Students of Struggle–

I want to introduce you to Karen Philbrick, Populus Group’s Vice President of Human Resources. She’s faced a unique challenge, leading the charge on our work policies during this pandemic. Human Resources have had to navigate through unprecedented times (this word is one we’ve all heard at least once) and better understand what our future of work might look like.

It’s been a difficult, interesting, sometimes frustrating role, but Karen has guided our leadership team to make better decisions for our community. And she’s led our entire community with great compassion.

I hope these lessons she shares serves you well–they’ve brought our community greater stability.

Hail the Underdogs!


Populus Group Vice President of HR, Karen Philbrick, on the Mt. Rainier Hike in Washington.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the U.S., it evolved at a rapid pace. Every day my team and I were having to make new recommendations to different areas of the business and push out frequent communications to help keep our contractors and community safe and educated. I remember one day just pausing and reflecting on everything going on around us, knowing in my gut (although it felt a little crazy to say it) I had to recommend to the rest of the executive team that we take the whole company remote.

I vividly remember the afternoon of March 13th (which ironically happened to be a Friday) when we held an all company call, announcing that as a result of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, the entire company would be going remote effective Monday. We initially set our tentative return-to-office date as April 13th. Obviously we had no idea what the world had in store for us. 😊

Populus Group is an employment solutions company, meaning we’re always focused on people. Working remotely would present a whole new set of challenges for our company and employees as we wanted to keep giving 110% to our customers and contractors–we had no idea what struggles we might face working remotely from each other!

But with every struggle there are silver linings (gifts and lessons, as Bobby calls them). And there have been so many valuable lessons I’ve learned leading through this pandemic that I’ll carry with me through life:


1) The Value of Frequent & Transparent Communication

With so much information to share at such a rapid pace, and so much stress in everyone’s lives, we quickly made some changes to our company’s communication style. And we’re disciplined in keeping those rhythms. People are looking for any stability they can find right now, so knowing when you’ll hear updates about what’s happening with your employer is super important. Here’s what we did:

  • Every Monday, we have an Executive Cascade to the organization. We meet as an Executive Team and determine what’s most important for the community to be aware of that week, and we all cascade the same message to all our departments.
  • Every Wednesday, a leader in our community will film a short video that’s sent out the community sharing any reminders or updates they need to know.
  • Every Friday, our super helpful Communications Manager organizes all the information shared that week (+ any need-to-knows for the following week) into a super simple, all-community email sent out every Friday at the exact same time.

We also take the opportunity to slow down and reflect on what things are giving our employees feelings of uncertainty at work and how can we help alleviate those feeling for them. We’ve found that by incorporating frequent updates regarding important topics (like returning to the office) and setting specific timelines as to when people can expect to hear more, employees have one less thing to worry about.


2) The Value of Extending Trust to Your People

Although we’ve always offered flexible work options, they were often tied to performance or specific roles. Overnight, we had to extend trust to our entire community. We trusted they would sustain the business in their roles fully remote for an extended period of time, and in many situations, perform their roles with increased flexibility around hours—all while having kids and pets joining in along the way. 😊

Not only did they keep the business moving, our overall performance as an organization saw improvements in several key areas including: First Time Quality, Net Promoter Scores, and Accounts Receivable. We also stayed on track to roll out two key technology products to help us better serve our customers and contractors.

We don’t have “spyware” to monitor our employees. We aren’t micromanaging their every move. We have built our community on trust and we trust our leaders will find the right balance between performance expectations, support, and compassion.

We found when people see they’re being extended trust, their gratitude shows up in increased performance and deepened loyalty.


3) The Value of Shared Sacrifice

It felt like almost overnight our revenue took a dramatic turn south. We had no idea how long we would continue to see a drop in numbers, but what we did know was that if the numbers stayed where they were, we were approaching our “danger close” line (you may have heard Bobby use this term before!). Our line was the revenue and costs it takes to run the company. Like many other organizations, we were faced with some very hard decisions on what this meant for our people.

We slowed down to reflect and learn from other companies who have lead through similar situations in the past. An approach that resonated with us the most was that of The Barry Wehmiller Company. In the previous economic downturn, the Wehmiller Company slowed down to reflect on how a caring family would respond to a situation like this and their response was, “All family members would absorb some pain so that no member of the family would have to experience a dramatic loss.”

At PG, we absolutely consider our community as family, and the idea of choosing some of our family members to suffer the loss of their income in such an uncertain time was one we just weren’t ready to make. Therefore, we made the decision to lean into a shared sacrifice approach so that we could keep as many of our employees and contractors employed as possible.

