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COVID-19 Special Report: The State of Human Resources

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has left a mark on every individual and every organization around the world. During this time, heroes have emerged and taken on the extraordinary duties to keep things running as close to normal as possible.

As the first waves of the illness reached American shores, the biggest priority was the need to move workers out of harm’s way. A combination of safety and health protocols were rolled out along with transitioning thousands of employees to remote work — a feat never before accomplished at this scale.

At this point, the real test of business continuity began, as people adjusted to the new norm of work under protected conditions.

Caught in the middle of all of this have been human resource professionals, who have quickly pivoted to ensure both their organizations and their people would have a future. They’ve stepped up and taken the lead in many decisions that will impact the success of their companies now and as we face continual changes in the workplace.

Has this experience forever changed HR?

For the purposes of this report, we talked with several human resource professionals across multiple industries to see what this experience has been like for them. Faced with pressures from both sides, many have had to deal with the emotional issues present in employees, while ensuring executive teams that things can remain productive during this unexpected pandemic.

We also wanted to discover how HR has been able to overcome challenges and if they unexpectedly found a silver lining in any clouds along the way.

As many states begin to loosen restrictions and get back to business as usual, it’s important to understand how this experience has impacted the role of human resources forever, and what’s in store for many still on the front lines of their organizations.

HR successfully used all their resources to overcome many challenges

When things get tough, HR gets smarter. Leslie Tarnacki, SVP Global HR and GM at WorkForce Software shared, “In the beginning, the constant calls, emails and smoke signals were at a rate we’ve almost never seen before. We’ve all been dealing with this new pandemic situation, the likes of which none of us have had to deal with in our lifetime. The unknown surrounding it has been the scariest thing for all of us. Managers and employees look to HR professionals for answers and HR teams are doing their best to come up with answers almost on the fly in some cases.”

Fortunately, human resources has been keen to use the latest HR technology for managing all areas of their organizations. From payroll software to HRIS systems, HR understands the need for efficiency in times of crisis. Using this approach helped in handling daily changes and overcoming any challenges that occurred.

Lasting lessons learned during and after the pandemic

For many, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a huge learning experience. Christine Sharpley, HR Generalist at Remington College advised one of the biggest lessons many HR pros learned was, “the need to be empathetic and helpful when talking to those who have lost hours or their job. At the same time, delivering the unwelcome answers to the loss of benefits with compassion. Navigating that road is not always easy.”

Since HR is the point of contact for employees, Sharpley says we must be positive in our response to the challenges they are facing, both personally and professionally, expecting that many are resistant to change.

According to Denise Baker, VP of People Services at Hero Practice Services, one of the biggest lessons that many HR folks learned was how to be ok with not knowing what might happen. She said, “It’s ok to be uncertain, just communicate. Nothing is permanent, maintain trust and the team will weather the storm with you. One of the principles of our culture is to give grace to one another and always assume positive intent. We leaned into these leadership philosophies each and every day and learned that authenticity goes a long way in strengthening a team.”

COVID-19 has forever transformed HR’s role

For many human resource professionals, they’ve had to really question their priorities and what matters the most to the future of their organizations. Charles Reader, Chief Talent Officer at California Health Care Foundation, shared, “The role of HR has always been multifaceted. We often balance employee engagement, creating and maintaining productive organizational cultures, legal compliance, and other topic areas. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way I balance all the hats I wear; focusing primarily on employee engagement and safety, then legal, and then maintaining culture.”

Certain processes needed to be updated, such as how and when HR communicated with employees. Greater transparency has become key to successfully managing employee concerns. Tarnacki said,” HR is working very hard at figuring out our “new normal” which means doing and communicating everything we can about things like changing organizational structures to making our offices as clean and safe for the team once we’re all cleared to return to our more traditional work arrangements. It’s a constant effort to stay on top of all the latest updates and being sure all employees are appropriately informed.”

The perceived value of human resources has increased

Whereas human resource professionals have always struggled to some degree with having a seat at the decision-making table, leaders have finally come around in our favor. Sharpley advised, “ HR has been recognized as an important provider of resources to help make decisions on best practices during this pandemic. Keeping up-to-date with all of the changes and notifying the management team of items they may not be aware of has been of great value. Also the value of HR in the role of administrative tasks and projecting to the employees the caring of management.”

Being appreciated and valued more across entire organizations is something that the pandemic has helped support. Stephanie Shatley, Senior Human Resources Generalist at Atmos Energy, shared, “We have always been valued on different teams, but now we are critical to those teams outside our normal HR functions. We are being relied on to troubleshoot and problem solve issues that we may not have been called on in the past in order to alleviate our operations managers and supervisors to focus on the immediate needs.”

The view that external teams see in HR has also been influenced, according to Baker, “I hope that what our team sees now more than ever is that we are here to fight for them. We are not just the department that hires and fires people. We are here to support them, be a place of trusted information, address their individual needs with compassion and ensure that as a company, we all thrive.”

The good, bad and unexpected

Out of all the experiences that human resource professionals have had, some have been good, some have been bad, and some have been downright unexpected. With any world-wide event like we just went through with the Coronavirus, some good comes out of it because humans are survivors.

Sharpley told us, “this experience restored my belief that people are caring and resilient. While it has been a hardship, the majority of employees are maintaining a positive attitude. We are all appreciative of the simple things in human interactions.”

One fascinating outcome has been the impact on what we perceive is necessary to get work done. According to Reader, “I’ve observed that staff do not necessarily have to work during “normal business hours” to be productive and support the mission of our organization. I’m intrigued to see how this idea will influence the new ways in which we will all have to work once the stay at home orders are lifted.”

Like so many other organizations, using new technology like Zoom was an eye-opening experience for them, filled with learning curves. But many made this fun with virtual coffee hours and events. Shatley shared that her own wedding was postponed due to COVID-19, so the day before her private wedding, her team threw a virtual bachelorette party where they all dressed up in funny clothes like boas and hats and played (safe for work) bachelorette party games. Even in the midst of a pandemic, people found creative ways to share their humanity and build a sense of camaraderie..

How HR stepped up in the COVID-19 crisis

It can be said that human resources professionals heard the call and took the best possible action possible, in the midst of the unknown. Shifting people quickly from in-house work to remote work was no easy feat, but as the Covid-19 Pulse of HR real-time tool created by CultureX, Waggl, and Josh Bersin Academy revealed (in the first few weeks of the pandemic) 93 percent of the represented organizations said, “a large percentage of our employees have transitioned to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.” and 69 percent indicated their workers were able to “maintain the same level of productivity after transitioning to remote work.”

In addition, one of the most impactful actions that HR has had to take during the pandemic (in the top 5 answers) was to create an “Infrastructure and collaborative platform available to support remote work, employee helpline during the crisis, constant communication from the leadership team, enabling managers to ensure the team is motivated and engaged.” HR professionals have had to deal with all of these things at once, making them the most resilient business leaders in this time of crisis.

What we can take away from the COVID-19 experience is that human resource professionals showed up, rolled up their sleeves, did what they do best, and rose to the challenge. This has given us more respect in the eyes of executives and employees, which will hopefully strengthen the organizations we work so hard for. HR has been transformed, but in many positive ways. We can be proud of HR’s evolution and look forward to the continued elevation of the HR profession.

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