Mira Greenland, Executive Vice President of Intoo, had the opportunity to chat with Amy Waryas, Executive Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer of the Boston Red Sox & Fenway Sports Management about her experiences managing organizational change during the pandemic, changes for the 2021 MLB season, and planning for the future. They were joined by Miguel Cervantes, who will be starring in the Broadway production of Hamilton when it returns this September. Miguel shared his own experiences as a furloughed employee, and performed a few Hamilton favorites.
Amy was named Executive Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer in 2019. Entering her tenth season with the Red Sox, she is responsible for leading overall human resources strategy for the Red Sox and Fenway Sports Management. Amy began her career with General Electric as a recruiter and trainer, and has since worked in a variety of industries, including manufacturing, consumer packaged goods, publishing, and software. She has worked with companies of varying sizes, from Fortune 10 to a software start-up, where she built the HR department from the ground up. Amy holds a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University and a master’s degree in Industrial / Organizational Psychology from UNC-Charlotte.
Miguel is currently Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway production of Hamilton in New York. Prior to that he has performed the role close to 1,200 times in the Chicago company of Hamilton. Other broadway credits include IF/THEN, AMERICAN IDIOT, and 25th ANNUAL…SPELLING BEE. Additional theater: GIANT, TAILS, HENRY AND MUDGE, and more. FILM: THE GREATEST, N.B.T., and TRAMPS. TV: PERSON OF INTEREST, BRAINDEAD, MADAME SECRETARY, ROYAL PAINS, THE BLACKLIST, and ALL MY CHILDREN. Miguel has a BFA in Musical Theater from Emerson College.
Mira: Amy, let’s start with the basics. Can you share a little bit about yourself and your background? You have some really varied experience and it would be great to hear about your journey.
Amy: I’ve worked in a number of industries, all in HR, in progressively more senior roles. I’ve been in manufacturing and high tech and a start up during the late ’90s and the early 2000s—during that time period when they were really big. Then I really found two industries that I was super passionate about, and I just can’t say enough about working for the Boston Beer Company and the Red Sox and Fenway Sports Management. I have to say, working for a beer company is kind of the best of both worlds because it’s recession proof. When times are bad we’re buying alcohol and when times are good people are buying alcohol. They may not get it at a restaurant; they may get it at a liquor store. But it’s a really safe and good industry to be in.
I really thought the same would be true for the Red Sox. To be honest, I thought that even when times were bad, we’d handle things pretty well. But a pandemic is a whole other ballgame. As you mentioned, being in the business of mass gatherings during a pandemic—it’s not a good place to be. We learned a lot during the last year. We learned how to use the ballpark for different things. And to really reach out to the community. We were a mass vaccination site. We’ve held graduations for the Boston Public Schools this month, which has been a really special thing. But what drew me here really was not the sport itself. A lot of people ask me, “Are you a sports fan? Do you know a lot about baseball?” Those who know me know that I’m really not a big fan. What drew me here was more about just how iconic Fenway Park is and how special it is, and all the memories that are created here. Just like when you go to a live musical, you remember who you went with, you remember the memories that were created, you remember how you were treated, and being able to be a part of that was just something that really drew me in and has just been really special because I’ve created a lot of memories along the way, too.
Mira: Given the varied industries you worked for, what HR challenges have been consistent across those industries?
Amy: There’s a lot that’s really consistent. The one thing that comes to mind for me is balancing employee needs and company needs. And depending upon what kind of organization you’re at, and their culture and values, it can be so different. I’ve worked for organizations where the cultures aren’t great and the organization really doesn’t care about its employees. When times are tough, you can see that and I left those organizations pretty quickly because as an HR person, I just can’t feel good about myself and the work that I’m doing. When my values aren’t aligned with the values of the organization, it’s really hard for me, because I can’t fake it. What I found working for organizations that are really great places to work and really treat their employees like family—the employee perspective and the company perspective are really aligned, because they’re not going to make a short-term financial decision. Usually, they’re in it for the long haul. And they have that perspective. It’s really helped me do what I like to do in terms of building upon a great culture and making that employee experience a really special thing. That’s something I see that’s consistent throughout. The difference is, the culture of the organization has what the leadership values, but balancing those two things has always been just something that I feel like I’m doing every day. No matter the topic, it’s always something that you’re keeping in mind.
