How coronavirus changed cannabis culture and employee communications for good.

Coronavirus created a moment of truth for cannabis culture. The industry had to navigate constantly evolving legislation, changing consumer behaviors, employee uncertainty and patient safety concerns, and so much more.

The virus forced leaders to reflect on culture and how company values define the direction of the business in unprecedented times. The values exhibited by strong cultures are collaboration, agility, integrity, people-centricity, innovation, accountability and ambition (source). These came into the spotlight during the pandemic and encouraged cannabis leaders to evaluate initiatives that support the “new normal”.

Wurk sat down with cannabis human resource professionals spanning multiple verticals, states, and business sizes to discuss how COVID-19 has tested their culture and what will remain integrated in their future people strategy.

This is a summary of our fireside chat, "Workforce Strategy Amidst COVID-19". Watch the recording now.

Testing the foundation

Coronavirus tested the existing culture of cannabis businesses and encouraged leaders to evaluate the effectiveness of their existing people initiatives.

“This was a test of what we’ve already done to build trust and lines of communication with our employees,” said Sara Thom, Director of People Operations at Native Roots. “You’re not able to implement radical change overnight. These relationships have to have a foundation.”

Numerous cannabis HR managers reported changes in organizational structure to help maintain coverage while employees cared for family members or became ill themselves. Employees who had never managed people before are now in positions that oversee staff in a high-stress environment. Those that had training programs, standard operating procedures and strong communication methods were more equipped to handle this transition.

Protecting people

Essential employees had to adopt the “new norm,” which meant enforced social distancing, staggering of meal breaks, increased sanitation and safety protocols, and more. This put an emotional toll on cannabis employees and managers, which affected productivity and engagement. 

Plus, during uncertainty and changing safety regulations, some organizations had to communicate with employees that did not want to return to work at all.

“Employers should have discussions with folks about why they don’t want to return,” said Attorney, Dean Rocco. “If they don’t have a protected reason, employers are left with a choice of administrative leave or separation, which could impact the worker’s unemployment eligibility.”

Cannabis HR leaders were tasked with not only ensuring employees adhere to new regulations, but also had to manage employee fear surrounding economic and health consequences. This was a common challenge that sometimes resulted in unique accommodations or solutions such as an Essential Business Premium Pay and Emergency Health Insurance.

“We had to understand how employee needs have changed around health and wellbeing and ensure we are providing resources to best support them,” said Miles Raymer, Director of Human Resources at Northern Emeralds in California.

Communicate transparently

Top-down communication gave cannabis operators an opportunity to express culture in meaningful and honest ways during the height of the pandemic.

“Our intention was to educate employees, avoid misinformation and take a science-based, rational approach to communication,” said Raymer.

Elizabeth Hauser, Director of Payroll and Total Rewards at GTI stated that the company believes transparency is key in communication to both employees and patients. They send out email communications to employees weekly and provide resources and HR documents through a secure online portal. Additionally, their quarterly town hall meetings will be virtual moving forward to ensure frequent connections with the whole company.

Native Roots is providing ongoing training on financial management, stress management, healthcare options, etc. to keep employees informed of their resources during the difficult time.

Remain flexible

The cannabis industry is familiar with adhering to complex compliance requirements and evolving processes. “This industry is already used to having to be flexible/nimble,” said Thom. “Our strength in this space really enabled us to pivot our business model throughout this time - often with 24 hours or less notice.”

Businesses that promote dynamic team flexibility that can adapt as the pandemic develops will be even more successful. “We need to double-down on our core values but be willing to adapt all of the systems and processes that determine whether or not we’re able to realize and embody those values,” said Raymer.

As GTI looks to the future, Hauser is rethinking how they structure positions (i.e. do they need more “floater” roles now than before). They are closely monitoring customer demand changes and aligning business priorities to those behaviors in order to remain competitive.

Adjusting to the new normal has been difficult, frustrating, and even impossible for some businesses. But, the industry’s ability to quickly transform to ensure cannabis is safely accessible for all is commendable and a strong representation of what we’re capable of.

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