Essential workers are risking their health working side-by-side with their colleagues. Others are working remotely, but their access to company systems may not be secure. Executive leaders, many of whom have recently traveled internationally, may unknowingly be infected.
The role of a human resources (HR) professional has never been so crucial at such an unclear time. Businesses are turning to their HR teams to ask: How do you protect your people? How do you provide access to systems and ensure they’re secure? What should you prioritize?
“I just think in this unprecedented time we don’t have a pattern that’s happened before that we can mirror, says Steph Corker, Founder and People Consultant at The Corker Collective. “But we are called to be human in a different way.”
Here, we provide insight and guidance to help you focus on what matters most and how best to navigate both the pandemic and a post-COVID-19 world.
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Rethinking HR’s role
HR is on the corporate frontline in the fight against COVID-19, but many HR professionals aren’t prepared. Nearly half of surveyed leaders in Human Resources Director say their HR departments aren’t adequately trained to deal with the challenges associated with a global pandemic. Almost 7 in 10 HR leaders cite crisis management or business continuity planning as their top COVID-19 challenge. The other challenges include:
- Managing flexible work arrangements (64%)
- Managing employee communication (56%)
- Addressing employee concerns on workplace policies (53%)
- Implementing preventive measures (43%)
- Reviewing current welfare policies (25%)
The way this crisis is handled will likely have implications for recruiting and retention for years to come. “People have long memories and they’ll remember if you check on them in a caring way,” says Heidi Davidson, Co-Founder and CEO at Galvanize Comms. “That human centered approach is really important right now.”
Employees will publicly rate HR’s performance on sites like Glassdoor based on whether they felt trusted working remotely, whether you provided the right technology and tools for them to do their jobs, and the degree to which you showed empathy to their unique situations.
Why internal crisis communications matters
Words matter more than ever. Not choosing the right ones or—worse yet—going radio silent, can jeopardize your company’s future and employees’ safety. Despite this, 40% of organizations have still not developed a COVID-19 communications strategy.
Even if you feel overwhelmed by halting recruitment, filing paperwork associated with unemployment benefits, and training distributed teams, making time to communicate during a crisis can have long lasting positive impacts on employee morale and well-being.
“Be calm, consistent, and clear in your communications to make sure you are confident and competent,” Davidson says. “Acknowledge that the thing [you’re communicating] is difficult but it's necessary because of these reasons. Dive into those reasons and make sure to drive home the journey of this decision. Explain how you’re taking care of the people who are being let go, then also explain how you’re taking care of the ones who are still remaining in the company.”
In particular, there are two key areas of internal communications you should focus on:
#1: Health and safety communications
Part of a robust internal crisis communications plan is ensuring employees receive accurate information. Making sure workers have the information necessary to protect themselves and their families is the priority. Remember: it is also your legal obligation to protect your employees.
- Guidance on protecting workers from COVID-19
- Guidance on preparing your workplace for COVID-19
- Controlling and preventing COVID-19 in the workplace
#2: Business continuity communications
Honest dialogue about employment security is the other crucial component of your internal communications. Nearly 6 in 10 workers surveyed say COVID-19 has them concerned about their job security. Rather than panic employees, be transparent about your business continuity plan (BCP). Your BCP should outline forced layoff and furlough plans, how decisions will be made, as well as the different scenarios you’re modeling.
Conversely, well-capitalized companies provide employees more certainty. LinkedIn, American Express, PayPal, and Morgan Stanley have promised no coronavirus layoffs in 2020. If you have recurring revenue or access to capital markets, alleviating job security concerns can result in a more productive workforce.
- Guidance on creating a BCP
- Guidance on stress-testing financial plans
- Guidance on cost-saving measures and the associated legal considerations
- Guidance on short-term and longer-term BCPs
A crisis communications framework
Internal crisis communications must be consistent with external communications and company behavior. Nothing kills credibility and employee morale faster than a failure to do what you say and say what you do.
“Consistency is something people forget during a crisis,” Davidson says. “You make sure that if you say you’ll be communicating with the team at a certain time, you follow that schedule. Because in the absence of information is when people get anxious.”
In the U.S., ensure you’re up to date on the following:
- Families First Coronavirus Response Act
- Emergency Family Medical Leave (EFML)
- Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) and COVID-19-related expansions
- New travel policies
- The impact on unemployment benefits when a worker declines offered work
- Protocol if a co-worker or customer exhibits symptoms
Speak with one voice
Designate a single spokesperson or team (for larger businesses) to communicate regularly. Reiterate policy and employee support resources and employee assistance programs. Leave policies should be flexible and not punitive.
Ensure employees understand how their roles fit into the company’s broader mission. Point out successes, little victories, or instances in which people went above and beyond for customers. Introduce employee recognition awards. Immediately counter false information.
Balance directives with feedback
Solicit feedback, especially from employees new to remote work. Create mechanisms so employees can share fears, concerns, or stories of co-workers going above and beyond.
Focus on the short term
While it’s appropriate to reassure workers and communicate optimism for the long term, don’t try to predict the future. Rather than speculate, provide concrete short term plans, guidance, and role-specific actions and expectations. Address employee concerns about their livelihoods by providing transparency around business conditions and performance.
You’ll have nothing to communicate unless you ensure the continuity of essential functions while simultaneously protecting distributed teams.
“It's nice to ask people how they’re doing but think about offering something to people instead, says Corker of The Corker Collective. “Like, “Oh I found this thing online that I thought you might like”. It’s a beautiful thing to reach out and want nothing in return.”