Mira: When we were preparing for this conversation, you were sharing that in your career, there are these marked events. The pandemic is obviously a very unique event for all of us. You had mentioned these different crises that had happened, like 9/11 and the stock market crash, or the financial crisis. And I hadn’t thought about that, from an HR perspective, almost per decade, there’s been some sort of completely unique event. It’s interesting how there have been all these large crises in the past decades that have rocked our country, when you really look at the big picture and step back.
I want to be sensitive to the fact that I think everybody’s got COVID fatigue. But I do want to take a moment to talk about specifics, both to hear from Miguel and from you on what it looked like in the last 18 months. Both of you work for organizations that are in the business of mass gatherings. Miguel, I wonder if you might share from an employee’s perspective how things went down on Broadway. I know you had just moved from Chicago to New York, when things started to get crazy. And New York was ground zero for all of this also, on top of the chaos for everybody in the months to follow. I wonder if you could just share a little bit about your experience as an employee when things started to get disrupted and when you knew this was going to be a legit long-term problem, for lack of a better word, for you and your career.
Miguel: Yeah, you know, similar to many people all over the country, I had just started a new job. I had just finished Chicago on January 5, and took six weeks off, and I’d just moved to New York in late February. I was only in New York for about four weeks before I started and my first performance on Broadway was March 3. I had plans with my family to stay in Chicago, and we were going to go back and forth until my son finished school and I was going to be on Broadway and we bought a new house. All of these things were happening because I had this amazing job. And then I come offstage. And they’re all looking at their phones. And they said Tom Hanks got the ’rona. Now we’re like, oh, no, we’re done for, for sure. And sure enough, that was it. So March 11, in my world, the theatre industry was done, people weren’t allowed. We’d already started talking about, you know, we can’t do audiences. And then it was just over with no real idea of what was happening.
Over the course of the months, we realized it was gonna be a while. I’m not necessarily a writer. I don’t really consider myself a teacher, but I like to teach. I’ve done some workshops and stuff, but there are some people that all of a sudden reimagined themselves and have become focused on teaching, or they said, oh, now that I have this time, let me sit down and do my writing that I’ve always wanted to do.
I consider myself an employee. And I was an employee of a very great company with a really great job. All of a sudden, it was taken away. In the entertainment industry, you’re always kind of thinking about what’s next. What is my next job? Because these jobs go away so fast. I’ve been on Broadway four times. The first time was two weeks. The second time was a year, and the third time was a year. After that year, I was unemployed like everyone else trying to figure out what I was going to do and it was, again, time to think about, well, what would I do? How could I find something else? I invented a golf gadget. I have a little golf company. I had this other passion and thought, I’ll start focusing on that for real. And I think that’s what happened to a lot of us. Us actor types were forced to take some time, take care of our bodies a little bit, and think about the other things that are important—family being one of them. And think of other ways that we could make money. I’m fortunate enough that I get to do really cool things like this, and sort of engage with fans in this way. We’ve been given this weird gift, a really terrible gift of time. And I think maybe that’s something that everybody could use a little bit of. But don’t get me wrong, because September 14 cannot come fast enough. You know what I mean?
Mira: Yeah, we’re gonna talk about that, too. How did they roll out the announcement of the closure? Was there an email? Or did they call you guys and say you’re going to be shut down?
Miguel: We were at home waiting for the union. And the union said, you know, we’re going to take a couple days. And then the producer said two weeks. Then we had a Zoom meeting, and they said we’re going to be down. And then we got the letter. It was like an official letter from the producer saying, “Hey, everybody, we don’t know what’s happening. We’re going to be down at least until September 2020.” And we know how that went. It was just kind of long, drawn out, company by company. And then the governor announced the lockdown. We’re unbelievably fortunate with Hamilton, that they said, “Do what you need to do to make money, but we’re going to take care of your health insurance and that kind of thing.” I know a lot of actors, Broadway performers included, that didn’t get that kind of consideration. So it was all across the board how it affected Broadway shows, and some of the shows are not going to come back.
