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THE BACK STORY – HR in the Time of COVID-19: (with apologies to Gabriel García Márquez, author of “Love in the Time of Cholera”) – by Katherine Jones, Ph.D

The last “Back Story” column, titled “Managing Talent In – and Out – of Your Organization,” addressed layoff strategies, primarily addressed at professional, white collar environments. Timely yes, but in the relatively short time since the last edition of Workforce Solutions Review was published, millions have lost their jobs in pandemic-related closures. Hardest hit are often hourly workers in retail, food service and hospitality, small businesses, gig workers and the home service providers such as gardeners, cleaning personnel, day care providers and the like – but the list of affected employees goes on. No one is emerging unscathed. All HR organizations are affected.

Whether your organization was closed temporarily as “unessential,” or suddenly changed its business model to adapt to customers’ needs (such as a restaurant moving into pick-up or delivery rather than dine-in eating), or operating almost as normal under new rules for sanitizing, masked employees, social distancing in your workspace, you know that the new normal isn’t and won’t be “normal” anytime soon.

Governors issue the “stay-at-home” orders – so many HR professionals are very likely still working from home offices yet remain on the front lines to communicate with employees – often with little official information to impart. Alone or in conjunction with people managers, HR may have had to terminate or furlough employees via telephone or Zoom – hardly ideal circumstances.

Temporary lay-offs are without any end point—because no one is in a position to hypothesize as to when business is resuming at a level that requires the previous head count. And business analysts, predicting recession, question whether we can reach the number of personnel so recently employed — at the highest level in the decade – any time on the foreseeable horizon.

HR is the Frontline to Employee Communication

To be fair, HR members will not be well served by a dismissive, over-positive tone—in that the near and distance future may not support the return of your employees to the positions they once held. Yet communicate with them you must.

  • Share what you know. Granted, this is likely precious little, but if parts of your organization is still active in some country or setting, let others know; if divisions are successfully working remotely, share that and any tips gleaned; if illness has struck a plant or location, share that so employees don’t need to learn of it via media.
  • Share messages from executives explaining their view of the business currently, their interest in the well-being of your customers and your employees. That message should center on “your safety first” not just the state of the general ledger.
  • Learn what support organizations are active in the communities where you have employees and share that information with both current employees and those you may have had to let go as a result of business closures.
  • Share any activities that your organization is supporting or donating to and any results that may be forthcoming from those efforts; if your organization is creating its own fund drive or other volunteer efforts (such as making masks for health care workers), communicate how all employees can contribute.
  • If the company has changed its model – such as the distillery that is using its equipment to make sanitizers instead of vodka, share that story – and explain how those working employees are staying healthy on the job.
  • Be frank and accurate about the effect of the pandemic on your organization. Explain what execs see as the immediate ramifications and a cautious look at what they expect in the future, if they have thoughts they are willing to share.
  • Explain what measures are being instituted to ascertain the health of employees returning to work in affected areas. Companies that employ shift workers, for example, often check the temperatures of all arriving workers when they arrive in their cars and administers a survey on how they are feeling before workers are allowed to park and enter the buildings. Most companies have ramped up building sanitation, and support of social distancing and the wearing of masks for those employees who must be on site.
  • When known and in keeping with privacy restrictions, share information of employees who are ill or whose family members have been stricken. This gives others the chance to stay in touch with colleagues and commiserate with them should they wish.
  • When the effect of the pandemic on the business is known, an executive should review the state of the business via a virtual town meeting so all employees – perhaps even those recently let go, can hear the current status and why, for example, hiring may not ramp up soon or certain locations may not reopen their facilities.

Work with Your Managers

In new research by David Wilson, CEO of the Fosway Group, 80% of organizations are relying on managers directly to track their teams COVID-19 status – so HR’s contact with managers is essential. Of the HR professionals he surveyed, only 1 in four reported finding it easy to track the effect of the pandemic on their employees—including questions such as how many are self-isolating, working remotely, still working on-site, on sick leave, or even hospitalizedi. Here, it is apparent that HR must work with managers to ascertain the health and whereabouts of the employee population. This is an imperative: If there was one thing HR learned from the tragedy of the Twin Towers in 1/11, it is the need to know where employees actually are – clearly a lesson that again applies in this situation.

