Putting human resources first • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Putting human resources first

Leaders say focus on employee safety and satisfaction essential to coping, moving past crisis

A focus on employee well-being is one of the predicted workplace trends listed by the Forbes Human Resources Council.

Employees matter — especially during a pandemic.

This lesson was quickly learned by organizations and companies as the crisis forced major changes for businesses and their employees.

A focus on employee well-being is one of the predicted workplace trends listed by the Forbes Human Resources Council. Organizations across Northwest Indiana also are making that a priority as more emphasis is expected to be placed on the human element as the pandemic subsides.

Plan priority

If you own a home or a business along the coasts in Florida, it’s wise to have a hurricane plan. Knowing what to do during that kind of crisis is common sense there. And while it is unlikely the Region will ever face that type of weather, experts say crisis planning is essential in a world of uncertainty.

That goes for having a plan for employees when crisis strikes, too.

Erika Staszewski
Erika Staszewski

“I think this is much like the pandemic, where a large number of organizations and businesses did not have a clear plan in place when it came to preparing for a public health crisis,” said Erika Staszewski, an executive recruiter with Integritas Search LLC, a recruiting organization in South Bend. “Those that seem to have thrived are the ones that quickly created a plan for operations and staff, and then made adjustments as the pandemic progressed.”

Staszewski said businesses that learned about available government assistance weathered the pandemic more successfully. She said dollars provided through the CARES Act supported salaries during tough times and kept employees on the payroll.

The employees at Integritas work on staffing support for a variety of industries and positions, including those in manufacturing sites and office locations.

Mike Niedbalski
Mike Niedbalski

“The pandemic has shown that communication and trust are imperative across all industries,” said Mike Niedbalski, founder and president of Integritas. “In manufacturing, customer service and offices, employers had to set up protocols to ensure employees were safe and kept informed during an evolving situation.”

Niedbalski said they have seen an increase in employee satisfaction for their clients with more team members working from home.

“This has clearly shown a pent-up demand for remote work,” Niedbalski said.

Another theme they have noticed during the pandemic: caution. The recruiting team at Integritas said fewer people have been applying for posted jobs during the crisis.

Pete Owsianowski,

“Instead, we have been helping our clients find passive talent, who may be looking for other work but have been cautious because of the uncertainty with the pandemic,” said Pete Owsianowski, business development director at Integritas.

First things first

To facilitate social distancing and minimize exposure during the pandemic, new employees at Munster-based Peoples Bank have been completing their onboarding virtually. Each employee is provided personal space in a private area within each of his or her respective training locations where they can login and work independently. This way, they can interact with others in the same onboarding session while still maintaining safe social distancing practices.

“Our dedicated team has continued to provide great service throughout the pandemic,” said Ben Bochnowski, president and CEO of Peoples Bank. “Our You First Banking brand is a promise to always put customers first, and we knew we had to keep our employees safe without sacrificing the customer experience.

Ben Bochnowski
Ben Bochnowski

“With regard to new employees, we always followed safety guidelines and were able to shift to virtual onboarding in many cases.”

In lieu of their normal in-person orientation, the Peoples Bank human resources team created an onboarding slide presentation that helped communicate important information and guide new employees through the process. To limit fatigue that is sometimes caused by remote learning, they also reduced the overall duration of the program and have been providing more frequent, individualized follow-ups for employees to address any lingering questions or concerns.

When leadership first learned about the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders were enacted, Peoples Bank organized an internal task force that, in accordance with the CDC’s recommendations, immediately began creating protocols to address pandemic-related issues affecting their workforce.

“These protocols included policies that all employees were expected to acknowledge and abide by,” Bochnowski said. “We had three guiding principles at the forefront of every decision, in this order: ensure the health and safety of employees, customers and communities; ensure the stability of operations; and manage risk for future stability.”

Bochnowski said the goal was to incorporate safe practices, avoid service disruption and continue to provide the best banking experience possible. The task force continues meeting weekly to discuss the status of the pandemic and sends out regular communications to all employees informing them of protocol changes and related issues.

One of the core values for Peoples Bank is community.

When the pandemic struck the Region, and amid the nationwide movement calling for social change, Peoples Bank created an employee-led diversity, equity and inclusion team.

