HP’s people chief on COVID-19 lessons from China and the end of work as we know it
"It's all coronavirus all the time," says Tracy Keogh, "but we're taking a lot of lessons learned from what's going on."
Tracy Keogh is no stranger to drastic change. The onetime psych major and hospital staffer made her way to HP in 2011, and since then has weathered the ouster of CEO Léo Apotheker, the rise of Meg Whitman and the biggest corporate split in Silicon Valley history.
Still, HP Inc.'s chief human resources officer has never seen anything quite like COVID-19. The virus hit the company's China operations in January, then unleashed a global domino effect on its 55,000-person workforce, forcing a breakneck transition to remote R&D and emergency manufacturing.
"It's all coronavirus all the time," Keogh said, "but we're taking a lot of lessons learned from what's going on."
Keogh spoke with Protocol from her home in Silicon Valley about what the Wuhan office has taught the rest of the company, how to weather a pandemic with a new CEO, and why HP's reopening plans treat the virus like a "rolling blackout" poised to force permanent changes to daily work.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
When did it become clear that COVID-19 was something HP would have to grapple with?
In January, as China started to be hit, we were dealing with it then. It didn't seem like something abstract to us. It was like, "This is coming." My husband's a doctor, and I worked in health care, so we understood what was happening.
As it started to migrate, we sent people home fairly early and began supporting them in lots of different ways. We had one of our first calls in the first week of March with our medical director, because we have onsite clinics, and I remember a third of the U.S. workforce was on the call. We now have doctor's hours one day a week.
We created a calendar: motivational Mondays, training Tuesdays, wellbeing Wednesdays, thoughtful Thursdays where we figure out how to do volunteerism, then family and friends Fridays. The second thing I did was throw together a homeschooling panel, because I realized, "Oh my gosh, they got sent home with nothing." People are trying to figure out how to teach their children in addition to doing work.
How has the impact varied from location to location?
I remember Italy was so hard hit. They had a session one night where they did a Zoom call, and one of the fathers of one of our employees just played beautiful classical music on the piano. It was so heartfelt.
All the programming we do, we figure out what makes sense locally. You think globally, but you have to act locally, because the trajectory of the virus, the requirements of the employees are all different. You can't kind of broad-brushstroke any solutions.
What are some of the things that were once unimaginable to do remotely, and what sort of reinvented versions of them might stick around?
Well you know, there are issues around cybersecurity and customer support that we figured out how to solve. You name it. One of the big things we've learned is around communication and how actually it can be a better experience for people.
Our CEO used to do what I call barnstorming tours. We'd travel with him to Singapore and India and whatever, and they were really difficult. We loved to do an all-employee meeting, but you'd get somewhere and only 200 people could fit in the auditorium. We're doing that virtually now. We have a new CEO and we call them Connect with Enrique calls. The whole leadership team joins. Everyone in an office can be on the call and have a chance to ask a question live.
The engagement numbers are through the roof because they seem very personal. That's a much better way to do that from an environmental standpoint, for wear and tear on your executive team. That doesn't mean we won't go visit offices again, but I feel like there have been a lot of breakthroughs around how we connect with and support employees.
At this point, are you focused on setting concrete dates for things like resuming business travel and reopening offices, or are you gearing up for indefinite remote work?
It's going to be a mix. There's not one answer to anything. We are working on the returning plans. We've already had offices return in Asia, and then some of them had to go back out again. We're very clear about managing expectations and how we're making decisions.
It's employees' health and safety first, then how we're supporting our customers and partners. Obviously it's taking in the local guidelines and regulations and situation. Even in offices where people have come back, maybe 40% of people are in the office. We're looking at, how many can we accommodate in an office based on social distancing, and who really needs to be in there? R&D is priority, people who need to do certain onsite manufacturing.
There may be some places where we don't want to bring people back, or they don't want to come back. We just did a mobility survey with 10,000 employees, and 87% were like, "Hey, I like working from home. I have everything I need." We were a little surprised how high the numbers were.
Are there lessons on the business side as well for HP?
We do this as a business. We like to be our own guinea pigs on things. How are we showing that our mobility approach from a product standpoint is working? You know, when people went home, guess what became really important? Printers. We figured out how to pivot. We were able to create packages for customers to give their employees printers at home.
What was the first office to reopen?
Wuhan I think was the first one.
How did that even work?
What was great about it was, first of all, people were excited to come back. We created welcome kits that had masks and hand sanitizer, and they kind of had a little celebration. But everybody didn't come back at once. They staggered the positions.
As you watch the virus continue to flare up around the globe, do you have a standard set of indicators to evaluate when to open, or is it analyzed market by market?
We have a framework. You take into account local government guidelines. We start with the CDC. The answers fall out pretty easily on what to do.
But when there are cases where we have to support, like manufacturing, that are critical in some cases, we make sure we are providing all the safety equipment that we can. Early on you couldn't get access to enough PPE. Our plant in Puerto Rico pivoted. The head of the plant there figured out they have alcohol there from all the rum makers, and he knew them, so they were able to make hand sanitizer. They ultimately got FDA approval, and we were able to ship it to the mainland for our field technicians, and now customers and other people.
What about the employee benefit side of this? You mentioned that HP has onsite clinics, but how has the pandemic changed the way you think about things like health care for employees?
A lot of companies have clinics, and we were one of the first to open clinics in India. Ours has shown to have a positive ROI. It's a benefit, and it also helps us manage costs. This has just been another reinforcement of why it's important to have those health care relationships.
We're doing our global wellness challenge right now. We do this every year, and this year it's virtual. It couldn't have happened at a better time. We usually have onsite exercise facilities and gyms in various places. Those folks have moved to be virtual.
You were saying you've had to move a lot of health programming online.
Ah, yes. They're doing online yoga classes and fitness things. One thing we've learned is people really need structure and help to be able to continue to operate effectively.
After our homeschooling seminar, I had four teachers come and talk: an elementary school teacher, a middle school teacher, a high school teacher, and somebody who does homeschooling and special ed. We're going to do homework clubs now.
We're also doing a manager training — how do you manage from a mobility standpoint in this current environment? Maybe your employee has a young child. They can't be on calls in the morning. You need to figure out a different schedule. They have to understand productivity in this new world. They're so used to, oh, if I see that person in the office, I think they're working.
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Is HP thinking about permanently changing the portion of employees that work remotely or other lasting changes in how people work?
We certainly will have a much higher portion of people working from home. People want that, and it's positive overall from a cost standpoint and with flexibility. But it's also not going to be easy to come back. We don't feel like this is going to be a "V." We see this as almost a rolling blackout kind of a thing.
I'm rethinking all of our people strategies. What does career development look like? What does hiring look like? What does compensation look like? Companies that are on top of it are really looking at those things and pivoting. The biggest challenge is the uncertainty. It's going to change work, I think, in every way.