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COVID-19 Insights: Tom Plath (MBA’91)

Jun 23, 2020
The SVP HR of International Paper discusses the impact of remote work on team productivity and management

By Nathaniel Luce

Across the world, Vanderbilt Business alumni find themselves on different frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this installment of COVID-19 Insights, Tom Plath, SVP HR and Global Citizenship at International Paper, discusses team productivity in remote settings and offers guidance to managers and executives operating in a distanced work environment. 

How do you effectively keep teams productive in remote settings?

Of the approximately 50,000 people at International Paper, about 40,000 are going in to work in our facilities, because we are an essential industry operating 24-7, 365 days a year. So, the largest challenge we met was to give them the capability to work safely in proximity to one another and exercise social distancing.

For the rest of our workforce, we have provided conventional tools such as video conferencing. Their success, however, comes from knowing the company well, understanding the expectations, and living our culture of collaboration. You can have all the tools in the world, but those are superficial if you don’t also have people committed to work and to their teammates. Because of this, we have been very effective, with the great majority of work being done at the same level as it was in an office setting.

What is a lesson you have learned from remote work, and how will IP look to apply this for future operations?

We have surprised ourselves with how well our managers are managing. I don’t think the role of managers in this environment has received enough attention. Our managers quickly figured out how to provide feedback, offer care, and build esprit de corps using the tools available.

I have also learned that video technology has several significant shortcomings. A video meeting is a challenging place to disagree. It is tough to debate, plan, or decide on a path forward around contentious topics, because you can’t work off one another and use inputs like body language effectively. So, while we will likely have more flexibility moving forward, we continue to see real value in people working together in person.

What advice would you offer managers in working with their teams remotely — what makes an effective leader?

While the tactics of being a manager are currently different, the rationale and motivations remain the same. Effective managers already understand the importance of communication and listening and that, right now, this just needs to be deployed differently.

There are a lot of people trying to tell you what “best practice” looks like. I would hesitate to say a one-size-fits-all approach applies; leaders have to figure this out for themselves. To me, best practice is having a one-on-one conversation about how you and I work together and being agile and responsive.

What guidance or learnings can you share with other C-Suite and HR leaders?

People who are listening, learning, and trying new things right now are seeing success. Our HR leaders are out talking to people and applying the technique they always have — to create relationships before you get into a crisis. Senior leaders willing to accept that the method has to change but not the motivation are succeeding right now.

I have also learned that there is no substitute for face-to-face human interaction. I was able to have four or five conversations this week, and I realized how much I missed it! It was amazing to notice how many cues you use to navigate conversations. As we come out of this, we should all pay attention to which cues feel new, because that is where we can recognize there was a gap and become better communicators.

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