized help on particular issues they are facing, available in local languages and fully confidential.
What skills should any employee learn to be able to thrive in the workforce of tomorrow?
I strongly believe communications skills are especially valuable in this context and one’s personal drive to master new capabilities in a new environment and to work independently are also just as important. Many digital solutions implemented these months will still be around, even after this pandemic, because they proved efficient and sustainable and therefore, I would say accepting digitalization should also be at the forefront. At Mars, we are encouraging Associates to further develop their abilities and career, even in these difficult times, by providing trainings and e-learnings on a variety of topics. Our most popular classes during the lockdown were “How to face uncertain times” and “On resilience”. In this new context I think it’s easier to embrace whatever life brings, extend outside one’s comfort zone and learn to deal with ambiguity.