HRZone: Why we should not forget diversity and inclusion during the Covid-19 pandemic
Blogs 18th May 2020 8 minutes read
I am pleased this week to continue our Q&A with Leaders Series, Planning for a New World, with the accomplished and insightful Maria Antoniou, the Senior Vice President HR & Executive HR for E.ON.
Globally, leaders are facing challenges at a scale which, not only did they not foresee or plan for, but that even the longest and most successful careers did not prepare us for. Now, more than ever, we must act in the interest of, not only our own business, but the wider global economy and professional community. This means sharing our knowledge and experiences and, where possible, helping our peers to navigate this unique and, dare I say it, ‘unprecedented’ moment in modern history.
It is for that reason, I am pleased to introduce this week’s Q&A with Leaders series, ‘Planning for a New World’, featuring the accomplished and insightful Maria Antoniou, the Senior Vice President HR & Executive HR for E.ON.
As Managing Director of executive recruitment and diversity consultancy, Green Park, I have been in the fortunate position to speak with many business leaders, across functions and sectors this past couple of months. As ever, I am humbled at their commitment, resilience and ingenuity and particularly the compassion and agility with which they’ve overhauled their business models in the interest of the safety and wellbeing of their staff and customers. No where is this truer than in the realms of HR, which have had to manage employee welfare, alongside new ways of working and structural change and cost saving.
In this candid and informative interview, Maria shares the ways her and the E.On team have adapted to ensure business continuation and the positive lessons she will take with her into the ‘new normal’.
Senior Vice President HR & Executive HR
Maria joined E.ON in 2008 as the UK HR Director and in 2013 was appointed to the position of Senior Vice President.
E.ON is one of the largest European operators of energy grids and provider of customer solutions focused entirely on the new energy world. E.ON makes energy cleaner, is dedicated to climate protection, is bringing energy into the digital age and is enabling customers to shape their energy future. E.ON employs over 80,000 people and operates in over 12 different European countries.
Over the last 7 years Maria has led the HR function as E.ON transformed from a traditional vertically integrated utility to a customer focussed provider of energy solutions. This involved a major spin-off of the conventional generation and trading business and the acquisition of Innogy – E.ON’s biggest competitor in Germany.
How has Covid impacted E.ON?
A major portion of E.ON’s business is critical infrastructure which is regulated and as such the company’s portfolio is more resilient than many businesses. But like the vast majority of businesses E.ON is not immune. Covid has particularly had a negative impact on B2B commodity customers and sales volume, with an expectation that bad debt will continue to increase and volume remain low across all segments for some time. In addition, other than essential work, work performed in customers’ homes has had to stop. Across Europe we have moved thousands of employees to working from home arrangements.
The Group-Wide crisis management team was deployed in January and all but critical business travel stopped. The Crisis Team was probably deployed earlier than in many UK companies, which is a reflection of the company’s geography and the differing governmental responses to Covid across Europe; ranging from liberal Sweden who are operating on a trust basis, all the way to Central and Eastern European countries who have put in place extremely stringent measures.
The first priority was to ensure the safety of employees and to ensure lights could be kept on across Europe – as an infrastructure provider E.ON is key to keeping economies going and our employees have continually gone above and beyond during the crisis.
A positive impact of Covid is that it has speeded up the integration of Innogy into E.ON - we have a common ‘burning platform’ and topics that seemed of major importance a few weeks ago now seem trivial as we focus on maintaining business continuity for our customers
As a CPO with a broad set of responsibilities, how has your day changed – what has been the focus of the HR team?
Covid had a major impact on me personally – my sister works in Shanghai so Covid was a reality for my family way before it hit Europe. For the last 7 years, I have also commuted to Germany on a weekly basis by plane. This stopped abruptly on the 13th of March when air travel effectively stopped and borders closed and since then I have been working successfully from my home office. I am fortunate that technology has meant I can operate as if I were in the office and we have fully utilised Microsoft Teams, enabling me to have regular one to ones with my direct reports and HR leaders across Europe. Keeping the HR community together and sharing best practice during the crisis has been vitally important – this has also included sharing what other companies across Europe are doing.
At E.ON we reached an agreement very quickly with Unions and Works Councils across Europe on a wide range of topics. These included how we maintain essential operations, how we move to remote working - including the provision of equipment, - changes in shift patterns and agreements related to short time working and furlough. Each country across Europe has different Covid workforce mitigations so there is no ‘one size fits all’ but in E.ON we have a long history of social partnership and our People Commitments, that are jointly agreed with E.ON’s European Works Council, have provided us with a valuable compass.
