Leadership During Crisis: A Conversation With John Hancock CEO Marianne Harrison

This year, our Women United group celebrated over 25 years of impact in the community. In 1996, four local women launched the group because they knew that together, they could have a much greater impact than any of them could alone. Over two decades later that group is 15,000 strong. 

At our third event in the series, Community Conversations on Leadership During Crisis, we heard from Marianne Harrison, President and CEO of John Hancock in conversation with Carolyn Jones, Publisher of the Boston Business Journal.

When COVID-19 hit, Harrison had to make quick decisions to transition her company of over 5,000 employees to a remote environment and figure out ways to make it sustainable. In this conversation, she dives into how she handled the initial pivot, practices she’s implemented to make it work and her thoughts on what an office environment will look like going forward.  

Getting creative

For Harrison, it’s all about communication. Whether it’s making sure employees are up to date on the latest pandemic information or sharing a more personal side of herself to connect with employees on a deeper level, she hails transparency and open dialogue as essential to making work-from-home truly work.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate. You really can’t over-communicate in this environment.” 

Immediately after the transition, Harrison launched weekly town halls so employees could come together in an open forum to ask questions and get updates on John Hancock’s next steps. Seven months later, she still hosts regular coffee chats with a rotating group of employees. “Bringing people together to discuss what’s working and what’s not working has been really helpful,” she noted.

Over the summer John Hanock also hosted a speaker series. “A lot of the speakers were people in the healthcare world, but we also had an astronaut come in and talk about what it’s like to work in confined spaces.” Anything to help her employees navigate the transition and stay up to date on the latest information. As a bonus, the seminars would usually take place during lunchtime, allowing employees to tune in with their families to learn, ask questions and be together. “It was a great way to keep people engaged with work while also giving them a break,” she shared.

On women in the workforce

When asked how she would respond to the observation that this pandemic is setting women back decades she shared that many of her employees wouldn’t be able to make it work if they didn’t have the flexibility to work when it was convenient for them. For her, it’s all about being “as flexible as possible.” Whether that’s work hours, creative solutions to take part of the load off parents, or creating a leave of absence program to help people adjust to the new balance of responsibilities, for Harrison, it’s all about watching out for the well being of her employees. For example, this summer, they hosted a four-week virtual “summer camp” for young kids so their parents could work without distractions while the kids were off doing different camp activities. They even sent out kits for the campers to complete experiments from home.

“It’s about sharing your humanity, recognizing that everybody is in unique situations and we all have to be human at the same time as employees and bosses.”

Reinventing the office

On the question of what the office will look like going forward, Harrison shared that she’ll really be rethinking what the office is for. Between plenty of “ask me anything” sessions, virtual happy hours and other community activities, a recent survey of John Hancock employees found that 97% felt more connected than they had in the office. Moreover, now that the efficacy of remote work has been proven, is it necessary for people to commute to an office, sit at individual desks and work solitarily? Or is the new function of the office as a collaborative space?

Harrison isn’t advocating for 100% remote work, she understands the importance of face to face interaction. Rather, she speaks to incorporating the best of both worlds to create the most flexible and efficient environment for employees.

“It’s really taking a hard look at how you used to work before. That includes getting more focused on what really matters – being better at fewer things rather than trying to do them all. If we haven’t needed to do something for the past 6 months, why did we need to do it before?” 

For more insight into Leadership During Crisis, watch the full conversation below. The session is eye-opening, inspiring and might just give a few tips to take home.