The Demise of Work-Life Balance?

In interviewing workers across varied profession who are working from home, some new patterns emerge. The shelter-in-place mandate was perhaps most easily accommodated by workers who have already been working at home – although the impact of school closings certainly changes the dynamics of the working day. Many are working both harder and longer at home than the time spent on work tasks in the office—time previously spent in commuting, in-person meetings, and workplace interruptions.

While Nicholas Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and ordinarily an advocate of working at home, sees a danger of productivity plummeting during the COVID-19 crisis, others see workers spending more time on the job by up to three hours a day. On-line meeting tools such as Zoom have kept teams in touch and on track and provide in part the social contact COVID-stranded workers need. Distance learning for school-age children and teens creates the same “working from home” environment – and challenges – that their parents have, as child “office” space is now required as well as that for the adults in the family.

Remote work can more adversely impact those who live alone and relied on the office or workplace for much of their social interaction. Again, HR – and their managers—should know which employees may need a bit more dedicated “facetime” or phone conversations and perhaps new projects or learning activities to stay motivated.

A Chance for Education

While the working-at-home employees I interviewed were full-time heads down and as busy or even busier than ever, depending on the nature of their work, there may be the possibility to use some of the home time for coursework—either compliance courses or courses to learn new skills, industry-related information or managerial competencies. In areas where you know current employees need upskilling when back on the job, courses can be made available in, for example, managing teams, concepts such as AI, machine learning, or working with robots, or HR analytics and updated employment regulations for the HR team. And here, generosity with coursework is important—if you had to furlough or terminate employees, you can make relevant courses available to them so they can apply for new jobs when the crisis is over or use this time for the valuable upskilling we are always talking about for all employees. Courses on resume writing, job interviewing, and the like are readily available and HR can be the conduit to those workers laid off to provide such skill training, providing much-needed help as well as something constructive to do for the newly unemployed.

Enhancing Business Value

The Fosway Group reports that one in four HR organizations are totally consumed with addressing issues stemming from COVID-19, overtaking all the other areas that HR usually addresses. Many of the questions executives are asking HR teams, Fosway’s new research reports, are not areas they have had to consider before. These include queries such as:

  • Who are our most at-risk people?
  • What is the cost of furloughing our people?
  • What is the scale of infection in our workforce?
  • What percentage of our people are getting sick pay?
  • At what percentage of sickness will our operations become unsustainable?
  • What are the patterns in employees who are self-isolating, hospitalization, recovered, working from home, working on site?
  • What is the availability of talent to cover sick workers?ii

HR leaders may well know the number of employees it takes to run HR, but they have seldom been asked how many it took to run the entire business at peak and less than peak productivity levels, nor how many healthy employees are required for plant or service sustainability. While cost of hiring is well known, the cost of a temporary or permanent plant closure is generally less known. And while HR has been actively considering wellness in terms of what programs sustain employee physical and mental health, rarely have it had to track the extent and impact of a highly contagious and rapidly spreading virus. Currently healthy employees may be losing family members to the virus, accelerating the pain of grieving with the angst of inability to travel, having to distance oneself and being unable to say goodbye or experience the relative closure of a traditional funeral.

As with the albeit-limited testing of employees currently working on-site, HR needs to plan for the reintroduction of more workers to their plants and offices, with plans to adapt for asymptomatic carriers and a potential resurgence in the fall. Never has the employee tracking and the “what if” scenario-based strategic workforce planning been more critical. Add the recessionary management that HR has not had to dust off in a decade, and the task ahead is formidable. And as the Queen says, “Keep calm and carry on.”

 

Resources

iAvailable at https://www.fosway.com/research/next-generation-hr/covid19-research/
iiIBID.

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