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How Coronavirus COVID-19 is Driving Change in HR Operations
by Shelly Kramer | May 29, 2020

It’s safe to say that today, the coronavirus COVID-19 is disrupting, well, everything. For many, the way we work has changed dramatically. This means HR leaders are being put to the test right now, as companies make tough decisions about workforce numbers, and how best to support the new work-from-home normal that it appears will be part of our foreseeable future.

I write frequently about disruption and how that makes an impact on the way we work. The disruption caused by coronavirus COVID-19 has put a spotlight on HR functions in a way that few other economic and social challenges have over the past several decades. The employment dropoff has been immediate and precipitous, creating what I believe will become a new normal in the future of work. Part of that “new normal” relates to HR operations, and there is no doubt much change already in terms of HR ops, and much change still ahead.

How Coronavirus COVID-19 is Driving Change in HR Operations

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how coronavirus COVID-19 is driving change in HR operations. In the pre-COVID-19 days, many companies were just starting to explore work from home policies — mostly in a “toe in the water” sort of way. Now, because we have no choice, it’s just how we operate — for now, anyway. Work from home is not new, but in this mandated, accelerated environment, HR pros are fast-tracking a lot of lessons they might have thought would be happening more gradually.

What should HR pros be learning from these new dynamics, whether they remain the new normal for a period of months or in the years to come? Let’s take a closer look at wellbeing and remote work, how they are connected, and explore thoughts on how HR leaders can get a handle on what will be needed now and for the foreseeable future.

The Role HR Pros Play in Worker Wellbeing

A recent article in Human Resource Executive reports that 69 percent of workers claim the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is the most stressful time of their professional careers. No matter the age demographic, even a majority of Boomers and Gen Xers who have lived through this before, agree that this time is more stressful than the 2008 downturn, other cyclical and sudden economic shocks, and even 9/11. We’ve weathered downturns before, but collectively, as a society, we have not weathered a downturn in modern times that has required an immediate shift to remote work, and that is a game-changer — for companies and their workforces

HR pros play a critically important role in worker wellbeing — which shouldn’t be news, right? That’s why HR leaders should make it a priority now to make sure they understand where employees’ heads are as we navigate this uncertain time and make worker wellbeing a priority. I know I mentioned Boomers and Gen X’ers, but I would be remiss not to note that many Millennials finished college and entered the workplace during the 2008 downturn, so while they have certainly had their share of struggle, they get a chance now to do it all over again.

This means, in addition to managing their own stress levels, HR pros need to help their employees across all generations find resources to help manage their own stress levels and try and stay well and healthy as we navigate the changes to “business as usual” driven by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.. This might include helping employees understand and access mental health benefits without embarrassment or shame, as well as access financial, and physical wellness programs, and assistance programs designed to help meet immediate needs. And if your company doesn’t already have a wide range of mental health, financial, and physical health programs in place, now is most definitely the time to change that.

Regular Communication from Leaderships is Imperative

I’m hearing from so many business leaders that communication from leadership is critical during times of increased uncertainty and the HR team plays an important role there as well. HR needs to be an advocate for leadership communicating clearly and frequently to let employees know the latest in what is happening and how the company is responding to the challenges faced. In addition, leaders might not have their collective fingers on the finer nuances of employee mental health and other wellbeing concerns in quite the way HR pros might, so embracing that role, that of championing health and wellness for all within the organization, is important for your HR team.

That said, in the tech industry in particular, we are seeing some amazing leadership and communication from leaders setting the bar high. Not only have brands like Cisco, Zoho, Intel, Amazon, Microsoft, and others really stepped up in terms of customer and partner support for remote teams, leaders like Salesforce’s Marc Benioff committed to no significant layoffs for a 90-day period in late March, at the commencement of the COVID-19 panic. We’ve also seen big tech giants like Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and Microsoft commit to remote work for their employees for the foreseeable future (and in some cases forever — however long that is today).

How HR Pros Can Help Drive the Corporate Investment in Remote Work

One thing the pandemic is showing us is what many of us have known for a long time: Remote work works. Many organizations had started embracing remote work well before the current crisis forced a change — my team here at Futurum have been working remotely for decades and with great success. But making a sudden shift into what is for many completely unchartered territory is not easy, not by a long shot. As companies have no doubt realized, you can’t just throw people into a massive change and expect them to function without missing a beat. Merely sending people home with a laptop is not going to cut it. And today, when COVID-19 means that people are not only working remotely, they are often doing it alongside children of all ages who are learning online and/or sorely in need of daycare, and the pressure can be incredible.

So what can HR teams learn from this and how can they help drive the corporate investment in remote work? Even at these early stages, it’s safe to say that work from home guides are becoming a cottage industry unto themselves. Microsoft, SAP, and HBR are just a few organizations making guides and articles available online. If you don’t already have this kind of guide, it’s something that should be quickly in development.

Things your HR team should consider, both in written guides as well as operational practices in general include both infrastructure-related and emotional-related components to remote work practices. Things to keep in mind include: Does everyone have access to fast, reliable internet at home? What collaboration platforms are you using and what security do they afford? Speaking of security, how will your IT team manage cybersecurity offsite? How will your staffers handle childcare during traditional work hours if they are not yet able to take their kids to daycare or to school? How can you modify policies to support them? How are you reimbursing employees for their out-of-pocket costs associated with remote work (e.g. internet, phone, printer, mileage, office equipment, etc.)

What about work/life balance? Those of us who have been doing this for a while have found ways to carve work time and space into our work-at-home lives. And we all know, whether you go to an office or work from home, balance is a complicated subject. We’re all finding in real-time that work from home provides its own set of challenges. As we continue to navigate through the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, one constant is for certain: There will continue to be much change ahead, for employees and for their HR counterparts trying to manage these processes.

COVID-19 is in many ways accelerating changes in the way we work that have already been happening. For HR leaders, coronavirus COVID-19 is driving significant change in HR operations. Their challenge is to be the kind of touchpoint that employees need in now and into the foreseeable future. That includes facilitating operational practices, leadership communication, focusing on employee wellbeing, and all the modifications that might be needed to make sure employees feel they are both supported emotionally and have the resources they need to help them get the work done, wherever the work is getting done. HR operations has always been a gigantic job within an organization, and now, that job has gotten even more critical. Hats off the many amazing HR pros out there who are helping to make it all happen.

Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.

Other insights from Futurum Research:

How Businesses are Adapting Customer Service Strategies in Times of Disruption

Reconfiguring the Collaborative Workspace

COVID-19 Related Rapid Deployment of Tech Raises New Security Risks

Shelly Kramer
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