Katie Couric catches up with H&R Block’s Jeff Jones
The latest episode of my podcast Next Question features a conversation I had with H&R Block CEO Jeff pre-Covid-19 — before masks and social distancing were the norm — about how H&R Block is creating a more inclusive work environment. But then the country went into lockdown in March, right as Jeff was preparing for the company’s busiest time of the year: tax season.
Now, with the extended tax deadline right around the corner — that’s July 15, everyone! — I caught up with Jeff for a follow-up interview, as so much has changed in the world since then. He told me how H&R Block has pivoted in the midst of a pandemic to provide support for small businesses, while also creating a safer socially-distant model for clients to do their taxes. Read our conversation below… and listen to the episode here.
Katie Couric: What do you miss most about the period people are calling “B.C.” (Before Covid-19)?
Jeff Jones: It’s almost hard to remember “B.C.” days at this point but I definitely miss the spontaneity of a last-minute date night, a hallway conversation with a colleague or greeting a friend with a hug or handshake. I miss when conversations about the wellbeing of others didn’t turn into politics. While the pandemic has created a crisis in many parts of our lives, there are silver linings too. On a personal note, that has mainly been about time at home with my wife, and two daughters who are home from school, doing something as simple as enjoying dinner together.
How has H&R Block adjusted to doing business during the pandemic?
The response and resiliency of H&R Block associates during the pandemic has been amazing. We pivoted many aspects of our business model — almost literally overnight — in mid-March. For example, we were in the middle of the tax season when Covid-19 hit and had approximately 1,400 customer service agents answering customer calls across 10 different call center locations. Within just a few weeks, we had 85% of the agents working from home.
Within days, we pivoted to a primarily drop off model nationwide to support social distancing in our offices. We are even piloting in three cities a ‘pick-up’ model allowing clients to schedule for an H&R Block associate to pick up their tax documents from their home and then prepare the tax return remotely. We offered our virtual tax prep service, Tax Pro Go, free of charge to frontline workers in May and June, and we were one of the first in the nation to offer a stimulus payment calculator on our website.
Throughout the pandemic, everyone’s well-being has been very important to us. That’s why we implemented an absence policy for all 70,000 seasonal associates which provided new paid benefits and flexibility during the peak of the pandemic. And, we are continuing deep cleanings of our offices and taking several social distancing measures as we push toward the July 15 extended tax filing deadline.
You’ve always been committed to helping small businesses. What is H&R Block doing to help support this especially vulnerable sector of our economy during this time?
H&R Block believes small businesses are key to the vibrancy and success of every community. We serve approximately 2.5 million small business a year and we are committed to supporting small business as part of our community impact platform, Make Every Block Better. During the pandemic, we took several steps to help small businesses.
We launched a Covid-19 Resource Hub for small business owners on our website. We provided information, including questions small business owners may have about the Paycheck Protection Program, and other federal stimulus programs. We joined the Stand for Small coalition, which was launched by American Express. Stand for Small is a group of leading companies representing several industries, that joined forces to support small businesses as they navigate the impacts of Covid-19 with resources and offers located on a centralized portal.
We were one of the first in the country to help small businesses navigate the CARES Act stimulus options with our Recovery Action Plan service. … Again, we believe small businesses are vital to local economies, and as the son of small business owners, I know firsthand how hard being a small business owner can be during the best of times, let alone trying to survive during a pandemic.
H&R Block has been praised for its commitment to diversity — what’s your perspective on this moment of racial reckoning? Tell us about the specific actions H&R Block is taking to address racism.
In late May when the protests began, I wanted to know how H&R Block associates were feeling — especially our Black associates. I sent out an email to everyone that said, “I’m reaching out to check on you… I wanted you to know I am here. Please share your thoughts and ideas with me.” It started with listening empathetically. I received hundreds of emails from associates. They shared their fears and worries, personal experiences with racism, and ideas about what we could do as a company to stop racism. It was impactful. They shared powerful stories about their lives.
Two weeks ago, we announced the actions we will take as an organization toward equality and belonging that you can read more about here. There are five main areas of focus: 1) We are examining our hiring practices and will be more intentional in our recruitment efforts by partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as Black student groups and professional organizations, 2) We are educating all associates to help them uncover their biases and providing training to equip our leaders to have conversations about bias and racism with their teams, 3) We are increasing our training efforts with a more robust bias training and will require an in-depth workshop training for all of our leaders, representing more than 200 associates, 4) We are evaluating our policies and practices by making sure zero tolerance for any form of racism is explicitly noted in our policies, and we are beginning a new minority-owned business supplier program, and 5) We are ensuring a portion of the dollars and volunteer hours of our community impact program, Make Every Block Better support Black small business owners and causes benefiting underserved urban neighborhoods. We are also forming new partnerships with national and Kansas City organizations focused on racial equality.
While we are living during an important time in history, this is more than a moment — it’s a movement, and I believe it is up to every person, company, government, etc. to do their part to end systemic racism once and for all.
How are you spending time at home? What are you watching, reading, cooking, listening to?
A lot of my time at home has been working — leading H&R Block through the business crisis caused by the pandemic — but I’m using my time differently. I’ve been prioritizing well-being even more, committing to taking mental health breaks during the day and walking 20+ miles a week to recharge.
The impromptu meetings with a colleague have become impromptu chats with my wife or daughters over lunch at the kitchen counter. As a family, we definitely have watched more television together…including, yes, Tiger King. We’ve done large puzzles and celebrated our youngest turning 18 and graduating high school. We Zoom with friends, and my wife and I have enjoyed discovering new brands of tequila. The quality time with our dogs, Fergus and Frankie, has brought us all closer. A couple of months ago on Twitter I discovered an artist who was doing “mini” paintings of Covid-related themes. I was inspired by her work and commissioned eight pieces, all of which represent individual moments from this pandemic that I want to remember forever. Art is a powerful force in coping with difficult times.
This originally appeared on Medium.