The health and safety of employees has been our priority. We have dialled up our employee assistance and our online learning offerings with particular focus on mindfulness and how we can work from home effectively and utilise the myriad of remote working tools.
HR has also been heavily involved in shaping what the ‘new normal’ could look like – everything from the potential future shape and size of the business, working practices and how employees will
return to the office. We have developed Standard Operating Practices in Crisis Conditions that describe how social distancing can be implemented. It describes everything from office layouts, to journey flows through buildings and even how many people can safely travel in a lift!
I have also spent time encouraging our leaders to recognise the challenges that different employees are experiencing. Covid has bought into focus socio-economic differences – an important and often over-looked diversity strand. In addition to the employees who are coping with isolation relatively well and have plenty of indoor and external space, there are international work placement students stuck oversees and self-isolating in tiny studios away from their families, single parents in apartments without gardens who are simultaneously managing both childcare and work, and many others whom the impact may be more harshly felt. Another consideration I am encouraging is for leaders to be mindful of their language and its greater meaning. For example, we encourage the use of the phrase ‘return to the office’ rather than ‘return to work,’ as employees have been doing everything possible to maintain business continuity, which the latter may unintentionally undermine.
A real positive of the crisis is the rapid adoption of technology and home working – both will be carefully factored into our ‘new normal’.
How has that impacted your views on workforce planning, your values and your organisational structure?
The crisis has actually reinforced E.ON’s values of putting our customer first, working together, improving & innovating, winning together and acting responsibly with an open mind. Our employees have shown huge ingenuity in maintaining business continuity and E.ON has become an even more integral part of the community.
It is too early to say what the impact on our organisational structure will be. It will depend on how long the crisis will last, the type of recovery and the financial impact on the company. Like most others, we have taken immediate actions to preserve cash, including redoubling our efforts on delivering acquisition synergies. E.ON has a strong performance culture and culture of continuous improvement, so our structures will continually be reviewed to ensure they are fit for the future and affordable.
I anticipate that the world of work will look different going forward with a greater proportion of employees working from home and significantly less business travel – the latter not just for cost control reasons but because it has been shown that virtual meetings work!
Does your current 3-5-year people strategy still stand relevant moving forward or is this leading you to reconsider the long-term plan?
I think 5-year business plans belong to another era – technology is developing so fast that Covid has reinforced that we live in a VUCA world. What is more important for an organisation these days is to have a clear sense of Purpose and strong values.
E.ON’s People Strategy has three pillars – Preparing our People for the Future, Providing Opportunities and Recognising Performance. These pillars have proved enduring and flexible enough to support a spin-off, acquisition and transformation of our organisation. I don’t envisage that these pillars will change. What has enabled HR to stay close to the business is our agile approach – 10% of the People Strategy is over-arching group wide initiatives. The remaining 90% is for individual business units and countries to populate in the way that is most appropriate for their unit.
Have you found that the talent agenda has been in any way delayed or de-prioritised during recent times?
Talent remains top of our agenda as we are still staffing E.ON’s Future Operating Model that is required as a result of the acquisition. The acquisition has naturally expanded out talent pool. We continue to recruit where we have skill gaps or where we have business growth opportunities.
Do you anticipate any changes to how to attract and retain talent?
In general E.ON has a low attrition rate this is not uncommon in our sector – of course there are functions and countries where attrition is higher and where our people have ‘hot’ skills. Before anyone joins a new employer going forward, I suspect that they will carry out greater due diligence, particularly for more senior hires. Covid has also accelerated how technology is used in recruitment – video interviewing has become the norm and we have implemented virtual onboarding programmes.
I anticipate that there will be a wealth of great talent coming on to the market in the coming months as unfortunately some sectors will be disproportionally affected by the crisis. This will provide E.ON with an opportunity to recruit from different sectors that will help us accelerate our transformation into a customer centric energy solutions provider. I would encourage talent coming on to the market to challenge themselves on future sector and to really define what transferable skills they have.
In summary what have you learnt, what improvements have you made that you will retain and how have your values assisted you to navigate the transformation?
I have learnt many things over the last couple of months – that an organisation of 80,000 people can pivot at speed, that business continuity can be maintained in the most adverse circumstances and that we have the most ingenious, resilient and caring group of employees.
On a personal basis I have recognised how important it is to ensure you find new ways of having those coffee machine conversations, ensuring that fun and humour is injected into the business and how important it is to call your team members just for a chat.