Workforce Institute executive director Chris Mullen talks with board member Mark Wales about his chapter in The Institute's most recently published book.

In support of our most recently published book, Being Present: A Practical Guide for Transforming the Employee Experience of Your Frontline Workforce, The Workforce Institute at UKG has recorded a number of podcasts with authors of various chapters to delve into the topics they wrote about and discuss them as the world around us has been transformed by a global pandemic.

Perhaps no chapter was as prescient as that of our board member, Mark Wales. Mark is a longtime veteran of the retail world with stints at many major retailers including Ralph Lauren and Starbucks. His chapter in the book, “Why Your Organization Needs a Burning Water Plan” was about the need for organizations to better plan for natural and unforeseen disasters…I know…you are wishing you read this one back in 2019 when it came out.

Below is a Q&A with Mark about what he was thinking about back when he wrote the chapter and how this thinking has evolved over the past several months.

Q: Re-reading your chapter, originally published in 2019 before anyone had heard of COVID-19 is almost eerie now, Mark. On page 1 of your chapter you talk about The California Camp fire which has since been eclipsed by even bigger, more devastating fires in California and Australia as well as a global pandemic that has ravaged and changed our world.

The question you ask at the outset of your chapter is, "Many of the themes and ideas in this book focus on how to create the right environment to do well by your employees...However, what happens when things are seemingly outside your control as we often find with a disaster situation? Your policies and practices may work for a normal situation but what should you do in a disaster? It is time we ask the hard questions of ourselves and our organizations to truly understand what support we should give our employees."

So, question 1 is: Did you have a crystal ball? Were you as surprised by this pandemic as many of us were?

A: I wish I did! But no, currently I am not in possession of such an item. When I wrote this chapter I definitely foresaw the continued need to be prepared for a wide variety of disasters, due to the sheer volume of natural disasters, and this has been sadly true again this year with both the storms and the fires. However, never could I have envisioned a disaster on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact is beyond my belief, but as many of the experts in the field of epidemiology have said, this should not have been unexpected and will not be the last time we face such a global disaster. A sobering thought.

Q: You write in your chapter that each organization needs a "Burning Water Policy" - can you describe this term and what it means in terms of a policy for an employer?

A: The term “burning water” comes from eyewitnesses to some of the horrific fires that have burned over the past several years. The lives of those impacted are turned upside down and the actual experience of seeing water burn (something that has a logical explanation due to fractured gas and water mains) is a visceral one that I think captures that idea of something outside your realm of belief or understanding happening.

The pandemic has shown us that every organization needs to have a policy in place to manage risk to its staff and their families in these “burning water” moments. Most organizations already do this for their accounting standards, data security, buildings, intellectual assets and any other part of an organization’s core business operation. No organization can survive and succeed without ensuring that its people can work effectively and safely.

During this pandemic, most organizations stumbled over the scale of change needed to continue operating through COVID-19. It didn’t matter the size or nature of the business – everyone was affected. Organizations were forced to pull together task forces to rethink either how people could work from home or how people could work at work. Many have still not returned to work and these task forces are still attempting to navigate the complex and ever-changing guidelines on how to achieve compliance with safety standards. Rules and safeguards around accounting, data security, buildings and such have been developed and refined over decades. Many of the same rules around staff are being developed and refined in weeks and months. It’s a huge effort to create rules and playbooks that safeguard both the employees and the business.

Q: How does an organization go about creating such a policy?

A: The pandemic has shown that these policies are not the sole responsibility of any single part of the organization, they take a cross disciplinary task force to manage all aspects. For years, I have been coaching companies on the full lifecycle of workforce management. You have to look at your business goals and model, assess your financial model and budgeting, align with your recruitment and HR policies, schedule and deploy your staff, manage legal compliance and payment of your employees, and finally assess the effectiveness of execution against your business goals. Then, based on your level of success, you adjust across all of those stages of workforce management. A Burning Water Plan has to create a risk mitigation plan that looks at all of the stages of a disaster and outlines what would you do for any part of your organization impacted by a disaster. The sheer scale of the pandemic showed organizations that one event can impact everyone.

Q: You provide information on Phases of Response in your chapter - from Communication to Payment to Hardship Support - where do you think organizations have done well and where have they failed during the current pandemic?

