A team of diverse people (thoughts, background, experiences, environment) can accomplish challenging work and solve even the toughest problems. Having been on the team that led our company through the pandemic, which caused multiple cases of employee sickness and death while also working as a leader focused on keeping our 100+-year-old business going strong, nobody was EVER trained to do. Yet, together we have successfully made it through. I am SO incredibly proud of that!
With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life.
As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interview Larry Brand.
Larry Brand is Chief Human Resources Officer at Elkay Manufacturing, a 101-year-old manufacturing firm based in Downers Grove, IL, with over 3,000 employees worldwide and 17 global locations. A versatile HR executive with leadership experience serving CEOs, Board of Directors, and global leadership teams, Mr. Brand has over 25 years of business experience with increasing levels of responsibility compelling leadership and boards to adopt business driving people strategies. He is an accomplished leader of talent, strategy, mergers & acquisitions, and board of directors’ relations. Before Elkay, he served as CHRO for Sparton Corporation (NYSE: SPA). He holds an MBA in Management, a BS in Business Administration from the University of Evansville in Evansville, IN, and SPHR and SHRM-SCP human resources designations. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Human Resources Management Association of Chicago (HRMAC) and teaches at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management in Lake Forest, IL.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and have lived here my whole life. I am a diehard Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls fan and take great pride in being from the great Chicago area. My business career has always lent itself to lots of travel, both domestic and international, so I have appreciated the differences of other geographies and countries, allowing me to appreciate my home better. I am a people person and love to be around and help people — husband, father, friend, business leader — people have taught me everything about who I do and do not want to be.
Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?
I have now been working from home for over one year with only occasional visits to our offices. The most significant adjustment for me has been sitting in the same room day after day on a video camera. My job typically involves jam-packed days moving from office to office and meeting to meeting within our office building, along with about 30% business travel to our different locations around the world.
Sitting still and using technology all day long has been difficult for me. For example, when social justice events occurred in the summer of 2020, it was challenging and unsatisfying to interact with employees who were both passionate and emotional about this subject through a video camera. That point in time begged for human interaction and in-person empathy.
What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?
I miss having the flexibility to go where I want and when I want without fear of contracting the virus or having my favorite destination spots closed or out of business. It isn’t easy to relax and be my best self, both personally and professionally, when I cannot go on vacation or to Lake Michigan’s beaches or even to my favorite restaurant.
The pandemic was really a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see because of the COVID pandemic?
That’s so true! The pandemic has been a period of self-reflection for me! It has given me a greater appreciation for so many simple things that I used to take for granted — like family gatherings, in-person friendships, personal conversations that can occur in person anytime we want. And even our local community and the small businesses that are at its foundation. Many of these small businesses did not make it through the pandemic. And I have grown nostalgic about having the luxury and freedom to travel to anywhere my wife, and I desire. I never spent much time thinking about how much each of these aspects of my life matters to me.
In terms of social changes, I would like to see coming out of the pandemic, there are a few.
I hope that the tragic losses we have sustained because of the pandemic give people more empathy and appreciation for those dealing with medical conditions and risks that they live with every day. This pandemic has been much more complex, and the stakes for these health-compromised individuals are much greater than those for people who started healthy at the beginning of the pandemic.
Speaking as a human resources leader, I believe that employers will have come to recognize that many of our professional teams can be just as productive working remotely as they were coming together in a central location. I have come to believe that blending work from home with an in-office schedule can provide a substantial emotional and mental benefit for everyone. But we need to understand and get the blend/mix right for each person because different roles require different levels of collaboration, and we all have different needs when it comes to social interaction.
Finally — and I say this even though I am not a “political animal” at heart, and in the past, I may not have spent much time thinking one way or another about the notion of “big government.” But the pandemic has provided a case study worthy of the history books, demonstrating how in times of crisis, leaving everything up to local and state governments to solve is not the safest or most efficient way for us to get through a difficult time. So, I hope in the future that our government officials can see a way for greater collaboration. We need to get beyond party politics and artificial divisions between federal, state, and local governments to make good-faith efforts that place the right power and authority in the right hands — at the right time — to address the most significant social issues of our day.
What if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.
Some positives have come out of how we have responded to the pandemic.