Mira: Amy, how about you? How did you manage the organizational change for the Red Sox, given the challenges in the last 18 months? And what does the decision-making process look like? How did you think about taking care of your employees?
Amy: So for us, the first focus was really on the health of our employees. And we’re kind of unique in that we have a team doctor, because we have players and they have access to the best medical care and that team doctor works with specialists that are world-renowned in every field. But what’s different about us is that our doctor decided that he was going to take a leadership role and work with me in making sure that all of our employees and their families were cared for. It was a pretty cool thing to see. He made sure that anyone that had symptoms—whether it was an employee or a family member—got tested and that they had access to care. He personally checked in and spoke with all of them. He spoke at all of our weekly town halls where employees could ask him questions. I think that we treat our employees like family; it’s part of our values. And this was just one way we were able to show that. People really appreciated it. I mean, the first call anyone had when they had a symptom was to me and I was tied at the hip with our doctor. It was just a really special thing to have access to that and not only did he help us through individual health situations, but he also helped us set up testing onsite; we never really closed. We always had people here. We did have a 2020 season, even though we didn’t have fans. We did testing multiple times a week for the employees that had to work here so they felt safe being here. He helped us set up the max vaccination site. He’s been just super tied in with us, and we’re just really fortunate to have him. So that was a huge focus.
We had so many seasonal employees that knew they weren’t going to get a paycheck because there weren’t any games or events. We didn’t technically furlough anyone; there just weren’t events to schedule for them. But we did put a relief fund together. We put around, I think it was, $1.5 million for our staff and the staff of our concessionaire. Based on how long someone had been with us, and how often they worked, it wasn’t a full income replacement. But it was something that we wanted to put in place to make sure that people had some type of income coming in during this time.
And then, for our year-round full-time staff, we knew we had to do something from a financial standpoint. Baseball was, I think, probably the hardest hit out of all the sports given our season hadn’t started yet when the pandemic hit. You had basketball and hockey, and they were almost at the end of their seasons. We missed the entire 2020 season and a couple of months of this year. So we literally had no money coming in, just money going out. We knew we had to do something from a financial perspective. But for us, we really looked at our values to figure out what it was.
When you looked at our workforce, it was funny—just like a lot of organizations, you have half of the workforce that literally has no job to do through no fault of their own. There’s no minor league season, so none of our coaches are working. We have no events, so we don’t need people selling tickets for events. But then you have people that have never been more taxed and busy. We knew we didn’t want to do furloughs, because we just felt like it would be really hard to come back from that. The uncertainty of not knowing how long this would go—we just felt like that would be really hard for people. We looked at our value of unity and having a unified workforce in the front office. And we decided to go the route of salary reductions where those that made the most had the biggest hit and those that didn’t make as much didn’t have a hit. But it really kind of impacted everyone in some way. We just felt better about that. By doing that, we could give people payroll certainty through at least the end of our season, which I think helped give some temporary peace of mind.
We did, unfortunately, have to do a restructuring after the season ended. That’s where I first got introduced to Intoo because you guys were absolutely incredible at helping us. Our managers had never been through anything like that before and working at the Red Sox is kind of part of your identity; it’s who you are. You have this deep personal connection to it. Having to change that for someone—it’s more than losing a job; it’s losing part of who you are, part of your lifestyle. We really appreciated all of you helping us with that. But it’s been tough. I feel like we’re on the upswing now, but it’s gonna take a while to grow out of it. People still aren’t comfortable. Not everyone’s comfortable being in crowds again, and I think it will take a while for that to happen.
Mira: We were definitely glad to partner and glad that our partner Mercer introduced us to you. With the choices that you made around restructuring, have you found that you’ve had a higher retention rate? Has it reflected that your strategy really supported what you had hoped it would?