HR professionals can lead in the following areas:
Protecting your essential workers
Repeatedly stress that workers who have had a possible exposure to COVID-19 should not report to work. Here are some guidelines on how to protect your staff who need to be in your office or warehouse:
- Minimize face-to-face interaction
- Pre-screen employees before they start work by measuring their temperature and assessing their symptoms
- Pay non-exempt employees for the time spent undergoing screenings and checks
- Provide workers with PPE
- Provide training on social distancing measures at work, including inside break rooms
- Disinfect and clean commonly trafficked areas and increase air exchange in buildings
Remote work with flexibility
It’s anything but remote-work-as-usual these days. Even if you had a remote work policy before the pandemic, it probably wasn’t designed to handle each member of your workforce at once. It also likely wasn’t built for a time when hospitals and healthcare would be challenging to access, when schools and daycares would be closed, or when employees would be required to work while simultaneously caring for loved ones.
Consider updating or adapting your policy to accommodate workers who find themselves in binds through no fault of their own:
- Consider offering different work hours, staggering start times, or allowing people to schedule blocks of work around child care responsibilities. For example, workers may be more productive and happier if they can work prior to children waking up or after they go to bed. Alternatively, consider setting core hours, or time when employees must be available, and allow them to work the rest of their hours when it’s convenient for them.
- Enabling robust distributed teams also means preparing for the dark side of remote work like virtual layoffs. Remember, virtual meetings can be recorded and posted for the world to see. Helping laid-off workers maintain their dignity while being laid off is not only the right thing to do, but it preserves relationships with people you may soon want to rehire. Rather than mass layoff announcements via Zoom, schedule individual meetings, allow them to ask questions, provide them with the information they need to apply for benefits.
Employee assistance programs
Some companies are covering testing and treatment costs stemming from COVID-19. Others are enabling and eliminating copays for telehealth doctor visits and mental health consultations.
Beyond health insurance, HR departments might also alleviate financial stress by advocating for daily wage pay, company subsidized loans, or free access to financial literacy courses. If there’s a desire, HR can also coordinate a paid time off (PTO) bank in which remote employees can donate time to employees required to work on-site.
HR in a post-COVID-19 world
Reopening the economy will present HR professionals with a new set of daunting challenges. Your focus will move beyond immediate health and safety concerns. The new focus will be on the medium and long term impact of COVID-19. Expect a restructuring of the workforce, shifting employee priorities, and new safety protocols:
New workplace designs and protocols
Physically returning to work, whether gradually or all at once, may require new workplace designs and safety protocols. Companies with physical retail footprints may rethink density and prioritize physical distancing. In some industries or locations, Infrared Fever Scanning Systems (IFss) may be adopted as companies attempt to identify vulnerable employees, visitors, and contractors.
Staggered work weeks, start times, and lunch breaks may become the norm. Office door handles may be removed or replaced with hands-free door openers. Employers may opt to equip employees with PPE, make lunch cafeterias cashless, or use nano coatings to reduce surface contamination. Immunity passports may be required before infected workers can re-enter the workforce.
Distributed team permanency impacts commercial office space
Today’s version of remote work is not normal. When schools and daycares reopen, employees will have fewer distractions and can focus only on work during work hours. Take the time to appropriately translate existing work rules, expectations, and schedules for this new environment. If you failed to achieve distributed authority with central coordination, make it a priority to implement.
Separately, be prepared to lead your finance team in a discussion regarding the implications a larger remote team has on the need for commercial office space. Corporate square footage reductions may save money in lean times.
Employee priorities shift from pay to wellness
Before COVID-19, the economy was relatively strong, and HR often focused on pay and having the wage conversation. However, fresh off a global pandemic, health and wellness may become as big or a bigger priority for workers than salary. Expect healthcare systems and benefits reforms aimed at preventing pandemic-related hiccups from recurring and expect to spend more time on benefits plans. If employee priorities shift materially, companies may rapidly begin taking a holistic approach by bundling additional mental and emotional well-being benefits with traditional health care.
Virtual talent acquisition and retention
Massive layoffs may result in a reliance on temporary help immediately after the pandemic subsides. Those that treated laid-off employees with respect during the downturn may have an opportunity to bring valued ex-employees back quickly as 1099 contractors or help them sign up with the temp agency with which you partner.
Keeping your talent pipeline full by communicating with ex-employees, or simply checking in because you care, can help you ramp back up more quickly post-COVID-19. If you’re now largely remote, consider remote hiring and digital recruiting and onboarding as well.
Digital transformation accelerates
HR is or should be at the heart of an organization’s digital transformation. If your systems failed or did not perform as you desired, it’s time to act. Digitization entails automating repetitive tasks, maximizing the employee experience, and using time saved to lead your organization strategically. If COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s the value of human capital. Unlocking that value means your teams must have the digital and mobile tools necessary to perform optimally.
Organizations of the future will turn to HR to “redesign talent practices, from recruiting to leadership performance management.” Self-serve solutions enable employees to do much of what HR used to do so HR departments of tomorrow can lead, enact change across the organization, and be more valuable members of the organization.
HR and leadership
Shortcomings have been exposed. None of us have been left unscathed. But what you’re doing matters to your organization and its people. We all could have done better. What matters now, however, is ensuring that next time we will.
Doctoring cultural damage caused by the pandemic is paramount. But triage will soon shift to recovery. Performing a crisis post-mortem can reveal opportunities for improvement. Tomorrow you’ll have opportunities to lead, to nurture culture, improve morale, and ensure your organization is vaccinated against many of the ills brought about by COVID-19.
Upcoming webinar: HR and communications strategies to navigate the pandemic
We’re eager to see where you lead your tribe, and we also want to help. It’s why we’ve assembled a panel of expert HR professionals to help you navigate this unpredictable moment in time in our upcoming webinar.
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