Leadership Through Crisis — A Resilient Response

Leadership Profile
Written by Megan Woodruff

Susan Bruechner


The Standard

June 2020

When leading through the pandemic, The Standard has designed their approach to have a cascading impact — take care of the workforce so employees can then take care of the ones they love as well as customers. 

Susan Bruechner is vice president and chief human resources officer of The Standard, a leading provider of financial protection products and services for employers and individuals. The Standard employs about 3,000 employees and has its headquarters in Portland, Oregon, as well as offices located in Cincinnati, Ohio, Alta Vista, Virginia and White Plains, New York, the epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Bruechner says the pandemic has come with its challenges, but her organization has practiced agility as it has pivoted.

What's been interesting is that because of this pandemic, we've had a forced experiment. And what we've proven over the course of these months is that we are very capable, very resilient and candidly, very productive in a telecommuting/telework environment.

Bruechner reflects on how The Standard has answered the needs of its employees, creating new programs to address the concerns of the workforce.

How has your organization responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and communicated that response to the workforce?

I don't think that we would have thought we could do this as well as we've done it. It's been a partnership between our IT staff to make sure that we had additional VPN capability. We had never tried to send 3,000 people all at once to go hit our VPN. And of course, the global pandemic has had different time frames in terms of where it's hitting different geographies, so we've had some staggered impacts that we've then had to respond to as an employee and leadership base. 

The crisis communications have been similar to our existing communications — but on steroids — and it's been super effective. Our CEO has been doing weekly videos to all of our employees and we, as the senior leadership team, have been doing videos to our employees. In addition to that, we have our formal channels where we communicate. I would say that those channels were already in place. It's just more frequent, more robust.

Are there any policies you’ve created to accommodate your employees in this new environment?

We knew that people were missing spring breaks. We knew that all of the schools closed. We knew that people had childcare needs, that people had elder care needs. So, we stood up a few policies and revised current policies. A new policy that we implemented is temporary pandemic leave, which provides an additional two weeks of paid leave. It can be taken either intermittently or on a continuous basis. It’s intended to help employees that either are experiencing their own illness, they’re caregiving for someone who's ill, or they have childcare needs. Pandemic leave is to help ensure that employees are not concerned about pay or about being able to provide for their families.

In addition to pandemic leave, we've increased our annual PTO rollover from 80 hours to 120 hours. That will take effect on January 1, 2021. It was already on our benefits strategy for next year, but we weren't planning to announce it until this summer. We thought it would be best to take that concern off people's minds.

We also just announced that we're going to allow up to 40 hours of temporary PTO sell back. We don't know what goes on in individual families or what people's financial situations are, so selling some PTO could help them financially if they’re not going to be able to use it for whatever reason and it would benefit them more to have the cash in hand. We are offering that program through the end of September. 

How are you promoting employee wellness and gauging the workforce’s reaction to how the organization has pivoted?

We had some onsite wellness like yoga, Pilates, Zumba, etc. We've contracted with an organization that's now providing all that virtually so everybody can join free wellness classes. It's been well-received. And we also have an employee resource group called Partners in Mind that's focused on mental health, and we've been partnering with that ERG as well as some external experts to provide virtual webinars explaining how employees can take care of themselves and some things like centering and meditation. 

We've offered these resources in person before, but since we've started offering them virtually, we’ve seen more of our workforce attending. So that's clearly something people need right now as they are trying to find balance.

We just launched a pulse survey to all our employees to ask them how we are doing, so that we can anticipate areas of opportunity where we can continue to support, or perhaps tweak our current support, or completely flip it on its head if necessary. We're asking how communication has been, if employees feel connected to their boss and coworkers, if they have the tools/equipment necessary to perform their jobs, etc. 

What I'm hoping to gather is twofold. One, what sort of programs can we put in place around resiliency, and what kind of support can we offer our employees? And two, as we think about returning to the office, what concerns do our workers have as they leave their homes?

What has inspired you about your workforce during this time?

A success story is hearing the feedback that teams are actually more connected now and that the pandemic has been an equalizer. So, what I mean is that we're all over the country. Whether you're in a different field office, in Cincinnati or White Plains, everybody’s on video. Everybody has barking dogs, or a kid on their lap or internet issues. It's really kind of created this environment of 'we're all in this together. We're all going to roll up our sleeves and we're going to figure it out and we're going to be supremely patient with each other.'  


Special thanks to Susan Bruechner and The Standard.

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