How did we do this? We went through and examined all places where we were spending money and looked at all options for cutting costs. After reviewing these, we made the decision to pause the following: charitable contributions, hiring, overtime, company incentive trips, gift card recognition programs, individual training funds, free book program, wellness program funds, future semesters tuition reimbursement, and the 401(k) match.

Yes, sharing this decision with the organization sucked. And do we miss these things? Absolutely. But it’s temporary—and it worked and it’s still working! Because of our choice to lock arms as a community and be willing to take on some temporary sacrifices, we’ve been able to extend our “danger close” line without having to make a reduction in our workforce.

This approach not only helped us avoid a reduction, it’s also allowed us retain enough of our workforce to be better prepared to support our customers and contractors as they begin to reopen and reenter the workforce.

Another lesson Bobby has shared is to choose the hardest right over the easiest wrong. And while we all miss these things, when we slow down and reflect on the alternative option, this was the right one for us.


4) The Value of Using Your Time Wisely

We changed how frequently we connect as an Executive Team—instead of meeting once a week for an hour, we meet twice a week for a half hour, leaving time open after to get more in-depth depending on what’s happening in the world that week.

We’re also super disciplined with blocking time for “Strategics”. These are meetings that are dedicated to us working collectively to solve one big strategic item for the organization. We know ahead of time what we’re focusing on for that meeting, and that’s the only topic on the table.

We encouraged our leaders to “edit” their employees work lives. In so much uncertainty and continued period of high stress, our brains are easily overwhelmed. We have to slow down and see where we can make their lives easier while making sure they know what’s most important right now. Our community has learned many lessons from Pat Lencioni, and we leaned heavily into his book Death by Meeting as we asked our leaders to evaluate their team meetings and goals–are all the meetings critical to business? What could wait? How can we simplify and narrow the focus on what’s most important?


5) The Importance of Teaching Leaders to Lead with Compassion

This year has brought an incredible amount of stress and uncertainty for everyone—personally and professionally. This year we crammed kids, school, work, and any personal time under one roof—overnight! It’s stressed even the healthiest relationships. People are absolutely going to see some bumps in their performance, but how you manage these situations needs to look different. 

Early in the pandemic, we started noticing our employees were definitely feeling all of these. We needed to create space to slow down and talk about how we could best support them during this time.

We worked with our leaders to coach and guide them to have more in-depth, meaningful conversations with our employees. These conversations created an opportunity for the employee and the leader to find the right balance of support and flexibility, while still meeting organizational goals.

Chronic stress over an extended period of time impacts our ability to perform at our highest levels. As employers, we have to be aware of the fatigue our employees may feel, and we must slow down. Then, we must evaluate if our traditional methods of performance management are appropriate in these circumstances.

Populus Group Vice President of HR, Karen Philbrick, with 2019 Sherpa Stephane DeStefanis in Maine.

How Do You Foresee the World of Work in the Next Year?

We’re currently spending a lot of time planning for the future of work. We’ve learned so much during this COVID-19 work-from-home period and as a result, we’re slowing down to consider how these lessons may impact how we’ll get work done in the future. Populus Group began by gathering a team of 20 employees across all different teams and all different levels, and asked them to help us solve one of the biggest evolutions we’ve seen as an organization in our 18 years. Some of the things they’re researching:

  • Are there certain tasks or functions that are better performed at home?
  • Are there certain meetings or events that are better conducted virtually?
  • How will our office space need to evolve to better serve us when we do return to the office?
  • What technology or training will be needed to support these changes?
  • How would a more remote workforce impact our internal hiring strategy?

But the number one success criteria of any evolution here is that it cannot come at the expense of our unique culture.

What Advice Can You Offer to Other HR Professionals Leading Teams Through This Pandemic?

Although no one has a crystal ball to predict what the next 12 months will look like, what I do know is that the future of HR is an exciting one.

We’ve been forced to slow down and take a look at all the things we thought we knew about how to get work done, then flip them upside down! It’s going to be uncomfortable. We’ll be challenged to find new, innovative ways to help our organizations meet the evolving needs of the workforce and businesses. However, the bold decisions HR leaders have had to make over the past year has prepared us to be the strategic partners our organizations need in order to make some of our boldest recommendations yet.

A group picture of Populus Group Sherpas in Portland, Maine for the annual Sherpa Trip. This photo is from the 2019 Sherpa Trip.


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