GE Korea Safely Navigates Returning to the Workplace

South Korea is one of few countries that’s been able to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections. Mira Lee, chief human resources officer at GE Korea, shares how the organization navigated uncertainty and safely returned their employees to the office.

General Electric (GE) is one of the most recognized brands in the world. With over 200,000 employees worldwide, it’s no surprise the conglomerate faced complexity navigating the pandemic across various countries. In South Korea, Mira Lee, chief human resources officer (CHRO) at GE Korea, had to deal with not only quickly pivoting to enable employees to work remotely, but also safely returning them to the office (South Korea is one of just a few countries that’s been able to flatten the curve of new COVID-19 infections). At this year’s Workday Elevate Digital Experience, Lee shared what this experience was like and how she managed through the uncertainty.

Did GE have to change its HR policies and programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, what changed?

The HR strategies we originally planned for at the beginning of 2020 have been put on hold since February. To respond to an unprecedented pandemic, we shifted our focus to two priorities: maintaining business continuity and responding to the crisis. The most important thing was to secure the safety of not just our employees, but all members of our business ecosystem.

While the situation has calmed down in Korea, globally most countries are still working from home. Even in countries where employees have returned to the office, the situation still isn’t back to normal, meaning it’s not the same landscape prior to the pandemic. That’s why we have to adapt our HR strategies to the “new normal.”

Koreans refer to this time as an “untact” era (meaning touchless or contactless). We believe that when employees get together, it creates engagement and reinforces your corporate culture. However, in this contactless environment, it is challenging to sustain a desirable corporate culture. That’s why the HR initiatives that organizations had thought were years away, when a more digital environment was expected to be prevalent, are being brought forward now.

You mentioned that the pandemic has forced digitalization to become accelerated. How will that affect the employee experience?

These days, even industrial businesses like GE are pursuing digitalization because that is what the market demands and what customers need. We’re also enabling digitalization for our employees, and we want to focus on two aspects of the employee experience: simplified and employee-centric.

The first aspect is simplified. GE has 156 HR-related systems globally, which includes every in-house developed systems, external systems, and standalone tools specific to each country. From the employee perspective, HR-related tasks will be much simpler and more efficient when most of these systems are integrated or consolidated within Workday Human Capital Management. Everything will be processed in real time, so the speed of processing will be sure to garner a positive response from our employees.

The second aspect that I want to emphasize is becoming more employee-centric. What’s unique in our approach is that we view our employees as customers rather than system users. We designed the system to allow employees to access information that was previously available only to senior managers or HR staff. Therefore, people leaders are now empowered to make decisions about their teams, which includes things like recruitment, performance development, and compensation.

“What will ultimately keep everyone safe and ensure business continuity is adopting a new mindset and set of behaviors.” 

Mira Lee Chief Human Resources Officer GE Korea

How do you think GE’s HR policy and strategy will evolve? How important will IT be in your future HR strategy?

In a lecture I recently gave at a university, one student asked what they should learn to become an HR specialist after they graduate. My answer was to learn coding, and the student was a bit confused by my response. But the reason for my answer is I believe HR is the industry most influenced by technological innovation. HR professionals have to adapt to new technologies before the rest of the organization. There are so many benefits from technological innovations, such as analytics, big data, and AI, that will continue to add new value to what HR has already been doing.

Let me give you a recent example: Since February, I have been leading the crisis response team in Korea for COVID-19, and in that role I had to make a lot of decisions in uncertain situations. The most difficult decision I had to make was when to allow employees to return to the office after months of working from home. Because it's directly related to employee safety and business continuity, we had to really think it through before making a decision.

Normally, we would analyze various situations before making a decision, but we tried a different approach in this scenario.  Before we made a decision, we conducted an employee survey on returning to work, which was supported by our IT team. We asked employees things like how they felt about the company’s response to COVID-19—including the safety of work, measures to protect employees, and internal communications—and shared the transition plan that we have been gradually working on. Thanks to IT’s support, conducting all these activities and analyzing the results took less than a day.

Per the survey results, 90% of our employees expressed a high level of trust and positive feedback. They also suggested what we should consider in deciding when to return to the office. Based on these findings, our leadership team could make decisions with confidence. Now, it's been more than two months since we returned to the office and we have continued to run our business safely.

What advice do you have for other HR leaders who are starting to plan their return to the workplace?

There are basic requirements that companies should follow to ensure a safe environment before their employees return to work. Some examples are temperature monitoring at entrances, face mask requirements, accessible hand sanitizers and antibacterial film covers, new desk arrangements, and plexiglass partitions. However, what will ultimately keep everyone safe and ensure business continuity is adopting a new mindset and set of behaviors.

During the work from home period, our leadership message was about how the organization is doing all it can to protect our employees. However, now that we’re back in the office, a lot of that responsibility is on the employees to protect themselves and others. Even though we’ve instilled new regulations and protocols, it’s the responsibility of each individual to make sure they’re following them while in the office. Our community can remain safe only when everyone observes and follows the same rules.

It’s also crucial that leaders are empathetic and understand that their employees are doing their best to cope with the new realities. The workplace is going to look a lot different, so we need to stop comparing it to the past and adjust our expectations about how things should be done in our new normal.

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