The world of work before, during and after the pandemic

Human Resources experts, School of LER alumni, from Zippo Inc., Netflix and Delta Air Lines discuss pandemic-related changes.
The world of work before, during and after the pandemic

Bunny Comilla, Ayanna Anis, and David Needham

You can read the original story on Penn State News here.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The way we work has been forever altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Human resource experts and Penn State alumni from Netflix, Zippo and Delta Air Lines met in October for a webinar to discuss how these changes have impacted their companies. This event was part of a webinar series co-hosted by the Center for Workplace Performance and the Virtual Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) chapter at Penn State. 

Three alumni of the School of Labor and Employment Relations’ (LER) online Master of Professional Studies program in human resources and employment relations presented during the webinar: Bunny Comilla, senior director of global human resources at Zippo Manufacturing Co. and Northern Lights Candles; Ayanna Anis, director of human resources at Netflix Inc.;  and David Needham, human resources manager for Delta Air Lines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. 

Antone Aboud, professor of practice and a member of the online team in LIR, opened the meeting with background information regarding remote work practices. He noted, “There have always been situations where remote work had to be done but most of the time it was considered a benefit for the employee. This year has changed all that. Working from home isn’t just a nice benefit. It’s a reality and something necessary to make sure a business survives.”

According to Aboud and data collected by Statista, before the pandemic, 47% of employees had never worked from home. After the pandemic, that number has dropped to 34%. The number of people working from home five or more days a week increased from 17% before the pandemic to 44% currently.

The full webinar can be viewed here

More opportunities for a diverse talent pool 

Bunny Comilla For Bunny Comilla and Zippo Inc., which is headquartered in Bradford, Pennsylvania, the early days of the pandemic saw a layoff of manufacturing workers. Support staff were shifted to remote work to maintain the business. 

“We were initially focused on what could we do during what we believed would be a short-term situation,” Comilla said. “We had to get our employees working from home proper access to programs they needed, including hardware, software and better bandwidth speeds. I think our IT folks worked 24/7 for many weeks to enable the employees to have the access they needed,” she said. 

Upon returning to manufacturing work, Comilla said the company instated a strict screening process for essential employees and created an in-house COVID committee to support employees. Because of Bradford’s rural setting, case numbers have remained low — as of the date of the webinar, there had been no positive cases within the employee base.

There are three companies within the Zippo ownership: Zippo and W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Co. in Bradford and Northern Lights Candles in Wellsville, New York. Comilla said one of the positive outcomes of the move to remote work was the creation of a communications platform for employees of all three companies where information like COVID updates, benefits and unemployment information could be shared. 

“In the beginning, we weren’t comfortable with remote work, but now we’re getting better and it has allowed us to stretch our boundaries and give our employees flexibility. We’re a smaller company, so I think this has shown how we value the family culture,” Comilla added. 

For the future, Comilla said remote work has opened the door to a wider talent pool at Zippo. “It could be an advantage to us because we could attract candidates who might not want to relocate to small-town Pennsylvania, but could work remotely,” she said. “There are concerns about work-life balance and people miss having in-person events, but I think there are certainly new opportunities we’ll look at differently.”

Increased focus on employee mental health 

Ayanna AnisAs a majority of the country spent a lot of time at home this year, a good Netflix binge became a common escape from reality. According to Ayanna Anis, continuing to support staff as they move to remote work has been a priority for Netflix. “During the pandemic, we’ve found people are looking for direction,” she said. 

Keeping a healthy work-life balance quickly became a focus. “We took some initiatives to support caregivers because when school started, it became clear we had a lot of stressed parents trying to figure out how to work with their children at home,” she said. The result was a stipend that caregivers could use any way they needed — from buying new laptops or paying for more bandwidth to even hiring a tutor. 

Anis said employees were not taking time off as the line between home and work became blurred. Salaried employees at Netflix have unlimited paid time off and with travel restrictions people were choosing to work instead of taking time for vacations. To solve this problem, company leadership encouraged employees to use their vacation days and some teams even rotated through mandatory days off. 

