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What keeps HR leaders busy in the next phase of the corona pandemic

Who would have thought a few months ago that, now that fall has arrived, many employees are still working from home? The weeks in which HR’s main role was focused on crisis communication and the transition to a remote workforce are long behind us, but the impact of the corona pandemic on the HR department is still very apparent. We discuss some of the challenges that HR departments face, now that companies realise that COVID-19 will have a long-lasting effect on the way we work.

Catering to a semi-permanent remote workforce

When the first corona cases appeared, HR’s main concern was getting everyone hooked up with the right equipment to work from home. It is interesting to see how fast the world has gotten used to the new status quo: ‘work’ is no longer linked to a physical location by many of us. Where the shock of this almost overnight transition may have brought employees closer together, fostering togetherness in the long-run presents a new challenge.

If you are an HR professional in an organisation that was forced to let people go, or are in a sector that was hit hard by the crisis, your employees may be worried about their job security. This can have a serious impact on their trust in the company, and in a chain reaction, on their engagement and mental wellbeing. HR plays an important role in keeping communication transparent and abundant, providing as much reassurance as possible in these difficult times.

Employee clustering is another pitfall in a (partly) remote workforce. Now that watercooler conversations are no longer part of our daily routine, there’s a risk that employees only speak to the few colleagues that they work closely together with. On top of that there’s a tendency to cut to the chase in online meetings, leaving no room for the casual conversation that builds relationships.

Virtual platforms and apps can help to bring people together. Enterprise connectivity platforms such as Workplace and Yammer invite employees to share successes, to collaborate in an informal way and to celebrate special moments together. Applications for virtual recognition such as Kudos and iAppreciate allow employees to give each other a pat on the back for a job well done.  

Preparing business leaders for the new way of working

HR needs to help their leaders lead in the remote workforce. They can provide rules and guidelines on a company level, with regards to how employees are supposed to work from home. On a more specific level, they can help managers to set realistic expectations for their teams with regards to output. 

Many organisations feared that the transition to a remote workforce would lead to a drop in productivity levels, but the opposite seemed to happen. A Robert Walters research that was carried out in May of this year shows that 78% of employers saw equal or increased output from their team during the first weeks of working remotely. However, it would be a mistake to lean back and think that keeping your employees productive and engaged is a done deal. In the long-run, people may need more structure, positive reinforcement and a different management style to keep them happy and productive. A remote workforce brings new questions to the table, such as ‘do we want to hold on to fixed working hours, or even an 8 hour work day?’

A Robert Walters study shows that 48% of managers used ‘hours spent’ as a variable to measure productivity. HR can live up to its role as a business partner by helping leaders to define new ways to measure success, so that the organisation’s management style fits the new way of working.

Adapting your workforce to your company’s needs

Once government aid schemes come to an end, organisations may need to take a new look at redistributing its workload. The consequences of the pandemic may have brought a lot of work to one department, and left another department with too much staff. Open up the conversation by asking each department about their specific situation. Are there tasks that can temporarily be outsourced to a different department? Are there employees who are interested in turning the crisis into a new career opportunity, by making a permanent switch to a different role within the organisation?

As all HR professionals would know, keeping an employee on board is much cheaper than attracting a new hire. This is still the case if it means spending the time to prepare them for an entirely new role, as you already know they are a fit for the company and they know their way around. As an added bonus, upskilling an employee and offering them a new career path shows your other employees that you are a great employer, even in difficult times.

Managing rapid policy changes

No other department manages as many policies as HR. And it seems that none of them escapes the changes that corona has brought to the workplace. Policies for working in the office, remote hiring and onboarding, sick leave, vacations abroad, business travel and sales meetings need constant monitoring and evaluation. Add to that the governmental aid programs that you need to familiarise yourself with, and the paperwork that comes with them, and your to do list seems to go on forever. There is no easy fix in managing this workload, but one step in the right direction is to create one easy point of access where employees can find all the latest information. This will make sure that your HR department does not spend more time than necessary in answering ad hoc questions from employees.

Steering away from panic decision-making

Senior leadership has the incredibly difficult task to navigate your organisation through the crisis. HR can act as the voice of reason when there’s a tendency of overly drastic decision-making. Are redundancies, hiring freezes and changes in bonus structure really needed, or can we hold on a little longer before we implement these measures? How can we handle each of these measures in a way that is fair to all employees? As an HR business partner, it is your responsibility to ensure that senior management has looked into all available options.   

Redundancies are not only tough on the people directly involved, it creates uncertainty and hurts the morale of all your employees. Think carefully about how to communicate all measures that have a negative impact on your employees’ trust and wellbeing. Show which other options the organisation has explored to avoid taking these measures, and why certain choices were made. A trusting workforce is a more united workforce, and keeping all heads turned in one direction is one of the biggest goals to aim for as an HR department. 

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