Amy: Well, with a restructure we knew this would impact our business longer term; it wasn’t just a 2020 or a 2021, it was going to be a longer term thing. So we felt like we needed to do a little bit of a reset. So that we could really make sure that the people that remained here, we could treat them really well and kind of treat them how we knew we wanted to treat them. Sports is interesting. It has a much lower turnover rate than other industries, which is great on many levels, but also not so great on other levels, because it doesn’t allow for a lot of opportunities for new people to come in in order for there to be career growth for existing people. Just like I think any industry is experiencing now, we are seeing more turnover than we have in the past. I don’t necessarily think it’s because of the restructuring. I think it’s more linked to the fact that last summer, even though it was a pandemic, people experienced a summer that they never were able to experience before. I mean we have 81 games. When we don’t have games, we have concerts, we have events. We are always booking the ballpark and it is a hard lifestyle for people to endure especially during the summer months when you want to be out enjoying the weather, enjoying your family and friends. I think people realized, oh there are other things out there that I could do. And we have experienced some turnover because of it. I think we’ll see some more as the year goes on. But it’s who you lose and making sure you’re really retaining the people that you absolutely want to keep and being proactive about that and then taking advantage of finding some great new talent to come in, which has been good, too.
Mira: Let’s dig in a little on present day. I know this year, as you mentioned, is a full season for the Red Sox. Employees are coming back in person. Tell us a little bit about what accommodations you’ve made and what that looks like, on a go-forward basis.
Amy: When we opened this year, we were at 10% capacity, probably one of the lowest out of all of the MLB ballparks, and we ramped up to 25% shortly after. Then the CDC announced their new guidelines and then all of a sudden we went to 100%. It was literally overnight. When you look at the states that are at 100% with us, it seems like a random grouping. It was Massachusetts, Texas and I think Georgia and Arizona. You normally wouldn’t see Massachusetts in with those other states. We had to ramp up fast. And we were able to do that because a lot of our seasonal staff is super committed and loyal. We have some people that have worked here for 55 years. And that is just really incredible. But our concessionaire has struggled in finding culinary talent right now. I think everyone knows it’s just really, really hard. And so we’re struggling a little bit in terms of helping them with that.
One of the things that we’ve kind of had to deal with from an accommodation standpoint, too, is Fenway is a really old ballpark. It’s the oldest one out there. We had to really retrofit it, especially last year, to be in compliance with MLB and all their health and safety protocols. We don’t have a lot of space and a lot of modern amenities. Let’s take the locker room, for example. We couldn’t use the clubhouse last year. What we did was use the suites. We had players buddy-up in the suites for the season. We didn’t have fans so we could use the suites. And then we literally purchased portable showers that we put on the third-base grandstand level, and that’s where they showered. We did all these strange things. I was walking downstairs today to where our finance and HR groups sit. And our controller’s office—there’s a big sign on his office that says, “Wally and Tessie’s Changing Room.” So for those of you in Boston, Wally and Tessie are our mascots, and if you look in his office, you just see different Wally and Tessie heads everywhere. Anyway, I just took a picture of it, because it’s just such a random sight to see. We’ve just had to be creative and do different things. As we’re reopening next week on a voluntary basis for all employees that haven’t been here, we’re trying like every HR person to think creatively about what to do about future flexibility. How do we become more progressive in an industry that typically isn’t necessarily as forward-thinking? That’s one of our current challenges we’re dealing with.
Mira: I think that’s a common thread among those that I’m speaking with. Actually, it’s funny both Miguel and you mentioned various times in this conversation today—Miguel actually even more specifically—this idea that this period of time has given people time to think about do they even like the work they were doing? Is there something else they want to do? Do they want to start a company? Do they want to write, do they want to teach…and I know there was a published report recently that shows one in four workers is planning to look for an opportunity with a new employer or even a new role once the threat of the pandemic has subsided, which is hopefully now. Is this something that your organization is concerned about and are looking at? And then maybe alongside that, what are you doing to maintain and build employee engagement this year that’s different from what you’ve done in the past?
