The ongoing Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in a matter of weeks, drastically changing the lives of millions. The United Kingdom declared state of emergency on March 16th where all citizens were asked to avoid unnecessary social contact, later on the 23rd March Boris announced we “must” stay at home and only leave the house to get the essentials. This has thrown up several HR challenges for managers and dealing with these effectively is crucial for the company’s future.
In these difficult times, many businesses are struggling to keep their doors open and all must find ways to keep their employees safe, comfortable and productive. The days ahead will present some of the most important HR challenges of our time. Identifying and implementing effective employee policies and support may make or break businesses in the coming months of uncertainty. HR teams that rise to the occasion will be integral in leading businesses through the storm.
The challenges managers face vary with their company’s location, sector and size, but it is clear that many businesses will have to tighten their belts. Instead of laying off workers or slashing wages, companies are seeking alternate corporate strategies such as using technology to support work-from-home or reviewing costs to stretch the budget.
Companies have also been asked to offer more generous and flexible benefits packages- and the government might be able to help out with that.
So, how can HR leaders best inspire, support and empower employees in the era of COVID-19?
Provide direction, confidence and resilience.
Employees look to leaders for reassurance, especially in times of instability. It is important that those in leadership roles communicate clearly with managers and staff and demonstrate a clear commitment to employee health and business sustainability. Let employees of all levels know the current plan and possibilities for the future.
Understand that employees are receiving conflicting forecasts and advice from the local, state, and national governments –not to mention social media disinformation. Contextualise updates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) with specific instructions on how your company will be adapting recommendations and moving forward.
Just as politicians who lead during times of international conflict or emergency benefit from increased approval ratings, a phenomenon known as the “rally effect,” company leaders who can demonstrate resilience can improve employee engagement in a difficult time and up employee retention in the long term.
One of the biggest challenges for HR that companies are facing during COVID-19 is the scope of the disruption. With schools and non-essential businesses closed or moving online, employees will need flexibility and understanding as they try to re-establish a work-life balance. Companies can support employees who are quarantined or self-isolated by expanding paid time off policies or facilitating remote work.
COVID-19 has already galvanised many large companies to improve employee benefits packages. Daren Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and employs 170,000 workers, has said that it will henceforth offer paid sick leave on a permanent basis. Walmart, Apple, and McDonald’s also revamped their leave policies in response to the outbreak.
The Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) Regulations 2020, which passed on 6 July 2020, seeks to clarify the SSP entitlement of those who are self-isolating because someone in their “bubble” has COVID-19 symptoms and of those who are shielding. This enables workers to receive a minimum of 28 days sick pay and employers must ensure they follow this Policy.
Create guidelines and support networks for those working from home.
The number of UK workers who have moved to remote working has increased by nearly a quarter of a million over a decade according to the Office of National Statistics. Remote work has quickly become the standard model during the pandemic.
Employers moving to a work-from-home system can support employees by establishing norms and implementing a defined remote work policy that sets clear expectations for when team members are to be available, how to communicate (via email, Slack, or another platform) and exactly what each team member is responsible for. Make sure employees have the tech they need to perform the tasks expected of them.
Most importantly, give employees some breathing room to adjust to their new lifestyles. If their work doesn’t need to be done during normal business hours, managers may allow employees to create their own schedules and determine what works best for them and their families. These are difficult times and individuals may be struggling with unwell family members or general anxiety.
Keep workers safe by maintaining a healthy work environment.
For workers at essential businesses where work-from-home is not possible, it is up to HR departments to prioritise the health and safety of their workers. Businesses should make sure their practices are in line with recommendations from the CDC and consider nominating a workplace coordinator to manage office policy surrounding COVID-19. Keep employees safe and well by educating employees about transmission risks:
- Offer training and development to establish hygiene regulations (washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, etc.).
- Establish policies and practices for social distancing.
- Prominently display posters illustrating respiratory etiquette (coughing, sneezing) and hand hygiene.
- Perform routine environmental cleaning and disinfection.
- Provide no-touch receptacles and hand sanitizer.
Managers should also consider how they will cope if absenteeism spikes (if there is an outbreak in the office or if employees must care for family members) and create a clear plan of action.
Look for opportunities amid adversity.
Facing the HR challenges presented by COVID-19 is a tall task. But try to think of COVID-19 as an opportunity to show your company’s empathy and demonstrate how it values its employees. Crisis Management is an integral part of an HR team’s repertoire, and the ability to drive and support strong business decisions even during times of great turmoil will prove invaluable.
With careful planning, empathy, and responsiveness, employers will be able to overcome the HR challenges presented by COVID-19 and leverage them to become a stronger company.