“This team’s goals are to develop a framework of diversity, further diversify our workforce, identify potential internal barriers to success, and enhance current policies to better embrace the diversity already present at the bank,” Bochnowski said.

Recently, the committee achieved the first of its successes by presenting to their executive committee a proposal to eliminate credit checks from the bank’s hiring process. This is even more important now, since the pandemic is expected to bring an increased number of talented, qualified applicants who are experiencing its residual effects.

The protocol change allows for a more inclusive process that will benefit both the bank and candidates applying for positions within the bank for many years to come.

“This pandemic has affected our economy in a number of ways, and the DEI team has done a great job jumping in and addressing these issues head on at a time when our communities need it most,” Bochnowski said. “Economic recovery from the pandemic will require all of us working together, (and) the more we include people in the recovery, the more prosperous we will all be.”

Communication lines

Mirko Marich
Mirko Marich

According to Mirko Marich, president of Staff Source in Hammond, communication has been key during the pandemic. He said his leadership checked in with team members via phone and video.

“This went a long way with our employees,” Marich said. “Communication has always been vital to successful productivity in our office.”

Providing feedback and celebrating successes has a strong effect on performance,” he said.

“During this pandemic, employees need constructive criticism and positive feedback now more than ever,” he said. “Acknowledging the struggles and successes has helped our employees stay focused and motivated in these stressful times.”

When it comes to clients, many for Staff Source are essential businesses. So, while the organization slowed down at the onset of the pandemic during mandatory shutdowns, Staff Source never stopped working, company executives said.

Marich said Staff Source has been conducting more phone screens and video interviews via a variety of platforms. “Internally, most of the best practices we would recommend are things that should always be in place, but some may not have been a top priority in the past,” Marich said. “Health and safety of staff and visitors must be a priority.

“When employees don’t feel their safety is a priority, it can cause unnecessary stress, which in turn has a negative effect on productivity.”

Optimizing outreach

Starting a new job can cause some anxiety for a new hire because of the unfamiliarity with new processes, but experts say those issues are amplified during the pandemic because of remote-work situations.

For South Bend-based 1st Source Bank, the answer has been an increased emphasis on outreach. They have made a concentrated effort to touch base more frequently with new hires via phone, video chat and mailing information packets.

Dan Lifferth
Dan Lifferth

“It has been important to maintain close contact, using technology, to increase support and decrease added anxiety due to being onboarded in entirely different ways during a pandemic or working remotely,” said Dan Lifferth, senior vice president for human resources at 1st Source Bank.

Lifferth said those same processes extend to established employees who were forced to work remotely because of the crisis. He said 1st Source leaders have been frequently touching base with direct reports via video conferencing.

“We also build in team engagement events using video conferencing, get all team members on a video call, deliver box lunches to their home(s) or remote working location and conduct fun engagement events while enjoying a home-delivered box lunch,” Lifferth said.

“Leaders also maintain a current list of all remote workers and schedule reminders to consider the impact of decisions to them and how to ensure successful inclusion on all communications and events.”

Lifferth also said other tactics include:

  • Inviting all employees to regular town hall meetings conducted via video conference with senior leaders; ensure they are given opportunities to ask questions and get answers; and demonstrate a sincere interest in them one-on-one and on group video calls.
  • Hosting fun video engagement events, where employees go around and have all remote team members answer an engaging personal question while on a team video chat.
  • Celebrating and highlighting wins via video.
  • Setting the expectation to have cameras on when in a call to achieve the full interpersonal experience.
  • Surveying employees and giving them feedback on the survey and setting goals to improve engagement.

Lifferth said 1st Source has used gamification to improve employee well-being during the pandemic. They have introduced games during video calls and meetings to create a better team environment and make the overall remote work experience more enjoyable and fun.

Lifferth said, however, it is imperative not to lose sight of the company’s goals, mission, values and accountability principles.

“However you built in two-way communication before, it is important to triple that when in a remote-working experience,” Lifferth said. “We have done this through surveys, feedback and setting goals to improve engagement.”

Click here to read more from the February / March 2021 issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Christopher Adam

    Chris Adam is a freelance journalist, writer and editor with experience working in television, digital and print. He also is a volunteer crisis counselor and mental health advocate. Adam is an Indiana native with a degree in communications from Purdue University.


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