Amy: We’re definitely concerned about it. But like I said, I think ours will be less than what kind of the general industry trends are just because of the nature of our industry. When people come into sports, say, they’re really wed to it. They really love it. It’s part of who they are, part of their identity. But we have seen more turnover for sure. But as you know, as we’ve seen it does open up other opportunities for new people, which is also great. We’ve always had employee engagement in mind. So even in the downtime we haven’t had to do a lot of different things because it’s always been at the forefront for us. Even in downtime, it’s been our focus. We always make sure that we’re treating people well and treating their families well, keeping their needs in mind.
I do think companies will lose people if they’re not progressive from a flexibility standpoint—even us. I don’t think we’ll lose as many people again, because I think people love sports and they really kinda can’t see where they’d go outside of sports. But I do think we will lose people if we don’t get progressive. I think we’ll have a hard time attracting certain people if we don’t get progressive with it. And one of the challenges that I’ve been dealing with and I’m sure a lot of HR people are on this webinar is when you see there’s a gap between what employees need and what leaders think, how do you bridge that gap? How can you get everyone outside their comfort zone a little bit? How do you convince people to try things and not be so scared of it? It will be interesting to see where this all goes. So many companies are thinking of taking pretty big changes right now. I wonder if it will stay that way, if it will be a trend. It’s just really interesting to see where it all ends up.
Mira: I was talking to a colleague of mine in this space, also in HR at a large organization, and she was saying it’s really easy when you’re kind of in a holding pattern where you have all the employees that you’re gonna have to say, okay, we’re gonna stay virtual or whatever it might be, because this is really working for us. But as you start onboarding people it’s difficult if they’re not integrated in with the culture already or if they don’t have the trust built with their manager to know that they’re going to work from home versus in the office or for younger folks that may really need the community of being in the workplace. When you’re in the status quo and your employee base is flat because maybe you’re not letting people go, but you haven’t started hiring yet, the idea of providing more flexibility is less scary. Then when you start hiring again and really have to look at what it means to onboard people in a virtual environment and navigate that….
Amy: We had a new person start on my team during the past couple of months and it was tough to onboard her. Because for the manager, it was really like he had to spend every part of his day with her for a long period of time because you’re not physically there. They’re not specifically in the environment and around people and it was hard and it was probably really hard for her to get a sense of what the culture is, and the norms and feeling like she knows people and to just get integrated into the culture. It’s hard to and when you’re interviewing, too. Zooms don’t replace sitting down with someone and I always love to have lunches with candidates so that you just get a sense of who they are and how they’re going to fit in with the team and you miss all of that.
Mira: It’s definitely gonna be interesting to navigate. I agree with you. You say that you’re looking to navigate these areas and get people to meet in the middle. Is it more about virtual versus non-virtual for your organization or are there other areas where there’s flexibility that’s needed?
Amy: We don’t have traditional office hours. It’s not a Monday through Friday place at all. If we have a ten-game homestand, people are here for all ten games. So I think for us being more open to the hours people are physically in the office or working is something we can do that will really have an impact on people’s lives. So if most of our games have a 7:10 start, people could be here until 11:00 at night or we’ve had breezy 14-inning games before and there’s no need for them to come in at 9:00 in the morning the next day when we have a game like that. Before I think the expectation was, you’re at least in by 10. I think that’s going away.
I think that where we have games and people are working kind of these crazy schedules, they can have the morning and the early afternoon to themselves, either working from home or doing things in their personal lives that they need to do. I think there’ll be a much bigger acceptance of having people in the office at different hours; being here for the event versus being here just to be here.