A: I am so pleased to see that many organizations have stepped up to the plate - even if they’ve been forced to - and developed policies and procedures to deal with the impact of the pandemic. I hope that these will now be turned into formal risk mitigation plans, a.k.a Burning Water Plans, and be incorporated into organizations’ formal risk management processes.

We have seen significant improvements in the ways that organizations communicate with employees, make allowances for the need to work from home, and balance the safety of employees and their families against the mission of the organization. We’ve also seen a rethink of policies and processes to catch up with technology and social needs. I hope and believe that a great many of these changes will endure long after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.

However, equity will continue to be a big issue to address, for example:

Some tough challenges for organizations to navigate.

Q: What lasting change do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Burning Water policy making?

A: I think that there are genuine improvements in employee policy coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many aspects of how we work have changed and I do not foresee organizations going back to working in the same way. It may vary in degrees by organization but here are some key changes:

  1. Increased ability to work from home is being demanded and expected. I predict organizations will in some degree change their policies and operations to allow for this.
  2. Working from home has adjusted the relationship between work and families. There is a greater involvement and understanding of what people do at work as spouses, parents, and children see and hear the meetings, topics and sheer effort that go into everyday work. That will have a lasting impact that is currently undefined, but companies have to recognize that an employee often comes with dependents and policies have to take that into account.
  3. Home for many employees will change. Some are looking to move out of the urban centers to larger homes outside cities as they find they can work from home, but this will probably be a generational trend with younger workers initially wanting the office experience. Policies will need to adapt and recognize the varying needs of the workforce.
  4. Lastly, organizations will not always get all of this right the first time and situations will change. I heard an anecdote about one organization that asked its employees and customers for “grace and space”. It was a call for understanding and empathy. We all need to be committed to not pre-judging others or making assumptions. As with any policy, if you create the right culture, your chance of success is far greater than if you issue a bunch of prescriptive rules into a broken culture. Great culture will almost always lead to better decisions at every level.

On November 11, 2019, we released our newest book titled "Being Present: A Practical Guide for Transforming the Employee Experience of Your Frontline Workforce. Below we share the introduction to the book, written by book editor Joyce Maroney, Executive Director of the Workforce Institute.

So, what does the title of this book mean, anyway? Is this another one of those mindfulness books?  Well, not exactly. When we talk about “being present” we’re referring to those jobs  where employees must be present – every day, in the flesh -  to do their jobs. Think of that barista at the coffee shop where you go every morning who always gets your order just right, the airline ticket agent who somehow got you on that last minute flight so you wouldn’t miss your best friend’s wedding, the preschool teacher who took your crying 3-year-old’s hand on that first morning and somehow knew to take her directly to the block area where she immediately settled down to happy building, or the home healthcare worker who enabled your grandmother to keep living independently in her beloved home.

Throughout this book, we’ll refer to these types of jobs where presence is required as “frontline” jobs.  Frontline workers make up most of the workforce around the globe, yet their jobs are often not considered in discussions about work/life balance, career growth, employee experience, creative benefits, etc. Nurses, firefighters, truck drivers and mechanics are just a few examples of workers who must be present in a specific place and at a specific time to perform their jobs. However, much of the common wisdom intended to boost employee experience at work assumes jobs that can be done remotely via a laptop. In this book, we’ll share insights that can work for those whose jobs require presence as well as those with “laptop” jobs that can be done virtually anywhere.   

Why this book now? We spend a significant portion of our waking time at work. If that time is spent in a workplace culture where employees feel respected and valued, they are more productive and satisfied at work. They benefit, their families benefit, and society benefits. Conversely, if people spend their days at work feeling disrespected and unsupported, that poor experience can fuel a downward spiral of burnout, depression, and poor health. They suffer, their family and friends are affected, and the larger society around them is somewhat worse off.  

This book is a collection of chapters that can be read in sequence, or according to your specific interests. Our authors all share a commitment to improving people’s lives at work, while coming at this challenge from many different perspectives. They are business leaders, consultants, HR practitioners, authors, teachers and futurists. 

We have organized the chapters according to three major themes.

