Back to Work With Constant Vigilance: Q&A With Shawn Smith, Vice President of Human Resources for Ryman Hospitality Properties

Ryman Hospitality Properties recently reopened some of its businesses using health and safety guidance provided by Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), which was named its wellness advisor in May. We talked to Shawn Smith, Vice President of Human Resources, about what the company has learned in the first weeks of opening with revised operating standards and enhanced cleaning procedures.

Which of your business lines are back?

We have now successfully reopened up all of our Ole Red restaurants, the most recent being our new Orlando facility on June 19. We first reopened the Ole Red in Tishomingo, Okla., then Gatlinburg and then Nashville. We’ve also reopened Gaylord Opryland, Gaylord Palms, Gaylord Rockies and Gaylord Texan, and customer feedback has been positive. And on Friday, June 26, we reopened the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium for tours that follow Nashville health and safety guidelines. We don’t know when concerts and other public events at the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium will come back since many things are still on pause.

How are operations going with the new safety plan in place?

Our director of leadership and training took the guidance from the VUMC Infectious Diseases department and transformed it into a remote, online training program that we could use at all our venues. It is amazing. All that effort helped people breathe a little easier and alleviate worry.

Employees have really appreciated the level of meaningfulness that we've put into the return-to-work strategy. Obviously, the partnership with Vanderbilt has been huge. We’re hearing really good feedback from employees and customers throughout every reopening. They can really see what we've done to make sure it's a safe environment. We're taking good care of our employees, who in turn are taking good care of our guests. So, it's been just very positive on all fronts.

What are some of the most common things that customers respond to? Do they comment about any of the safety guidelines?

Customers see that our employees are wearing masks and they see the daily sticker on our employees that indicates, “I’ve been temperature-screened, and I'm ready to work.” They notice the high-quality signage. They also see the six-feet-apart spacing and the limiting of large groups and congregating in the bathrooms. We're really trying to help our customers stay true to everything we’re training our employees to do.

In guest feedback, what's resonated is that they feel comfortable coming into our environment. Customers have been very appreciative of our level of safety standards.

As we reopen Grand Ole Opry and Ryman tours, we’ll learn more about how to communicate with customers. Now that the mask mandate is in place for Davidson County, we are having to pivot and are now updating how we manage our customers on the Nashville front.

What would you want your fellow HR leaders to know as they move forward and their business get back to work?

I can't say it enough: The first thing is to find a trusted health and wellness source with which you can partner. We feel fortunate that we're able to make decisions with the help of the VUMC Infectious Diseases department. You can’t get much better than that.

Obviously, not everyone would be able to partner with Vanderbilt, but everyone can find an ongoing health and wellness consultant who can help you access and aggregate all the many resources out there.  As you recall, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much information everywhere. As HR leaders, we were trying to figure out which guidance we should follow from all that we were seeing.

We’re in a calmer space right now, but at the beginning, it seemed like we were in constant motion. That’s the beauty of the wellness advisor relationship: When variables change, you’ve got a source to lean on to help you be prepared.

Second, be flexible. Those of us in HR can sometimes be very black and white thinkers, and we can be hesitant to make a lot of changes if we don't have to. We think that we've got a policy for everything else, so why can’t we make one for this situation, too? But with the pandemic, you have to throw all that out the window and be flexible as you take in lots of new information.

Third, build a core team that can make decisions quickly. Think of it in terms of an emergency management team. We built a core team of leaders in HR, employee relations, training and leadership, and communications who had the authority and empowerment to drive decisions quickly and get the word out throughout the rest of the organization. Especially at the beginning, things were happening at this crazy, fast-paced speed, so we didn’t have time to socialize big policy changes through many layers like we would normally would. Because we often had to react in the moment, we needed to build a team and an infrastructure that made us feel more confident in making critical decisions very quickly and efficiently.

Finally, keep the information flowing efficiently. Things can get sideways fast if you've got too many cooks in the kitchen.  It’s also a good idea to have a single liaison to your wellness advisor. With one person as the conduit, you won’t have a bunch of people coming at your vendor in multiple, perhaps contradictory ways.

Has COVID-19 changed your perspective on workplace physical and mental health? Is it going to change anything about your culture as a company?

We've always had good resources to promote total wellbeing and wellness. We have onsite gyms and fitness classes, nice workspaces, and good benefit plans. But the mental health piece is something that we can all get better at providing, and the need for it has been highlighted much more so through this pandemic.

How flexible do you think your corporate work environment will be going forward?

We’re opening up opportunities for people to be more flexible with their schedule. This situation proved that we can work remotely, and we can do it well. We eventually will be asked to come back to the corporate office, but there will be a lot greater flexibility knowing the work can still get done at home. That flexibility will go a long way toward strengthening mental health.

We’re examining what we’re truly going to need for our employees going forward. It's going to be a little bit of evolution depending on which way things trend and once we're back to a greater capacity in the work environment. We'll learn even better ways to care of our employees, who are facing complicated issues with childcare and elderly care and other issues that arise with the return to work.

You've made it through a lot of hurdles to get back to business. What else have you learned that you think would help other HR leaders?

Overall, I think you have to maintain flexibility and stay vigilant. We’ve got a great plan, which we continue to tweak and improve along the way, but there is still the fear of the unknown. That's why you can never let your guard down. You’ve got to constantly be ready for change. That's just the environment we're in right now until further notice. It’s about having that good infrastructure and that information pipeline so that when you need to react, you're ready to hit the ground running again.

I also think it’s important to build a strong team so that each member can take a break when they need to. It is important to focus on your mental wellbeing, especially if you’re making decisions for a lot of people. You have to take care of yourself to take care of others. I hate to say it out loud, but for the first time in weeks, I feel like we have a little bit of room to breathe.