Mira: Right. Especially since, like you said, it’s a unique industry, but I actually think it applies to a lot of organizations. My sister works in the software industry and she was saying software engineers have different habits in terms of when they like to code. So some flexibility and not having to work in her case Pacific Standard, but being able to work late into the night as long they don’t have to interact with people if that’s what’s better for their internal clock is something they’re looking at more now too. So I think it probably applies to a lot of different organizations. What challenges do you see in the next 3 to 5 years? What will continue to be a challenge? We were talking a little bit about navigating virtual versus non-virtual and flexible hours and whatnot. But also are there any new challenges that you’re anticipating?
Amy: One reason why I think it’s been interesting to be in HR this year is because I feel like it’s been the perfect storm. So many huge, heavy things have happened all at once. That will continue to evolve. COVID is not over. We don’t really know what’s gonna happen with that and I think we’ve all learned to expect the unexpected with that and you just have to deal with the uncertainty and go with the flow and figure it out. There’s still a lot of balancing how people feel about vaccinations and a lot of fear that people have working alongside people that aren’t vaccinated. At the same time you want to respect the rights and opinions of people who do not want to get vaccinated. So there’s a lot involved that will continue to go on.
As you mentioned, the future of work is going to be huge. Even when we figure out what we’re going to do initially, that’s going to evolve, right? They’re gonna have to see what works, what doesn’t work. I think this year, no doubt, every organization has gotten in much deeper from a social justice perspective, including us. And that’s been, probably outside of COVID, the number one thing I’ve spent my time on: making sure that we are doing things internally and externally. We have such a voice given the organization we have and using that in a really responsible way—that’s going to continue. We’re part of a bigger organization called Fenway Sports Group and one of the really wonderful things that comes with that is there’s a lot of businesses underneath that, but we’re also looking to get into new businesses, too. So we’re right now building a theater behind our bleachers. It will be a 5,000-person multi-art theater that will be a part of the Fenway neighborhoods. So that’s something that’s really exciting to look forward to. We’re looking into other businesses that we could buy to expand the overall FSG Group. So there’s a lot of really cool and interesting opportunities from that perspective. It’s nice to be able to look forward and grow.
Mira: Miguel, to kind of wrap you in here before you wrap up the show with another song, how do you see things with Broadway? I know you’re getting back at it; you’re going to be returning. How did they describe what will be the same and what’s different and what’s the future in that regard?
Miguel: Our initial return meeting laid out that backstage people are required to be 100% vaccinated unless medically your doctor says otherwise. Because we are literally sweating. We are spitting and sweating in each other’s space. I kiss two different people on stage! As of right now, everyone in the audience will wear a mask. That’s now; what happens in September we don’t know. It’s just so unknown because, unlike baseball or sports or whatever, we can’t work without an audience. I mean, we’ve been doing this [type of online performing], which is another version of performing that may stick around beyond COVID times when we’re fully on the other side of it. I think this is valuable. I think this sort of interaction is not as weird and terrible as we might have thought it was at the beginning and now it’s actually kind of cool to be able to share these spaces in a kind of an intimate setting. It’s going to be interesting to explore more of this sort of digital world within our industry as well to see how much we can stick with that.
But the live thing is a live thing. I mean, we cannot work other than the hours that we work. And there are a lot of people who I’ve talked to that said, “I really like being part of my family and I’ve been able to be part of my family.” Broadway people who have been in the business for years say, “Wow, I can’t believe that I did that every night.” So it is an interesting change and maybe there will be people who have decided they don’t want to go back to that life or have to. Because there’s no options for us. We are a nighttime business. We only can perform on the weekends when everyone else is not working those other jobs. So it’s going to be interesting to see who’s there, who’s not, who wants to be there, how it all kind of comes back. Even when we’re on the other side of all of this when we’re back up and running 100%.We’re grateful for the time and unique perspectives Amy and Miguel shared with us.
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Robyn Kern is a seasoned business writer who has written in the HR, education, technology, and nonprofit spaces. She writes about topics including outplacement, layoffs, career development, internal mobility, candidate experience, succession planning, talent acquisition, and more, with the goal of surfacing workforce trends and educating the HR community on these key topics. Her work has been featured on hrforhr.org and trainingindustry.com.