For example, we learned that working from home for the correct percentage of time has been a powerful benefit for many of our employees. I believe it will transform the way people do their jobs and the employers for whom they want to work.
Coming together during a time of crisis is much easier, in many aspects, than staying together when things are good. I hope that there has been an appreciation for not taking our lifestyle and others for granted going forward.
For example, I now have a greater appreciation for first responders, front-line healthcare workers, distribution and delivery workers, and food supply and manufacturing workers. All these groups were deemed “essential” during the pandemic because they helped us deal with the immediate crisis at hand while keeping our country fed, safe, and moving forward.
I also have a much deeper appreciation for all the simple things we can do in our homes, with our families, and with our close friends when we cannot go out. During the pandemic, I did things that I had forgotten about before the pandemic, such as board games, card games, and enjoying full-day BBQs in my backyard in nice weather. To a certain degree, some of my personal obligations went away over this past year when I could not go anywhere, and I was able to spend that time with my family instead. I don’t want to lose sight of that as the pandemic lifts, so I do not give all that enjoyable personal time back to too many errands and unneeded commitments.
How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?
To avoid monotony, boredom, and isolation, my wife and I participated in many video calls with friends and family. Although I am guilty of watching more watching TV and streaming services than I should have (who can forget the Tiger King!) I also read several good, large novels.
Trying new things became a favorite pastime — I discovered new music genres that I had not tried before during the pandemic, some of which came to my attention because of the time spent with my sons. My family and I also learned to cook new things. We tried to treat this as an adventure of sorts. But we also ordered food in as much as we were able to support our local independent restaurants.
When you spend so much time at home, you notice all the things that are not the way you would want them — so this leads to lots of home projects — both inside and outside the house.
Finally, I became very good at having conversations with my household pets. They always appear to listen and never talk back!
Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?
I am generally an upbeat guy, and I don’t spend a lot of time being fearful or anxious. Still, the pandemic brought up both of those emotions when I thought about the possibility of catching the virus and passing it on to at-risk family members who are either older or medically compromised.
I have substantial family commitments with older parents and children with medical conditions; I think the fear of the unknown and how bad it could be should I contract the virus has been the most challenging aspect of this pandemic for me to live with.
I’ve coped with my pandemic concerns by becoming very conservative in my approach to virus exposure. I’ve also learned to ask for the emotional support I need from my loved ones and not being afraid to share my emotions and fears with my wife as often as I needed to. Having a sense of humor about the situation also helps, but the funny side of things can’t always be seen when you’re in the moment.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t take all the simple things in life for granted because they will not always be there. I love spending time with my family and will never allow my business travel and time away from home to get as high as it used to be.
- Technology can be super helpful and allow you to stay productive when you understand it and fully leverage it — Speaking as a Gen Xer, my comfort and confidence with technology has increased exponentially over the past year.
- The is no substitute for in-person human interaction during celebrations and times of difficulty. Celebrating my son’s 21st birthday remotely while he is in college was terrible; showing empathy to coworkers during social justice events last year was also difficult and awkward.
- A team of diverse people (thoughts, background, experiences, environment) can accomplish challenging work and solve even the toughest problems. Having been on the team that led our company through the pandemic, which caused multiple cases of employee sickness and death while also working as a leader focused on keeping our 100+-year-old business going strong, nobody was EVER trained to do. Yet, together we have successfully made it through. I am SO incredibly proud of that!
- Working remotely has opened my mind about working remotely. As I mentioned, I am an extrovert. I do my best work connecting with others. But even I have come to appreciate how a blend of working from home with an in-office work schedule can be ideal for anyone who holds an office job. What matters is that you work toward establishing a schedule and expectations that are well thought out and communicated. The professional world is probably changed forever because of this prolonged period where so many knowledge workers have worked remotely. I think it is a great win for all businesses and employees around the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?
My favorite life lesson quote is “Never bring a problem to someone without immediately following it with possible solutions.” This has helped me set direction and make decisions on so many unprecedented and unfamiliar topics over the past 14 months.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Anthony Rizzo, if you’re reading this, let’s connect! I think Rizzo is an incredible athlete and a quality person who gives back and never loses sight of where he came from.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way to connect with me is via LinkedIn. My profile is linkedin.com/in/larry-brand-1506483