Section One – Work Your Way

As this book is being published, unemployment is at record low levels in the United States, and many employers are struggling to find and keep critical workers. In this supply side labor market, workers are being lured away not only by better wages and benefits, but also by cultural factors that encourage employee autonomy, wellbeing and work life balance. The Millennial and Gen Z workers who make up the majority of the workforce  expect their employers to support them in achieving that balance, and will avoid those who don’t. 

“Working your way” doesn’t mean not working, but it does mean having more control over when – and if possible - where one works. Having control over one’s schedule is one critical driver of worker satisfaction irrespective of job type, and one that strategic leaders will seek to provide. A 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research[1] revealed that people would give up a 9% wage increase in favor of having the ability to set their own schedule versus working a schedule set by their manager. In 2019 research we conducted among Gen Z respondents worldwide[2], 35% were unlikely to tolerate being forced to work when they don’t want to. These and many other sources of data underscore the strong preference workers have for employers who’ll support their need for flexibility by investing in processes and technology that boost their mobility and self-service options.

In this first section of the book, our authors describe techniques leaders can leverage to understand what matters most to frontline workers when it comes to improving their experience. They remind us that those Millennial and Gen Z workers have different expectations for their work lives than the generations that came before. And they share practical advice on how to balance frontline workers’ desire for flexibility with the need all organizations have to meet the needs of their stakeholders by having the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

Section Two – Work Smarter

This section of the book focuses on how data analytics, artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies are fundamentally changing the workplace by helping us work smarter. By “working smarter”, we mean leveraging available technology to alleviate the amount of repetitive and transactional work done by people so that they can spend their brainpower on work that machines can’t do as well such, as creativity and relationship building.

Realizing that vision requires leaders to understand both the technical and human impacts of these tools, our authors talk about effective ways to design and deploy new technology without losing sight of  how to care for your people while doing so – through training, performance management and recognition. 

This section will also explore ways to prevent technology from backfiring in the workplace.  Many workers are already feeling the adverse effects of being “always on”. The same mobile phones that deliver tremendous convenience can also lead workers to feel like they never have a chance to rest and recover from the stresses of work. Legislative examples are cropping up around the world that attempt to help people switch off by prohibiting employer demands on people’s time “outside of work”.  But what does “outside of work” mean when it’s always possible to engage?

Section Three – Work Inspired

This brings us to the final section of the book in which we focus on workplace culture. Without a healthy culture, centered on values that matter to employees, there is no way to have employees who “work inspired”. This is an expression we use at Kronos to capture the essence of our employment brand promise: that everyone has the right to have a great boss, in a great workplace, that helps them deliver great results. The authors in this chapter share that belief and will provide ideas and examples on how to make this promise a reality.

We devote a significant part of this section to development strategies for frontline employees and their leaders. Younger workers are beginning to question the value of a four year degree and are turning to alternative means of acquiring the skills they need to make a living. Employers need to be similarly innovative and flexible when it comes to evaluating potential candidates and developing them on the job.

Throughout this part of the book, we emphasize the investments that should be made in leadership development. Without great leaders, employees will flounder at best and desert you at worst. We believe that in most cases, leadership skills can be developed and measured. And we discuss how leaders can be held accountable for those measurable skills, just as they are for other critical business results.

Focus on the Frontline

We’ve provided five “Focus on the Frontline” takeaways for every chapter in this book. As I wrote at the beginning, we want to make sure that the reader can connect the advice provided to practical applications for frontline workers. We hope that these summaries will help you do so.

As you read through this book, I hope you will keep in mind those folks I talked about upfront – the barista, airline ticket agent, teacher and home healthcare worker who may have had an impact on your life and the lives of those you love. Think about all the people whose lives touch yours every day, most of whom show up at work ready to do their best if their leaders let them.  May they all have jobs that are big enough for their spirits.

[1] Nicole Maestas, Kathleen J. Mullen, David Powell, Till von Wachter, Jeffrey B. Wenger, “The Value of Working Conditions in the United States and Implications for Structure of Wages”, The National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 25204 (October 2018)

[2] “Meet Gen Z:  The next generation is here: Hopeful, anxious, hardworking, and searching for inspiration”, Workforce Institute at Kronos,

If you'd like your own copy of this book, it is available on for purchase. You can find more information about this book, as well as the three prior books we've published here.

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