Anis said something else that arose was an increase in mental health challenges like burnout as the pandemic wore on. As part of the support system for employees, Netflix provided free unlimited access to mental health professionals. “We also wanted to normalize these challenges. We started to talk about it more and made sure people didn’t feel like it was a secret or something they had to be ashamed of,” she said. Netflix also signed on with Headspace, a mindfulness app.

Anis said the final element of supporting the team was taking care of HR business partners. “We have to take care of ourselves, so we brought in an on-site therapist. We’ve suffered compassion fatigue and have experienced so much bereavement. Having to coach and support employees and leaders through that, we also needed to look after our own mental health,” she said.

A “new normal” for the foreseeable future

David NeedhamFor airlines like Delta, David Needham said he expects that coronavirus testing, social distancing, enhanced cleaning measures, masks and increased workplace safety measures for employees will be part of everyday life for the foreseeable future. 

“We interface with the traveling public so we’re very mindful about providing the cleanest workplaces for our employees knowing that they need to come into work but might be nervous,” he said. 

With limitations on travel, airlines have been hit very hard. Needham explained, “There was a point during the pandemic when JFK Airport had 12 flights per day. Before the pandemic, Delta alone generally ran between 250 and 275 flights per day. To see that number drop so drastically was devastating to our employees and to our business.”  

To compensate for heavy losses, Delta created a strategic plan to reduce the number of staff — without a single involuntary furlough. 

“We provided some unpaid leaves to start with and for employees, that was a very attractive option. With unemployment benefits and the additional $600 from the federal government, some of our employees were making more than when they were working because of reduced hours,” Needham explained. 

Delta also offered an early retirement program and an early out program where employees received severance pay. For employees who fell into a high-risk category and were not comfortable coming to work, the company implemented paid leaves, too. Delta continued to pay employees who were required by the airline to quarantine as a result of contact tracing measures or if their doctor or a government agency required it. After the 14 days elapsed, employees either returned to work or transitioned to short-term disability pay.  

“We’re proud that with the measures we put into place, we didn’t have to involuntarily furlough any of our frontline employees and that was a big win for us,” Needham said. “HR professionals need to be nimble and flexible as things continue to change. The new normal is going to be tough, but we are going to get through it.”

New research 

As the world of work continues to evolve, the study of human resources has reacted to the times. Research conducted by the Center for International Human Resource Studies (CIHRS), a research center also affiliated with the School of LER, has been surveying HR professionals about the changes to their companies and jobs since the start of the pandemic.  

When asked about the extent and nature of changes in their jobs, about 40%of human resource professionals reported their jobs have changed a little for the worse during the pandemic with just 9% reporting a large negative change. 

Interestingly, a further 34% thought their jobs had changed for the better. Survey participants cited alterations in their physical workspace (working from home or managing socially distanced workspaces) and job responsibilities (particularly having to provide more support to employees, like keeping them engaged and safe, as well as greater absence management) as some of the factors that have changed. 

Policy and practice changes were another facet of the survey. Sixty-three percent of survey responders said their existing human resource management policies for flexible work arrangements and telecommuting required “more than substantial” to “a great deal” of revision on a scale of “no revision” to “a great deal of revision.” Policies related to performance management, compensation, layoffs, furloughs or unemployment were in need of the least revision. In fact, more than half of respondents reported no or only slight revision needed.  

Of those surveyed, 78% said they felt mostly prepared to handle questions or concerns regarding work implications of the pandemic. Looking to the future, 84% of those surveyed feel that the HR function or department in their organization is relatively or very much prepared to respond to a future disruptive event like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Elaine Farndale, CIHRS director and professor of human resource management at Penn State, said, “Overall, HR professionals are taking the pandemic in their stride, trying to balance employee and employer needs through a highly demanding and stressful situation. They are rising to the challenge while also having to consider their own well-being as they deal with the same pressures that many employees are facing.” 

For more information about this survey, contact the Center for International Human Resource Studies at

November 11, 2020